Sunday, December 31, 2006

Looking Forward to 2007

Special commentary by guest reviewer Beatrice Russo

Italian Wine Guy has asked me to write a column while he takes time off to go to one of his favorite wine islands. (If you've been reading this blog, you might know where that is.) He will return next year. - B.R.

On his way out the door, Italian Wine Guy, said, “Talk about the new releases, maybe, the 2002’s that we will be dealing with. Point out the glut of wine, the Euro, the lack of coherence among the Italian producers, their slowness in responding to the changes in the economy, their unwillingness to adjust to reality.” Yes, yes. As I waved goodbye to him and to 2006, I didn’t need him to tell me what to talk about. It just so happens that’s what I was going to talk about anyway, but from my perspective.

I too, wish my Italian colleagues would come here and work, like I have, for a time. Maybe not in New York. Perhaps in Seattle or Cincinnati, Tucson or Hammondsport. A place where the economy is affected by the political.

Right now, a hotel room in Rome that costs €150 a night will cost the tourist close to $200. Compare that to 5 years ago when that same room was closer to €120 a night, which was then $100. That is a real difference.

It’s very hard to find Italian shoes in the stores anymore, and those shoes, when I can find them, cost me hundreds of dollars. I’m not wealthy like Berlusconi and Madonna. Most Italians aren’t either.

When the 2002 Brunello and Barolo wines are released in 2007, how much are they going to cost? Five years ago I went into a wine bar and could get a good glass of 1997 Brunello for $17. Now, what will you send us from Italy?

We were head-storming the other day as the Italian Wine Guy printed out a plane ticket. 2002 will not be seen as a great vintage. “Quality-wise, because of this year’s crazy weather, vintage 2002 has given mixed results,” said Giuseppe Martelli, MD of Associazione Enologi Enotecnici Italiani (AIS). “A pattern of ‘crazy’ weather, characterized by icy temperatures, intense heat, hail, drought in Sicily and downpours in the north, conditioned the vine’s growing cycle. Moreover, botrytis and mold spread throughout vineyards, and when most producers were praying for a September ‘miracle’ - warm sunny days and cool nights for the ripening of the grapes - the weather remained cloudy and drizzly. It’s certainly not a vintage in which we’ll see peaks of excellence.

Michele Shah’s excellent notes on the 2002 vintage indicates a tough harvest with some losses in the vineyards.
Will we see 3-liter Brunello-in-a-box selling for $49.99? If we do, I’d suspect some wine from Sicily or Puglia was blended into it. I would love our country to give America a gift like this, if it were real. But I don’t want to become old wishing for things like this.

Piedmont was hit too, so a 1.5- liter of 2002 Barolo selling for $29.99 probably won’t show up in Chicago or Dallas. But what friends those Italian cousins of mine could make if they would send something like that.

I know I’m too idealistic and inexperienced to understand the fine points of this business. That’s the realm of those golfing vice-presidents in the upper offices at the top of the buildings. They have the keys to the executive washrooms; they have their hands on the steering wheels of the wine business in America. They don’t understand the young ones down here in the restaurants and in the aisles of the wine shops. My friends, my poor, young friends. I am losing them to the pharmaceutical companies and wholesale food suppliers. One friend of mine, she took a job with a trash removal company that specializes in schools. She makes over $50,000 a year with company car, a company laptop, all school holidays off and a bonus system that allows her to make an additional 20% of her income if she makes her goal. And she did. And she is never coming back to selling wine.

How do I tell my friends and colleagues in Italy, still living at home and maybe making €1,400 a month, to feel sorry for someone like that? How do I tell Paola in Firenze that someday she will be able to have a home and a family but only if the company she works for does not raise their wine prices for at least two years in order to compete here? And her multi-millionaire winery boss, who lives on a private plane, going from the Bahamas to Cinqueterre to Sardegna to Greve to New York, how will we ever touch his heart? Why should he care?
The problem is the Italians, when they aren't jetting around in the private Gulfstream planes of their mind, are moving too slow. Like their beloved symbol of the Slow Food. Good for food, but can we be a little more like our dolphin brothers? A little more swift and intuitive, a little more compassionate, a little less selfish?
Don’t believe all the press releases from Coldiretti. The Italian wines may be doing well in some areas of America, but Australia and France have passed the Italians in some of the cities and they know it. They aren't pulling out of the passing lane anytime soon.

