Examining Antonio Galloni’s Palate
The appointment of Antonio Galloni to the California reviewer position at Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate a year and a half ago was an important event in the world of California Wine. For years, Robert Parker’s palate was the source of reviews of the state’s wines at the influential Wine Advocate. How things might change under a Galloni palate has been the topic of some conversation.
No matter who might have been appointed to the California Chair of the Wine Advocate, any new reviewer would labor under the same kind criticism that has long been pointed at Robert Parker and other influential critics: The influence is too great and the 100 Point rating system is too reductionists. The former complaint can’t be addressed by the reviewers or publications. The latter complaint is more interesting.
In my view, the 100 point rating system would be too reductionist were the points the only thing a review offered the reader. But of course it isn’t. Along with the rating comes a written review; a description of what the reviewer smells, feels, tastes and understands about the wine. This is the meat of the review and too often ignored as an important component among critics of the 100 point system.
It was with this part of the review in mind that I sat down to examine how Antonio Galloni has approached the position of California Wine Reviewer at the Wine Advocate since he took over that position in February 2011.
In an email to me, Mr. Galloni succinctly outlined his approach to reviewing wine:
“I start with the premise that wine criticism is first and foremost really about wine education. I want to help our readers find wines that they will like and enjoy. I view aromatic and flavor descriptors an important part of tasting note, but only a part of the whole picture of what a wine is about. In my opinion, a wine’s structural elements are at least as important.”
What I wanted to do was understand the “Galloni Vocabulary” that allows him to explain the aromatic, flavor and structural elements of the wines he tastes. How does he describe California wines? Do wines rated higher tend to be described in a certain way? What words are most often associated with Galloni reviews and with Galloni reviews of highly rated wines?
This approach to understanding Antonio Galloni’s palate amounts to examining the frequency of word use across his reviews of California wines. It can be argued that this approach to understanding a reviewer is every bit as reductionist as using numbers to rate wines. So be it. In defense, I would argue that a modern wine description amounts to carefully communicating the character of a wine by issuing a set of adjective and nouns that best describe what a reviewer smells, feels and tastes. To do this, a vocabulary is necessary. In fact, that vocabulary probably needs to be consistent. Certain aromas, for example, will show up across an array of wines. For a reviewer to truly serve their audience, there must be some consistency in the use of the descriptors they use to describe the wines.
This is not an easy thing to do. In an email to me, Mr. Galloni explained what is unquestionably true about using descriptors in wine reviews:
“As you know, aromas and flavors are highly personal sensations each taster perceives in a wine. I might find cassis, you might find blackberry, while a third taster might find blueberry. Obviously there is some commonality there, but also differences.”
Another complaint of wine review vocabulary is that it is often filled with reference that are far too obscure for the average reader to appreciate. The question becomes, how specific should a descriptor be within a written wine review. Galloni is also well aware not only of this critique of wine reviews, but appreciates its validity. Again, writing to me in an email, Mr. Galloni explains:
“My objective is to write tasting notes and reviews that people can relate to, while avoiding the natural tendency towards verbosity that is an easy trap for writers to fall into. Should I say a wine smells like ‘lemon,’ ‘Meyer lemon’ or ‘Sicilian lemon?’ I trust my instincts, but at the same time, if readers don’t have a point of reference, those descriptors risk being just fanciful language that has no meaning. That is one of the reasons I might say ‘spices’ instead of ‘cinnamon,’ ‘nutmeg’ or ‘allspice.’ So, the goal in my view is to educate, but without the intimidation factor that keeps so many potential consumers away from wine.”
What follows is a statistical examination of word use in Antonio Galloni’s reviews of California red wines from the vintages 2006-2010 and various combinations thereof. It was undertaken using the very handy wine review search engine at eRobertParker.com.
ANALYSIS OF WORDS USED BY ANTONIO GALLONI IN REVIEWS OF RED CALIFORNIA WINES FROM THE 2008 AND 2009 VINTAGES
|WORD||ALL REVIEWS||90+ REVIEWS||95+ REVIEWS|
Two primary questions arise upon looking at this list of words and the frequency with which they appear in Mr. Galloni’s reviews: 1) Which discriptors is he most likely to use in reviews of red California wines and 2) which words are more or less frequently used in high scoring wines?
