By Gabe Saglie
(Published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on Nov. 7, 2013)
Monica Larner always schedules return visits to her family’s wine estate north of Santa Barbara around the end of summer. That’s when her work as a Rome-based wine reviewer slows down. But her trip in October was an especially joyful one: she got to witness the birth of her niece, Sienna.
“I even got to be in the delivery room,” she boasts. The healthy little girl is the second child for Larner’s brother, Michael, and his wife, Christina. The Ballard Canyon-based couple runs the family’s respected Larner Vineyard, which provides Rhone fruit, mainly – grapes like syrah and grenache – to producers throughout the county, as well as for the family’s own Larner Winery label.
It wasn’t entirely a pleasure trip, though. Speaking with me from Ballard the day before her flight back to Italy, Monica Larner told me, “I had to finish up a huge report on amarone, the wine of northeast Italy, and so I’ve been writing that here.”
A weighty task, to be sure. Because that report – she predicts it’ll average about 60,000 words – will be devoured voraciously by tens of thousands of wine aficionados, collectors and critics. Monica Larner, you see, has just become one of the most influential reviewers of Italian wines in the world, having been hand-picked to join the small editorial staff of The Wine Advocate.
“Some people tell me that since I was hired by Robert Parker, I must have Parker’s palate,” she tells me, quickly adding in defense, “But why, just because I work for him? I hope that thinking eventually changes as the Wine Advocate becomes known for a group of tasters rather than just one man.”
Don’t underestimate the power of that comparison, though. Robert Parker’s palate, after all, has long been credited – blamed, by some? – for single-handedly driving the way wines around the world are made, priced and marketed. His Wine Advocate, a publication he launched in 1978 and which is now supported online by erobertparker.com, has more than 50,000 global subscribers, a vast majority of them in the U.S. And the scores it awards, based on a now-famous 100-point scale, can make or break individual wines, if not entire vintages.
None of that is lost on Larner, who admits Parker is “a monumental figure.” But she explains that Parker “was a product of his time. His palate started growing when American’s hunger for European tastes and gastronomy was growing – when Julia Child was getting known – and that’s what brought his importance to such a high level.”
Larner, who started with Wine Advocate in late April, is now part of an eight-member international team of editorial tasters and reviewers. Parker is one of them, and his focus remains on wines from Napa and Bordeaux. “I’m responsible for reviewing all the wines of Italy,” says Larner. “Current releases, past vintages, up and coming news, you name it.”
Typically, she’s on a rotating two-month schedule. She spends one entire month traveling the country, visiting wine growing regions and meeting with producers. “I spend a lot of time in the car driving,” she says (and admits she actually finds negotiating the highways of Southern California a lot more daunting). The month that follows is spent tasting and writing at her Rome office, just outside the Coliseum. There’s no word limit on her reports for the bimonthly publication. “It can go up to 150,000 words,” she says. “And it takes a long time to write, because I want to be careful.”
Careful. Because Larner is keenly aware of the influence that those words are bound to have, especially since the weakened domestic economy in Italy has made winemakers there extra keen on luring American consumers. “I’m in a position of greater power, and that’s given me a lot to worry about,” admits Larner, humbly. “When I publish a score, I can see more of an anxiousness from producers for me to taste their samples.”
These days, Larner’s interest is most piqued by what’s going on in Southern Italy, a region she feels traditional media have ignored. “So many of those wine in areas like Aetna, Puglia, Campagna – they’re based on grapes so mysterious and weird and unknown,” she says. “It’s very rustic, but in time, and with more research, I suspect they’re gems. People just don’t know about them yet.”
Her new job is enhanced, no doubt, by her love for wine. But more so, perhaps, by her love for Italy. Larner was 11 when she first traveled there, as the family accompanied her father, Stevan Larner, on his job as Director of Photography for a TV miniseries titled The Winds of War. (Mr. Larner, who died in a tragic accident on the family’s Ballard ranch in 2005, also had high-profile Hollywood titles like Roots and Caddyshack to his name).
“Italy had a humungous effect on me,” recalls Larner. “I was a young teen, my aesthetics were beginning to form, and it left a mark on me that continued through my career.”
|Larner Vineyard, Ballard Canyon (Photo by Bob Dickey)|
In 1997, when her family founded Larner Vineyard in Santa Barbara County – an endeavor driven by her father’s own passion for wine – Monica Larner was there, selecting clones, planting roots and pruning vines. But after she finished grad school on the East Coast, she would, in fact, go on to become a journalist based in Italy, writing for daily newspapers and compiling three tourist guide books – and an archive of more than 50,000 photographs – on Italy. She dabbled in wine writing during this time. But it wasn’t until 2003, when professional connections led Wine Enthusiast Magazine to offer her a job, that her pen’s focus turned to wine in earnest.
“Those were 10 wonderful years,” says Larner, who helped the American publication build a substantial presence in Italy with 3,000 wine reviews a year and who, in turn, received detailed training on “everything that made the Italian wine scene tick” and on that all-important 100-point scale.
She’d even go on to win the “Best International Journalist” Silver Grape Leaf, an honor bestowed by Italy’s top wine producers, three times, more than anyone else.
Her influence, expertise and appreciation for Italian wines now well rooted, Robert Parker came calling earlier this year. And the rest, at least for now, is history.
|The Larners: Michael, mom Christine, Monica and Michael's wife, Christina|
Larner looks forward to more return visits to her family’s Ballard Canyon vineyard, where her mother, Christine, also lives. She'll sip more of her brother’s wines, of course, although she isn’t allowed to review them, or anything out of California, for that matter. She is aware of the burgeoning Italian wine movement in Santa Barbara – producers working with grapes like nebbiolo and sangiovese – but it’s still all about Italy for her. “Every grape is a biological creature and will start to reflect the nuances of its surroundings,” she says. “These varietals perform so beautifully in Italy and are just completely different here.”
But in bigger picture terms, there are parallels in the nuances, and her outlook for Santa Barbara County wine as an industry is enthusiastic. “Enormous variation – syrah in Ballard Canyon, Happy Canyon with Bordeaux grapes, pinot noir in the Sta. Rita Hills – that makes Santa Barbara similar to Italy,” she says. “Having huge diversity in one little area is something that’s been a competitive advantage for Italians in the market, and I hope Santa Barbara can follow a similar story.”