Liv-ex interview with Antonio Galloni, part two: California, Champagne and Delectable

Antonio Galloni

Last week, we published the first part of our interview with Antonio Galloni, which covered Bordeaux 2017 and his role as CEO of Vinous and Delectable. In part two, below, we discuss developments in California and Champagne, and the wine app Delectable which was acquired by Vinous in 2016.

You recently published reports on Napa and Sonoma 2016. How was the vintage?

Yes, we have recently published extensive articles on both Napa Valley and Sonoma 2016s. In Napa Valley, unexpectedly cool weather in August extended the growing season and resulted in very complete Cabernets with a ton of potential. It is a vintage I like very much. The wines will be bottled this summer, and I will taste them in the fall. Over in Sonoma, where the mix of grapes is much more varied, there is also a lot to like. I am especially excited about the Zinfandel and various field blend wines in 2016, but there is plenty to admire in the Chardonnays and Pinots as well.

What is exciting you most about California?

What I see in Sonoma and Napa is just an incredible amount of new projects that continue to pop up. Vinous has just turned five years old, so around this time of year I tend to think a lot about where we’ve been and where we are headed. I just looked at our recent Sonoma coverage and counted more than 20% of estates that did not exist when we were getting started! Can you believe that? It is amazing. Right now, in terms of what excites me most it is Santa Barbara. The wines are truly world class and yet they very much fly under the radar. From a consumer’s standpoint, I am not sure there is a region in California that offers better value today.

Where are these new projects coming from?

It’s everything from young winemakers just getting started, assistant winemakers making their own wines on the side, high profile winemakers going out on their own and the expansion of wines within established labels.

When we published my article on 2014 Barolo earlier this spring, there were four or five new producers and it was like a seminal event, because that hadn’t happened in so long. In Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara there are new producers every year. Keeping up with them is one of my biggest challenges. And lot of these are high quality wines and projects that are expressly going to interest our readers.

On the more commercial side, Bordeaux producers have become very interested in Napa Valley wines which is incredibly exciting because those wines merit a global market and a global audience. Tomorrow I’m doing an event at 67 Pall Mall. It’s a private event for their members, and they asked me to pick ten wines that have been important to me. Out of the ten wines, three are from California and that’s because I feel like that’s where these belong on this kind of global stage. [Note: Antonio’s article on this tasting has now been posted on Vinous.]

Do any vintages stand out?

Napa Valley 2010 has always been really important to me because I took a very contrarian view to it at the beginning, which has now become the widely accepted view. I was the first person to say, “Hey, this is a great vintage.” I remember on The Wine Advocate forum there was an outcry about 2010 and all of my high scores. Again, I was just reacting to what I tasted. The wines were phenomenal then, and they are phenomenal now.

So in ten years’ time we’ll be calling 2017 the Right Bank vintage? [Antonio declared 2017 a ‘Right Bank’ vintage]

No, we are going to do that today!

Which other regions are exciting you at the moment?

The Piedmont story is already out there. Those wines are just as good as top wines from anywhere else in the world and the pricing has followed. I think we are going to be hearing more about Alto Piemonte. It is a region that is benefitting from climate change. Perhaps even more importantly, Roberto Conterno’s recent purchase of Nervi sends a clear sign as to what the potential of the region is. Think about it for a second. Many producers of this generation are exploring projects in other countries. Look at how many producers from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne are doing things in the US, specifically in California and Oregon. Conterno is saying “No. I am betting on Italy, on Piedmont and on Nebbiolo.” That is a huge statement.

I think Champagne is fascinating because of the contrast between the big maisons that make very good or even great champagne at volume, and the growers. For many years Champagne has been one of the regions where consumers can still buy terroir-driven wines that don’t cost a fortune. That is about to change in a way that people are going to find shocking. I think Champagne is the next Burgundy. You already have a few producers who occupy a similar niche because of their small production and cult status, like Anselme Selosse and Cedric Bouchard. Their bottles are expensive and very hard to find.

Small production Champagne and small production Burgundy are very different…

Not really. What we are talking about is wines with very limited production on one hand, and a large group of consumers with financial means on the other hand who have a high willingness to pay for rare, hard to find bottles. I have already seen producers really testing the limits of pricing. They’re saying, “I only have two barrels of this wine, I’m going to sell it at a couple of hundred Euros a bottle,” and they may very well be able to do that.