THE ISSUE OF DESCRIBING STRUCTURE
Taking the second question first, I think it is noteworthy that no descriptor falls significantly in usage as the score goes higher. This suggests to me that few if any words on this list are to Mr. Galloni inherently negative. However, there are certain words that are used much more frequently the higher the score including “striking”, “silk” “tar”, “nuance”, “structure”, and “finesse”. What is interesting about this collection of words that show up more often in higher scoring words is that all but one of them, “Tar”, is a description of a wine’s structure, not its aromatics or flavors.
Antonio Galloni noted this interesting fact and had this explanation:
“One of the main challenges reviewers face is how to differentiate wines that within a category are very similar. How many times can you use ‘petrol,’ ‘gasoline’ or some derivative when discussing Riesling, or ‘tar’ and ‘roses’ for Barolo, or ‘oyster shells’ and ‘minerals’ for Chablis? If I taste 20 red Burgundies in one cellar, what are the differences? Not the grape or overall flavor profile, in most cases. The differences are about structure, potential age-worthiness, and, in places where terroir is an important part of the wine culture, the extent to which a wine reflects its origins. I think that is why the analysis of structural terms in your chart reveals much broader diversification of terms.”
His explanation of the importance of a wine’s structure in describing a wine matches my view of wine evaluation and I would expect many others also. Within a category of single varietal wines, the flavor profile will be different, but not extraordinarily so. What often sets one wine apart from another is its structural profile. It is reasonable to conclude that Mr. Galloni has a higher regard for wines in which he notes greater or striking levels of “silk”, “nuance”, “structure” and “finesse”. Along these same lines, it is also noteworthy that the words “Rich” and “Balance” show up often in more highly rated wines, but not significantly more than in all the reviews of red wines.
FLAVOR AND AROMA: THE “LICORICE” ISSUE
Then there is the issue of which flavor and aroma related words are used more often in Antonio Galloni’s reviews. Here, there are not too many surprises, with the exception of one: “Licorice”.
The term “licorice” turns up in fully 46% of the written reviews of the 2008 and 2009 red California wines. When the wine receives 90 points or more, “licorice” is noted in 49% of those reviews. And when the wine is given 95 points or more, the word “licorice” shows up in 57% of all reviews.
The relatively high frequency of use of the term “licorice” in Antonio Galloni’s reviews of red California wines from the 2008 and 2009 vintages seemed unusual to me. It’s not an unknown descriptor for wines, but it seems put to use less frequently in general than does Mr. Galloni. I confirmed this in asking around to a number of friends as to their own frequency of use of the term. They all agreed that they don’t use the term this often.
I wanted to determine if Mr. Galloni’s seemingly frequent use of the term “licorice” set him apart form Robert Parker’s usage of the word. So, I compared usage of the term “licorice” from Mr. Galloni’s reviews of Cabernet, Pinot Noirs and Syrahs to Mr. Parker’s use of the term from his reviews of the 2005 vintage—a vintage in which Mr. Parker was quite prolific in his reviews of California wines.
USE OF THE TERM “LICORICE” IN WRITTEN REVIEWS BY ANTONIO GALLONI AND ROBERT PARKER BY SELECTED VINTAGES AND VARIETAL WINES
|Licorice Used||90+ points||95+Points|
|Galloni ’09 Cab||49%||47%||64%|
|Parker ’05 Cab||23%||27%||34%|
|Galloni 06-’10 Pinot||34%||39%||31%|
|Parker ’05 Pinot||2%||4%||0%|
|Parker ’05 Syrah||16%||20%||38%|
It’s fairly clear from this comparison that Antonio Galloni has put the term “licorice” to use far more often than his predecessor, at least where it comes to California red wines. Furthermore, it seems reasonable to conclude that Mr. Galloni is positively inclined toward wines that exhibit for him a “licorice” quality. However, with the exception of Pinot Noir, it also appears that Mr. Parker has a predisposition toward wines exhibiting “licorice”—at least in the selected group of wine reviews I chose from Mr. Parker’s work.
