April 26 (Bloomberg) -- Influential wine critic Robert Parker surprised Napa Valley vintners in February when he handed over his California reviews to Antonio Galloni, who plans to shake things up.
“I’m convinced there are a lot of young producers who are under the radar, and I’m looking to discover them,” Galloni said in an interview. “I don’t know if people will be enthusiastic, but I know change is tough.”
No critic has helped elevate California wines more than Parker, 63. A high rating in his Wine Advocate magazine has vaulted many Napa producers to prominence in the three decades he’s been publishing reviews.
But now Parker has passed the baton to Galloni, a former director at Putman Investments and Deutsche Asset Management. Galloni has written about Italian wine for the Advocate since 2006, but he isn’t well known among California winemakers, who generate $18.5 billion a year in U.S. retail sales for the state’s economy.
“We’ve talked about this for years -- what would happen, God forbid, if Bob got hit by a bus?” said Ursula Hermacinski, a wine auctioneer who also was estate manager of Napa cult producer Screaming Eagle from 2006 to 2010. “Would the wine industry come to a complete halt?”
Galloni, 40, just returned from his first visit to California since he was named Parker’s replacement. He plans to expand coverage, looking more closely at regions such as Mendocino County and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Galloni will also seek out producers who didn’t submit bottles to Parker.
“Discovering lesser-known wineries is really where the excitement is,” he said.
Some critics say Parker’s influence has resulted in more California wines with intense fruit flavors and high alcohol levels. Producers who made wines for Parker’s palate may suffer now, said Alice Feiring, author of “The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World From Parkerization.”
“Even though Bob will deny people make wine to his profile, it absolutely has happened and has been happening for the past 15 years,” Feiring said. “They’ve kind of lost the golden goose in some ways.”
Parker began publishing the Wine Advocate in 1978 as an independent consumers guide; it now has more than 50,000 subscribers. Reviews, which score bottles on a 100-point scale, are used by producers and retailers to sell wine.
“I think all of us are sort of waiting to see what will happen to the market in general, and those brands he loved,” said Celia Welch, winemaker at Napa’s Scarecrow label.
Her brand quickly sold out its inaugural 2003 vintage, even before Parker gave it a 98-point rating. The attention generated from that score helped the second vintage disappear in 16 hours, she said.
Claude Blankiet, owner of Blankiet Estate in Yountville, which sells cabernet sauvignon and merlot blends to mailing-list clients, said Parker has been “absolutely essential” to his success. Blankiet’s wines, which sell for as much as $200 a bottle, have gotten scores as high as 97 from Parker.
“I don’t see Galloni coming and making a revolution here,” Blankiet said.
Aaron Pott is the winemaker at Napa’s Blackbird Vineyards, which has received scores from Parker in the high 90s.
“I’m kind of sad to see him go,” Pott said. “You know what he likes and doesn’t like, and it made things easier for us.”
Galloni, who grew up in Caracas, was first exposed to California wines in the early 1990s when he was studying jazz composition at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. An admirer of musician Pat Metheny for his artistic breadth and virtuosity, Galloni also appreciates a diversity of styles in winemaking.
“There isn’t a model of wine I’m looking for, and I think that might throw some people off,” said Galloni, who holds a master’s degree in business from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.
Tim Mondavi, former winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery and Opus One, said wine consumers are better served by a multitude of voices.
“The California industry will lose a powerful advocate, but at the same time, I would hope we would not ever replicate him going forward,” said Mondavi, whose current winery, Continuum Estate, was deemed “brilliant” by Parker. “Wine is too important and too multifaceted to rely on any one person.”
Others say Parker’s influence has diminished with the proliferation of new publications, blogs and younger wine drinkers.
“The idea of a single global critic holding sway over the wine world is almost laughable,” said Courtney Cochran, 32, a sommelier and author from San Francisco. “It sounds archaic and out of touch with the reality of how information is transmitted today,”
Parker won’t completely disappear from the U.S. wine scene. In addition to reviewing French regions such as Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley, he’ll revisit older vintages of California wine.
“Everyone should be trying to buy up those wines before he does those reviews,” Hermacinski said. “Prices will rise.”
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