INTERNATIONAL - Wine is one of those rare industries in which one person’s opinion can make fortunes or break them.
Credit Robert Parker. For three decades he dominated as the world’s most influential wine critic. He popularized the 100-point rating scale, and the scores in his monthly newsletter, the Wine Advocate, drove demand and prices. Prior to selling the company in 2012, Parker had planned to hand the business to his protégé, Antonio Galloni, but they couldn't reach a deal. Galloni has since built his own brand, Vinous, bought the crowdsourced ratings app Delectable, and lured away the Wine Advocate’s top critic, Neal Martin.
What sets Galloni apart from competing publications such as Wine Spectator and Decanter, or individual critics such as Jancis Robinson and James Suckling, is ambition. Not only is Vinous more prolific, thanks in part to a 2014 merger with Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar, Galloni has added interactive vineyard maps and explanatory videos, all part of the former banker’s plan to make his the definitive platform for connoisseurs and novices alike. And like Parker before him, a high rating on his own 100-point scale can turn inexpensive bottles into blockbusters. He spoke with Bloomberg Television Editor-at-Large Erik Schatzker.
Do you think of yourself as the next Parker?Not at all. Steve Jobs said, “You can't live your life trying to be somebody else.” He’s one of my biggest influences, and I’ve never wanted to be a replica of somebody else, because a replica’s never as good as the original. Bob is a genius, fantastic, one of a kind. We’re going to be something completely different.
Different in what way?Every decision that I’ve made at this company is completely antithetical to what Bob did with his company. All of my senior people are locked into the company. They all have equity, or they have a path to equity based on business results. That’s something that we never had with Parker. I’ve got three young people in my office who are all in their early twenties who are going to be superstars—and it’s my job to make them superstars, and that is a very different environment from the environment that I came from.
When Steve Tanzer, the most experienced active wine critic in America, wants to work with us, that says something. When Alessandro Masnaghetti, who’s the best cartographer of vineyards, wants to work with us, that says something. When Neal Martin, who’s a superstar wine critic with enormous experience in Bordeaux and Burgundy and the former lead critic at the Advocate, wants to come and be part of our team, that says something.
Will you and Neal Martin review the same wines?Absolutely, we’re going to review the same wines—nobody’s ever done that. It’s completely innovative. So you’ll be able to see Léoville-Las Cases or Château Margaux or whatever. You’ll be able to say, “What did Martin think? What did Galloni think?” Side by side.
Why is most everyone still using the 100-point system?Because it’s simple. My son came home the other day. He had an 85 on his test, and we know that that’s not necessarily the best. There’s room for improvement. And sometimes he gets 100 on a project. You immediately understand what that means.
There’s another thing that’s fantastic about the 100-point scale: I have to say, “Is it a 92 or a 96?” I can’t waffle with this British 30-point system, which nobody really understands except for them. You can really keep people happy with the four or four and a half out of five score, but if you have to say it’s a 92 or it's a 96, that requires conviction, and Bob always had an extraordinary amount of conviction.
Can anyone’s palate dominate the wine industry the way Parker’s did?There’s just such an opportunity right now with social media and technology to reach such a massive audience that I think it’s possible that one or two people will actually have more influence than Bob Parker did. You see this in sports all the time. It’s like, “Oh well, nobody will ever beat this record.” Then somebody comes along. Like in tennis—Pete Sampras—nobody’s ever going to win as many Grand Slams. Now you have two guys who are ahead of that and one knocking on the door.
You’re a former investment banker. How does that inform and influence what you’re doing and what you’ve done?If you were in the right job in the early ’80s, you had the ability, the opportunity to amass an incredible amount of wealth and to be extraordinarily successful. My generation has had to deal with a lot more challenges. That’s why I think we’re actually much better-poised for the future. My first job in finance, the first thing that happened was [the collapse of] Long-Term Capital in 1998. Then the tech bubble melted down. Then there was a mutual fund trading scandal. That was all within about five or six years, and these are the things that I had to deal with as a young executive. I think that’s actually good for learning how to cope with challenges in business.
The Wine Advocate is still going. There’s the Wine Spectator, Jancis Robinson, James Suckling, and others. How is Vinous different?We have a database of about 250,000 professionally written reviews. On Delectable, we have 7 million user reviews. We also have a partnership with Whole Foods. When you put that all together, no other company in our space can even come close.
What did you learn from Parker?He was my great teacher. The biggest thing I learned from him was how to deal with pressure. At this level, you have to manage and deal with an extraordinary amount of pressure from basically all sides, and he was very good at dealing with that.
What do people mean by the “Parkerization” of wine?There’s pressure on winemakers to produce that coveted 100-point score. And so what happened, starting in the mid-1990s, is that there was a very deliberate attempt, particularly in Napa Valley, to craft wines that would please Bob and would garner that score.
Many wine aficionados complain that Parker pushed Bordeaux down the wrong path, pushed Napa down the wrong path. Did he?I don’t think anybody put a gun to somebody’s head. I mean, people have to be responsible for their own decisions. Bob was very influential, but he didn’t force anybody to do anything that they didn’t really want to do anyway.
Today, people recognize that diversity is a beautiful thing. Napa Valley, Bordeaux, these estates, these châteaux, they each have a story to tell. People got tired of those really big fruit-bomb wines. They’re just not exciting, and they don’t always develop well.
What do you make of the huge investments going into wine right now—the new wineries and cellars in Bordeaux, for example,—the astronomical prices being paid for land in Bordeaux or in Burgundy?Nobody buys these properties thinking that they’re going to lose money, so I think it’s very positive. It’s certainly better than the flip scenario.
Of course I worry, because it means I can’t afford the wines anymore, and neither can most people. My greatest satisfaction is going to some little village that nobody goes to and tasting wine with a producer that gets no coverage, and writing those reviews up on Vinous. These are still wines that normal people can afford—not just a bottle of, but maybe three bottles, six bottles, 12 bottles, whatever it is. And that, to me, is the real joy.