In 2018, Robert Parker Wine Advocate is dedicating more energy and resources than ever to increase our coverage of wines from around the world, with the aim of publishing 50,000 reviews each year by 2020. Our team of wine experts—the largest team of full-time reviewers of any of the major wine criticism publications—is expanding. This year we welcome William Kelley, who will be taking over coverage of Burgundy, Chablis, Beaujolais, California Central Coast and Washington State.
A graduate of Oxford University, Kelley honed his palate with the great wines of Burgundy from the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. A former correspondent for the U.K.’s Decanter magazine, he’s worked harvests in both Burgundy and California and was short-listed for the Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year Award.
We sat down for a discussion with Kelley to learn more about his background, his approach to writing wine reviews and his plans for his coverage of Burgundy, California and Washington.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in London, with vacations spent in the English countryside and western Europe—Sicily, Rome, Tuscany, Provence, the Dordogne and Paris. My parents are art fanatics, so early memories emphasize meandering through the seemingly endless corridors of the Louvre and the Uffizi. Exposure to great food was always a personal highlight of European travel, and to this day cooking is a passion.
My junior and high school education was at Highgate School. Though I later studied history at university, in my mid-teens I developed a keen interest in explosives, and devoted many hours to their manufacture. Looking back with the more acute awareness of risk that adulthood brings, I’m retrospectively horrified, but I happily seem to have escaped that phase of my life unscathed. I’ve since been amused to learn that a number of winemakers have shared that enthusiasm, including Ric Forman in the Napa Valley and Rick Kinzbrunner of Giaconda in Victoria, Australia. (And of course, Henri Jayer knew his way around a stick of dynamite.)
How did you become interested in wine?
I grew up with everyday wine on the table, but it was a bottle of the 1955 Château Lynch-Bages that really sparked my serious interest. I was 17 at the time, and it was qualitatively more complex and compelling than anything I’d tasted before. So I set about reading everything I could get my hands on, and tasting too. While my parents don’t keep a cellar, I was mentored by Hugo Dunn-Meynell, a former director of the Food & Wine Society and a protégée of the legendary André Simon. Hugo’s cellar was in chaos, and we catalogued it together, opening many great bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy while we worked. He had effectively stopped buying wine in the mid-1980s, so most of what we tasted was from the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. I still remember comparing the 1961 Cheval Blanc from the Château bottling and the Berry Bros & Rudd bottling. (In that era, British wine merchants often bought Bordeaux in barrel and bottled it themselves!) Spending time with Hugo was an amazing opportunity, and I’m grateful for the firm foundation in “the classics” that he gave me.
How did your education influence your career in wine?
I spent seven years at Oxford, taking successively an undergraduate degree, a masters and a doctorate, all in history and all at St. John’s College. During that time, I joined and then presided over the university’s leading tasting group (there are several), the Wine Circle. It’s the oldest tasting group of its kind, and the cachet of Oxford—plus a lot of hard work—meant that we were able to persuade many amazing wineries to visit and present their wares in weekly tastings. Big names such as Châteaux Margaux, d’Yquem, Mouton-Rothschild; Salon, Krug, Dom Pérignon; Pégaü, Dujac; but also tiny producers such as Yves Gangloff from Condrieu or Olivier Collin of Champagne Ulysse Collin. I’m also proud to have been the first president of the Wine Circle to put together an extensive program of tastings with California wineries.
After the tastings, we used to cook for the producers and a few guests—I spent days over the stove preparing stocks and sauces. And in turn, I developed many friendships with wine producers and found myself drawn deeper and deeper into the world of wine. Vacations became increasingly monopolized by winery visits, even to the point of excess. I remember a 4:00 a.m. departure from Lausanne, Switzerland, where we had dined at the Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville de Crisser, for a 9:00 a.m. tasting with Bruno Giacosa in Piedmont the same day. In retrospect, it was a bit extreme. But I suppose wine supplied the conviviality and human interest of which doctoral students are notoriously deprived. By the end of my studies, the writing was certainly on the wall.
Most importantly, I should add, I met my wife Gretchen at Oxford. She joined the Wine Circle and attended the first tasting I hosted (with Champagne Billecart-Salmon). She has been a wonderful and decisive presence in my life ever since. We explored the Rhône and Burgundy together. And she’s also a far harsher critic than I am!
What was your first experience with the wines of California?
The first California wine that made an impression on me was a 1995 Kalin Cellars Chardonnay from Sonoma County (the Cuvée LD for anyone that’s wondering). I tried it blind at Oxford, and found it amazingly complex, textural and delicious, evoking many of the qualities I’d experienced in formative white Burgundies such as the 1982 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Pucelles (which was well-represented in my college’s cellar, amazingly). I was smitten, and immediately struck up a correspondence with the winemaker to try to acquire some bottles.