Is the market for these wines changing?

When prices go beyond a certain point, wines are no longer bought by people who really understand them or appreciate them, they increasingly are bought by the people who have the biggest bank accounts. Clearly there’s some overlap between those two factions – you can be fabulously wealthy and also have great taste. These things aren’t mutually exclusive, but the bigger the price gets, the more that relationship starts to get stretched until you reach a point, as in Burgundy, where so many wines are bought and resold based on their scarcity, as opposed to being drunk and enjoyed by people who truly understand something about the land, the family that made the wines, the history of the cru, etc. Conscientious growers in Burgundy live in a state of total distress over the pricing of their wines in the market. Several have told me “I would never pay these prices for my own wines.”

So that’s where Champagne is going. As a consumer, it makes me very sad to see what these ultra-small production wines are selling for and where pricing is headed. But as I said, nobody in the world wants to be paid less than what they think they’re worth. So I can hardly fault somebody for trying to maximize their economic well-being.

Is it OK to buy wine for the label; to simply appreciate the brand?

It’s no different from buying a Chanel scarf, or a Bentley, or anything people might buy because of accumulated brand value.

We hosted a tasting of 1996 Bordeaux last night. With each flight, there was an increase in terms of the prestige of the Chateaux. People understood and universally agreed that the last flight, which featured the First Growths, was brilliant. Now, you might not agree with the pricing of the best wines, or the spread that exists between the lowest and the highest priced wines in that tasting. And you might say that the most expensive wine is not worth the premium over the least expensive wine. That is, of course, fine. But it is very hard to argue against the clear hierarchy of quality in these wines.

It’s like anything. I like my watch, and I know it’s a really beautiful watch, but I just enjoy wearing it. I don’t know every little detail about it. Similarly with wine, there are people who just want to drink something they enjoy without knowing every technical detail. They just want to know that when they drink a bottle, it delivers a certain emotion. They are buying something of quality knowing that historically it’s delivered what they like.

Timeless brands have value because people associate them with very high and consistent quality.

You purchased the app, Delectable, around eighteen months ago. How does Delectable work alongside Vinous?

Delectable is a fabulous complement to Vinous. Whereas Vinous offers readers over 260,000 professional critic reviews, at Delectable our database has over 7.5 million user reviews. We are the only company that offers both professional and user reviews. Wine lovers using Delectable who are also Vinous subscribers can see both sets of reviews every time they look up a wine. There is simply nothing like it anywhere. The demographic is also very different. Whereas Vinous appeals more to a more traditional male-heavy audience of collectors, at Delectable 40% of our users are women and 50% are under the age of 40.

Many of those consumers on Delectable may not buy Troplong Mondot today, but they may buy Mondot (the estate’s second wine), Sociando Mallet or any number of bottles that are more affordable. In five or ten years’ time, many of those users will graduate to even better wines. We want to be with them every step of the way.

How do you see Delectable’s crowd-sourced reviews co-existing with professional critic reviews?

Professional and crowd-sourced reviews are totally complimentary.

Professional reviews clearly have the biggest impact when wines are not even in the market. There are no crowd-sourced reviews for Bordeaux 2017. I taste Napa Valley wines in the barrel before they are bottled. My Barolo 2014 report has been out for several months. Nobody else has published any notes on that vintage, because it’s controversial and nobody wants to take a view. There are no crowd-sourced reviews of these wines. Reviews come out and then people – professional buyers and collectors – make decisions on those wines. There are a lot of decisions that happen behind the scenes. You walk into a store. It’s not like the shelves were filled automatically. They were filled because importers, distributors and buyers used reviews to help them make decisions.

Crowd-sourced reviews are helpful two or three years on when many people have actually tasted the wines and you have a critical mass. But you need time.

Does the category of wine also make a difference?

Absolutely. If you are going to invest serious money in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo or Champagne, you probably want to know what an expert – or even two – thinks about those wines.