As Mr. Galloni notes in his email to me, aromas and flavors are highly personal. This is unquestionably true. And again to refer to Mr. Galloni’s note to me, it’s entirely reasonable that “Cassis”, “Blackberry” and “Blueberry” might easily be used by different tasters to describe the same flavor or aroma. They are different, but of a distinct type.
With regard to what seems like an excessive use of the term “licorice”, Mr. Galloni explains what he means when he uses this term:
“When I think of licorice, I think of black licorice, while anise is a more floral and at times herbal note.”
This explanation of the terms “licorice” and “anise” match the explanations of received from a number of others I asked about the two terms.
Finally, Mr. Galloni addressed the frequency of the use of the word “Licorice”: “It seems pretty clear I may be overusing licorice as a descriptor, and I thank you for pointing that out”.
An interesting question to ponder here is if in fact Mr. Gallon is “overusing” the term “licorice”. One could do a pretty simple statistical analysis of the use of words in his reviews and at least say that he is far more likely to use this word than most other discriptors. But is it “overuse”?
From a purely stylistic perspective, it probably is overuse. But from the perspective of his palate, it may in fact be a perfectly valid frequency. It may be that some combination of flavors that are common in red wines (or at least California red wine) strike him as mimicking the flavor or aroma of licorice. It is impossible to dispute this notion since no one can perceive taste and aroma exactly as the next person.
ON “SPICE” AND EDUCATING THE READER
Finally, I want to look at the use of the term “Spice” or “Spices” in Mr. Galloni’s reviews. From the first chart above you will note that the term is used in 45% of all reviews of California red wines and is second only to “licorice” as the most frequently used word to describe a flavor or aroma. What’s notable is that Mr. Galloni rarely uses another word in conjunction with the term “spice”. For example, you don’t see “cinnamon spice” or “asian spice” used much at all in his reviews.
As Mr. Galloni noted above in his email to me, his use of the term “spice” or “spices” without more specific modifiers such as “asian” or “peppery” or “cinnamon spice” is a strategic decision on his part with the intent of educating consumers “but without the intimidation factor that keeps so many potential consumers away from wine.” It’s the same reason he is likely to use the term “lemon” rather than “Sicilian Lemon”.
I understand this approach. Too often consumers admit they are turned off by elaborate descriptors and too often wine lovers are mocked for their use of obscure wine terms. However, in the case of the term “spice”, I think we have a word that, for wine descriptions, is akin to the word “fruit”. Neither of these words, left alone, tell me very much about the wine. However, “berry fruits” or “stone fruits” or “tropical fruits” do tell me what I need to know without being too elaborate or obscure. In the same way, I think a somewhat more precise use fo the term “spice” would benefit readers of The Wine Advocate.
As I mentioned above, I derived this information about Antonio Galloni’s word usage in reviews from the eRobertParker.com Advanced Search Engine for wine reviews. I want to say again that this search engine is extraordinarily generous. It’s clear that Mr. Parker had in mind allowing his subscribers to search the voluminous number of reviews in nearly any possible way they want to. It is a search engine of unusual complexity, density and depth.
I have long been an admirer of Mr. Parker and his Wine Advocate. His dedication to delivering 1000s of reviews is matched only by his success in doing so. Mr. Galloni appears to be on his way to delivering an equally comprehensive accounting of California wines in his position as the state’s wine reviewwe for the Wine Advocate. My hope, knowing it is a chore, is that he tastes widely and broadly, seeking out wines that may not necessarily show up in the large group tastings he does and that may not be currently counted among the very top wines of the state that, as a thorough critic, he is obligated to evaluate. It’s not an easy job. Getting to all California wines will not happen. But I only note that there are a terrific number of wines produced in California that have not been on Mr. Parker’s radar and are likely not to be on Mr. Galloni’s radar. My hope is he finds a way to look well beyond the well known and semi known.