That taste of Kalin precipitated an intensive exploration of California wine. I tend to pursue interests obsessively, so my expertise grew quite rapidly. Kalin is resolutely old world in style, but in my early twenties it was also very exciting to discover wines that were cut from dramatically different cloth—Manfred Krankl’s, for example—which made me think more deeply about the classical wines which had formed my palate, and which, in a sense, I took for granted. I’ve learnt a lot about what I value in the wines of France from their contrast, as well as their commonalities, with the wines of California.
I should add that California was also where I got my first first-hand experience of winemaking. I spent several months working a harvest in the Napa Valley with Thomas Brown, which was a true total immersion course. Since then, I’ve done harvests in Burgundy. And last year, I even made some wine of my own—Chenin Blanc from Clarksburg, California. That experience certainly informs the kinds of questions I ask producers, and I hope a thorough understanding of the process adds value to my commentary and criticism.
How does your new position as a reviewer for The Wine Advocate differ from the work you did previously?
I had been reviewing the wines of Burgundy and North America for Decanter for a couple of years, so the outline of what I’ll be doing is the same. Of course, my new position brings more responsibility—and more scrutiny. And I’ll be tasting more deeply and extensively, and spending even more time in my regions. I’m already enjoying it immensely.
What drew you to join the Wine Advocate team?
Lisa’s phone call! Given the publication’s reach and reputation, the offer was impossible to refuse. On a more personal note, Robert Parker’s books and articles taught me a huge amount over the years. It was probably his infectious enthusiasm for the wines of the Rhône that led me into Henri Bonneau’s cellar as a student—visits I’ll never forget. Of course, his legacy is also rather intimidating. Looking back at old issues from the 1980s is always fascinating. I don’t know if everyone is aware quite how wide-ranging and forward-looking they were. Bob was reviewing the likes of Selosse, Noël Verset, Edmond Vatan, Bruno Giacosa—decades before they became the cultish producers they are today! It’s a lot to live up to.
Writing about wine carries different responsibilities than being a wine critic. The weight your words and scores carry have real world consequences. How do you feel about this responsibility as a critic?
This is a question I think about frequently. A critic has two responsibilities: first to their readers and subscribers, it goes without saying; but also to producers, whose livelihoods sometimes depend on reviews. I take both very seriously. On the one hand, since I buy a lot of wine myself, it’s entirely possible that I’ll be the first to be disappointed if a wine I’ve praised doesn’t meet my expectations. I always try to retain the perspective of a prospective purchaser and wine lover, which I think it a valuable heuristic. On the other hand, when I’m tasting, I try to be candid when I find fault with a wine, to give the producer an opportunity to respond face-to-face; if my verdict is damning, I do my best to re-taste, too. I think it’s ethically as well as professionally important to be rigorous.
What are your plans and strategies for your coverage of Burgundy?
I have two principal projects. The first is to work hard to review wines from bottle before they physically hit the market worldwide (which is typically just over two years after the vintage). As someone who purchases wine in the U.S.A., I keenly appreciate how useful timely in-bottle notes are for consumers in markets where top Burgundy is not sold mainly en primeur (as it is in the U.K.), but instead only once it actually reaches the store. Obviously, this project will take some time to realize, but I hope readers will appreciate more extensive and timely in-bottle reviews.
The second is to cover new ground. Burgundy is constantly changing, as the dynamics of generational succession bring both improvement and decline and aspiring new domaines nip at the heels of venerable producers. It’s from unheralded appellations and domaines that bargains are to be found, and it’s in reviewing them that critics can really add value. So I’m going to spend time knocking on doors, and not just in the Côte d’Or. Southern Burgundy is very interesting right now, not only the Mâconnais but also the Côte Chalonnaise. Of course, I’ll also be planning to visit important domaines we’ve sometimes overlooked, such as Ramonet and Prieuré Roch.
Are there any burgeoning developments in your regions that our readers should know about or look for in the coming months and years?
While the stylistic battles of the last decade in California wine have become less acrimonious, they continue to play out, with winemakers and growers finding the aesthetics and varieties that synergize with their vineyards and their tastes; so I expect the Central Coast to remain very dynamic. The bandwidth is so great, it’s hard to summarize without making gross generalizations.
I hope Washington State’s wines will become better known domestically and internationally. Washington’s very versatility as a winegrowing region may not have been an asset in this respect: Oregon has Pinot, Napa has Cabernet, but Washington has never hitched its identity to any single variety, and that’s made building a reputation outside the state slower going. By the same token, it leaves winemakers freer to experiment. Looking ahead, I expect we’ll see more exciting cool climate-style Syrah bottlings from Walla Walla and elsewhere, and I hope the market will support them.
Turning to Burgundy, the natural wine movement is making an increasingly influential impact on the region, for better and for worse. This is no longer a phenomenon confined to the Beaujolais, and I’m intending to engage with it seriously. I think it’s also time to take a serious look at premature oxidation and what progress has been made in preventing it: premox has already changed immeasurably how white Burgundy is made and consumed. As for developments, I think we are beginning to see more aspiration to produce high-quality wine in the Côte Chalonnaise, which everyone who loves value should applaud.