And I’m not going to be decanting old 2002 Brunello or Barolo in 20 years. It’s time to wake up into the new world we live in, Italy.

Beatrice Russo is my "intern". Inotherwords, she is a creation of my imagination. She runs around on a Vespa, only inside my head.

Friday, December 29, 2006

I Want that Wine in the Newspaper ~ Now

This week, in the wine trade, all the work is being done in two places: in the offices with computers and telephones, calling accounts and trying to make year end numbers; and on the streets in the wine shops and markets. A lot of folks will be entertaining over the weekend. With all the holiday distractions and family in town and just getting through the season, people need help.

This is where the old-fashioned newspaper shows its power. Stand aside bloggers, sit down Spectator, park it Parker, don’t fret Decanter. Folks are looking for what they want, now.

The local newspaper fills a real need. While the above mentioned publications (and yes, you too, bloggers) are good sources of information about wine, the pressing need for many folks is to get in, get the item and move on. They aren’t so concerned if Galloni gives it an 89 while Suckling gives it a 92. They want to know where they can find it. Now. And while the top 100 Wine Spectator wines are fun to read about, no one's going to find that #1 Brunello today in their local wine shop.

This was an epiphany for me. Yes, some of us go to great lengths to read about and talk about wines at great length, debating their scores. Believe me, yesterday one of my work-related tasks was to pull up the inventory, for the company I work for, and isolate all the Brunellos. Then I was to cross-reference what we had with what possible review they received from the latest Wine Advocate. So maybe one of our too young and too busy salespeople might be able to send off a carton or two in these last days of the season. This, to generate sales and extra business while folks are in a good mood to buy something they probably won’t be buying in a few weeks, when it slows down.

A man goes into a store that has upscale food and wine and says, “I want that wine in the newspaper.” This really happened. That day the paper had featured a dozen selections, from sparkling to Champagne, Prosecco to still wines. Which one did he mean, the salesperson asked him. Fortunately, the wine in question was so unusual (a sparkling Shiraz from Australia) that the client could be accommodated.

What the daily newspaper does well (when it does it right): it targets, for the reader, in simple terms, what the wine tastes like, and often what food goes with it. Because this is being written in real time, the writers can pair up food that might have seasonal availability. The local newspaper can pinpoint a retail price that is more or less accurate in the area where the shopper lives and can point them to the places where these wines are available. Now. (The distributors have computer programs that show placement and availability. Wineries that want to sell their wines on the internet cannot provide this just-in-time service to the journalist and ultimately, the consumer).

This will make you a believer in the power of the press. I have tracked the sales after local newspaper write-ups in my work and have found the uptick to be 32-45%. That's taking a 30-day period from the previous year and comparing sales to the 30-day period following the article. It's a fact, Jack: The pen lends a mighty wind to the sales.

One more thing (note to wineries that think the wholesale-distribution system stinks). The person who is looking at the paper can go to the store and get the wine right away. And if they want a case of the wine and it is available in the local wholesaler’s warehouse, a salesperson can call in the order, do what we call a “hot shot” delivery, and get the case there today. With all the wine that will be enjoyed this weekend, this is good news for local economies. It's also a shot across the bow to those in the wine world who think they can get the wine to their consumer all by themselves.
With all due respect to the trade channels, and cannot offer this kind of SERVICE. And with our instant-gratification society, this is something UPS and DHL will be hard-pressed to achieve while keeping wine pricing competitive.

And where do the other publications fit into this, the Decanters, the Wine Spectators, the Wine Advocates? They are the 5-star generals barking out orders, sometimes good, not always informed of the goings-on down in the foxholes. They're there for those who want to delve into it and read all about it in depth. Eye-candy for the wine lover. Wine-porn, reading about a $300 bottle of wine: like looking at the Porsche Cayman and just imagining what it would be like to drive into one’s garage.

