Antonio Galloni, former critic for The Wine Advocate and now founder of wine website Vinous, kindly set aside some time for an interview with Liv-ex. Published in two parts, the first is shown below, and focuses on how Antonio's interest in wine developed, his plans for Vinous, and his passion for Italy, Champagne, California and Burgundy. Please visit the blog on Monday for the second half of our interview, where Antonio discusses in depth the regions and wines that excite him.
1. You studied music at university and then worked in the financial services. How did you get into writing about wine?
I was introduced to wine as an integral part of life at an early age. My paternal grandfather had decidedly simple, rustic tastes. He would put half a peach in his white wine at lunch, a long-forgotten Sicilian custom. Sometimes the simplest things are the most beautiful. My maternal grandfather had more refined tastes. He introduced me to many of the great wines of France, including Bordeaux, Rhône and Burgundy. I still remember my first Côte-Rôtie and Latricières-Chambertin, two wines I tasted for the first time at his house. When I was a child, my father told me there were two great wines in the world: Barolo and Champagne. That was my early introduction. Today, nothing gives me more pleasure than enjoying a few good bottles with my parents.
Later on, my parents owned a food and wine shop. They specialized in Italian wines and Bordeaux futures. It was before wines at that level became prohibitively expensive. I remember them regularly bringing home wines from producers like Giacosa, Gaja and Antinori and others.
I was always fascinated by wine, even at a young age. I would look at the labels for hours. Each label told a story of a place, a vintage, a grower and a grape. I wrote my first articles about wine for my high school French class. One year it was Burgundy, the next Bordeaux. A restaurateur friend of my parents collected labels from the bottles she opened at her restaurant, and they became the basis for my articles. My parents encouraged my interest by charging me with ordering the wine every time we went out for dinner. It was a great education.
I became immersed in American wines when I supported my musical career by waiting tables for a few years. It was the early days for wineries like Alban and Harlan Estate. I also remember selling a lot of Corison, Frog’s Leap, Shafer and Peter Michael.
Later, my financial career took me to Milan, where I was an expatriate for three years. I traveled all around Italy visiting my clients. I had spent a lot of time in Italy as a child, but living there was totally different. I loved it. The dollar was strong. Let’s just say I made the most out of my time there. During the weekends I tasted in cellars frequently, especially in Piedmont, and collected a lot of first-hand information. As much as I loved wine, the wine press didn’t really resonate with me. I began taking notes of wines I tasted for my own reference.
A few years later, I returned to Boston to pursue an MBA. By then I was sharing my tasting notes with friends. My friends at business school pushed me to follow my passion in wine. Soon thereafter I launched Piedmont Report, the first English language newsletter focused solely on Italian wine. It was 2004. Right after launching, I spent a month in New Zealand doing a consulting project for school. One day I looked at our site during a break and all of a sudden we had readers in 25 countries. It was an exhilarating experience.
I met Robert Parker through one of my professors. Bob offered me a job at The Wine Advocate in 2005. I politely declined, as I was having a lot of fun watching Piedmont Report take off. In 2006 things changed, as my wife and I had our first child. At that point, I couldn’t sustain both a demanding career in finance and a burgeoning wine newsletter and be a good husband and father. I joined TWA in September 2006 and thought wine writing would remain a part-time occupation.
2. How have you found the experience of going solo (with new site vinousmedia.com)?
Launching Vinous has been an amazing experience, and one of the best decisions I have ever made. When I joined TWA I made sure I retained full ownership rights to all of my content. Vinous was born with an archive spanning nine years and 25,000+ reviews plus hundreds of articles, vertical tastings and videos. We now have several thousand subscribers in 40 countries. One of the things I missed from the Piedmont Report days is a direct relationship with the customer, something I have again at Vinous. The support we have received from readers thus far is both gratifying and humbling. I wake up every day full of energy and enthusiasm.
3. What are your aims for Vinous? How do you want it to stand out among the other critics’ websites?
Vinous represents the ideas for modern-day wine criticism I have been conceptualizing for a decade. I think of myself as a consumer and wine lover first, and a critic second. As a consumer, I often felt the traditional wine press was speaking to me. I don’t want to be spoken to; I want to be spoken with. In my view, modern-day wine criticism should be a conversation, not a lecture.
I have found certain segments of the wine press to be incredibly polarizing. To me, great wine is a connector. Think about the great bottles you have enjoyed. Surely you remember who you were with, where you had that wine and the occasion. Wine has an ability to forge relationships and create memories that last years, decades and even generations. I want Vinous to be a positive force of connectivity for people who love wine all over the world.
Vinous is also indelibly shaped by the years I spent in the hospitality industry, probably the best industry for learning how to take care of people. I believe businesses are ultimately owned by their customers. If you fail to serve your customer you won’t be around for too long. Everything we do is driven by the desire to deliver a world-class product with matching service. I want Vinous to be a welcoming, inviting place for all wine lovers to learn about wine and share those experiences with others.
Our goal is to take readers off the sideline and put them into the game. I have the privilege of attending a number of fabulous tastings all over the world. I used to feel those bottles were wasted on just one person. Today, I want to bring those experiences to all of our readers. We use video, and soon other multimedia, such as audio podcasts, to give our readers access to experiences they might not otherwise be able to enjoy.