On the other hand, the risk of picking the wrong rosé for Tuesday night takeout is much lower. You probably don’t need an expert opinion for that type of wine. Crowd-sourced reviews generally cover more middle tier wines than a publication like Vinous can get to. You can read about Chateau Margaux or DRC on Delectable too, but a lot of the reviews are for everyday wines.

So we see professional and crowd-sourced reviews as complimentary, and Vinous is the only publication that can offer you both.

How does the user base of Delectable compare to Vivino?

Delectable appeals to trade users and wine lovers who drink and want to learn about quality wines, while Vivino is focused on a lower segment of the market. Delectable is the best app in the world to explore wines through the lens of others like you because it is built around feeds of wine reviews from people you follow, analogous to Instagram.

In contrast, Vivino is not really about following and learning from others. It is largely a transactional tool for buying wine, designed to specifically disintermediate entire segments of the wine industry. Wines are often offered at significant discounts. That may work well for lower end brands, but discounting is a sure-fire path to value destruction for the quality wines that are the entire focus here on Liv-ex.

The difference is summed up well if you go to delectable.com and Vivino’s website. On Delectable you are greeted by exceptional featured content, which is a combination of extracts from Vinous and articles written specifically for Delectable, like inspiration for what wines to drink in the summer. Go to Vivino’s site and you’ll see a page of wine offers and the tagline “search any wine and buy in seconds.”

Education is central to Delectable’s mission. That is that why every single person in the wine trade should use it actively to enrich the engagement and dialogue about wine, share perspectives and help others to discover new experiences. Delectable’s success directly translates into growth for the wine industry. It is that simple.

How does Delectable make money?

All the core features of Delectable are free, as they always have been. Delectable has integrated Vinous reviews and ratings, which are available to users to see for a modest monthly subscription. Vinous subscribers get this subscription for free by linking their accounts. Users who don’t pay see selected ads, such as for wine events that Delectable helps support.

One of the questions we get asked most often is “Where can I buy it?” To that end, Banquet, Delectable’s sister app, gives merchants the opportunity to list their inventories with us. This enables users to buy wines directly through the app from the retailers. For us, it’s very important to be completely independent from these purchases. We are completely agnostic as to whether you want to buy a bottle of rosé or First Growth Bordeaux. What we do want is to make the process of reading about to buying to enjoying wine as seamless as possible. We don’t take a percentage of sales, but we charge merchants a monthly fee based on the size of their inventory to help us provide this service.

What’s coming up next for Delectable?

We have a partnership with Whole Foods that is moving in an exciting direction. We also have a partnership with Coravin that will be unveiled on a broad scale very shortly. The next generation of Coravin is quite digital and includes an app that is powered by Delectable, and that we helped to build. We have another major partnership that will be announced imminently, and we’re in talks with several other companies. In all cases, we are helping people to explore wines and to share their experiences.

And finally… From your perspective, as both a leading critic and the CEO of a wine media company, what is your view on the role of Liv-ex with respect to the fine wine market?

As you are well aware, the wine world is a bit antiquated in some regards, especially with regards to technology. That is a challenge, but also a great opportunity for companies that can create solutions that eliminate some of the frictions that exist today. It’s been great to see Liv-ex emerge as a leading player in both establishing a leading marketplace for fine wines and, more recently, in creating LWINs.

One of the biggest challenges in our industry faces is that individual wines don’t have discrete identifiers, like CUSIPS for securities or Library of Congress numbers, which fulfill a similar role for books in the US. Therefore, all digital wine companies have had to create their own databases with unique identifiers, but none of these codes are standardized, which means that getting databases to be compatible involves a tremendous amount of manual matching work that resolves most matches, but never totally eliminates human error. Given the degree to which companies rely on clean data today, that kind of approach is simply not good enough.

Liv-Ex has made a significant contribution to the world of fine wine by championing its LWIN unique identifiers for fine wines. As well as supporting the flow of information to help make the market more efficient, LWINs present interesting opportunities in product development. For example, Vinous reviews and ratings will soon be matched to LWINs, making it possible for our content to be available through Liv-Ex feeds. Industry participants will have an option to license this now structured information to help make it ever easier for wine lovers to read our reviews and ratings where they want, when they want.

To read part one of the interview, click here. You can find articles by Antonio Galloni on Vinous.


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