I want to have a personal relationship with our reader – this is something that is very important to me. Each week I write an email to our mailing list to share the latest news on the site and invite further dialogue. We want our readers to be participants, not observers.
Vinous is published in a continual stream, as we want our readers to be consistently engaged. There are no deadlines and no ‘issues.’ Vinous represents a break from a formulaic past. In a typical week we publish 4-5 new pieces, some small, others large, with a rotation of regions that ensures there issomething new, and hopefully interesting, for everyone.
We are now in the process of hiring another critic and will begin introducing a collection of expert voices to the site. In time, Vinous will become for wine and all things wine – such as the culture of the table – what MTV was for music, CNN for news and ESPN for sports.
Lastly, I want to build a world-class organization that attracts the best people in our field. I am not interested in building a better mousetrap. My goal is to revolutionize wine journalism.
4. You have stated that Vinous is for a younger demographic. What are the challenges in getting young people to appreciate wine?
Wine is for everyone. So is Vinous. Whether you are looking for an affordable, every-day wine, a bottle for a special occasion, or reviews of the latest releases, we can help. Of course, I am interested in my generation because I see that interest is so high, yet for many of the reasons I mentioned a while back, no one is really speaking to a large and important segment of the market. Today’s younger consumers are often well traveled and are accustomed to eating cuisines from around the world. Tastes are changing in response to a higher level of sophistication and that craves diversity and the thrill of discovery.
The main challenge in getting people – of any age – to appreciate wine is awareness. I saw this when I would open bottles for my ‘non-wine’ friends. As soon as we spoke about what was in the glass, light bulbs would go off, even with so-called ‘geeky wines’ like Chablis and grower Champagne. That light bulb is people learning to understand their own palates. Now, we want to make a million light bulbs go off.
A second challenge is delivering information in the way people can use it efficiently, which is something we continue to strive towards as we build out our technology platform. At Vinous, we lead with technology rather than employ it as an afterthought. For example, we spent a lot of time building out the smartphone version of our site, which I think is one of the very best out there. Our recently launched Playlists feature is the first piece in the increased customization we will be offering readers in the coming months.
5. When you were at The Wine Advocate you reviewed wines from Italy, Champagne, California and Burgundy. Will you continue to focus on these regions on Vinous?
Yes, I will continue to review the wines of Italy, Champagne, California and Burgundy. I will also start reviewing Bordeaux with the 2013 vintage. We have begun to add coverage of craft spirits, an area I am especially excited about.
6. What is it about these regions that excites you?
In Italy it is the sheer diversity of the regions and wines. There is always something to learn. I also think Italy embodies a set of values that is totally in tune with the way an increasing number of people want to live today. Thirty years ago, few people knew about extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, mozzarella di bufala, risotto and many of the other staples of the Italian kitchen. Today, those items are virtually household words. There is no country with more potential right now than Italy.
Burgundy is the best region in the world to train your palate. There is no question about it. Imagine walking into a domaine that makes wine from 20 appellations. The wines are all Pinot Noir and are all vinified and aged the same way. The only thing that changes is the place where the grapes are grown. What a great school for understanding subtlety and nuance. Burgundy tugs at the heartstrings in a way no other region does, with the possible exception of Piedmont.
California is a complex, multi-layered, wonderfully nuanced book that still needs to be written. If it were a separate country, California would be the fourth-largest wine-producing nation after France, Italy and Spain. Think about the diversity. Napa Valley alone is home to a dizzying number of terroirs. Sonoma is three times larger than Napa Valley. Santa Barbara excels with cool-weather varieties, as does the Santa Lucia Highlands. In Paso Robles, Rhône varieties reign supreme, while the Santa Cruz Mountains is arguably the most overlooked region in the entire state. A new generation of young winemakers is pushing the boundaries of what is possible. If you are not excited about what is going on in California maybe it’s time to take another look.
Champagne is a whole universe to discover, from the grandes marques to the increasing number of growers making world-class wines. The awareness of terroir continues to unfold, and it is a fascinating story. What are the differences between the Chardonnays of Le Mesnil, Cramant, Oger and Avize? Or the Pinots from Aÿ, Mareuil, Ambonnay and Bouzy? What are the attributes of 100% Pinot Meunier wines? What is the potential of emerging areas like the Côte de Sézanne and the Aube, which in many ways resembles Chablis more than Champagne? We are just starting to find out.
Bordeaux is a classic, and the classics never go out of style. The origins of fine wine and the wine trade as a whole remain deeply rooted in Bordeaux. I have always loved Bordeaux for its ability to age and timeless elegance. Here, too, my instincts tell me there is a much richer fabric to discover and a number of stories that remain untold. For example, I saw a tremendous amount of diversity in soil types when I visited earlier this year. I can’t wait to spend more time in Bordeaux. To be sure, Bordeaux has to reinvent itself, especially with consumers, but I am convinced it will.
7. There were some controversies surrounding your split from The Wine Advocate earlier this year. What are relations like between you and Robert Parker now?
Bob and I have always had a great relationship. Nothing will ever change my feelings for Bob and Pat Parker.
Please visit the blog again on Monday, where we will be publishing the second half of our interview with Antonio Galloni.