And wine blogs? Sorry to say too few mainstream consumers even get to reading their email in a timely manner. So we aren’t much help to them and they aren’t our audience. “Don’t have time for it,” I hear many of them saying. “That’s not my world,” and “Blog? What’s a blog?” I am serious about this. They’re not there, fellow blogoholics. And they’re not here, either.

Sorry to burst our bubble, but the good old-fashioned local paper, newsprint on the fingertips, pages rustling and flapping about in the nervous hand of the anxious consumer, looking for that perfect bottle of wine TONIGHT, gets the nod.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Dormant Hope

Winter, on the wine trail in Italy. The vineyard is a concentration of packed earth in a cold box. The not so glamorous work of preparing the vines takes place in the short days, soon dark by 4:30 in the afternoon.

There are no wine trail tours, no salumi and aged cheeses. The holidays, the merrymaking, are soon behind us. In the cities the salespeople and marketers are trying to press out every last drop of cash from the retailer and the consumer. Here in the vineyard, the frozen hand of the worker guides the pruning sheer to train the next crop, the next great vintage.

But now it is dark and cold and lonely. This is out somewhere beyond the cover of friend and family. This is no place for the damaged heart, but this slope is where we find ourselves in this moment.

What dreams are left in the earth for this heart? What music waits in the piano for this ear? What empty glass patiently sits on the shelf for the wine to come ? How does one press hope from this moment of dormancy?

For the winemakers in Valpolicella it is too soon for their beloved Amarone, and the Recioto is even more illusive. In Tuscany, in the Santeria, the white and red grapes are withered, but not yet will their flesh be pressed. This is a moment to hold one’s breath and hope for hope. And share the morning coffee cup with a little grappa, for strength, for clarity, to ward off the illness hovering about the little stone house.

In Sicily, they are laughing at the northerners while sending their blood orange and the Pacchino hothouse tomatoes up to the frozen provinces and fraziones.

They laugh at the vine as it twists in the bitter north wind. And they dance and they feast on the 7 fishes and eat cookies stuffed with figs and brandy.

Today I was looking at wine made by a clown, a Neapolitan that long ago moved to Tuscany, and is now as Tuscan as the next door neighbor. The labels are lively and sunny and the wine is sunny and fruity and happy like Scarlatti’s Renaissance lute music.
His family was famous for their place in Neapolitan stage life. They were the clowns in the operas so loved by the music lovers, rich and poor.

Once in Tuscany, though, a serious country town, provincial and conservative, he had to relegate that creativity through his vines and wines and labels. So loved are these wines that people travel from all over Italy to pick up their yearly allotment of wine. During the Christmas holiday they drive the Lunigiana to pick up his red wine and olive oil, honey and marmalades.

All is this said as a way to push back the darkness and the solitude , the loneliness that vine feels as it twists in the wind, in the dark, in the cold, hoping someday for spring and sun and warmth and hope.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Saturday's Lagniappe ~ Italian Wine Laws, Holiday Tradition & Investor Class Dining

Italian Wine Guy has been burning the midnight candle with these posts over at the Well Fed Network might want to check them out. This is a well organized site with a collective pool of talented writers. Here's
Saturday's lagniappe before heading out to help a few last minute shoppers select their holiday Brunello and Super Tuscan wines... Shopping? Nahhhh... well maybe a few more eggplants for the Christmas Eve meal.

IGT vs. DOC ~ Wrestling with the Question

Southern Italy ~ Over the Hearth ~ Celebrate Tradition

Dining in Dallas for the Investor Class

Friday, December 22, 2006

“More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” ~Teresa of Avila

This past week, I've been circling a few wine shops, trying to help out the owners. It's that time of the year, and the place to be is on the floor of a wine shop.

Folks come up and ask about this wine or that one. They need something as a gift, another for the meal. In their eyes I see a certain "Please help me, I need to get this right." There's an unsettling desperation in their eyes, like they really, really need this match to work.

I remember a holiday, when I matched a 1974 Ghemme from Conte Ravizza with a smoked turkey. It was such a perfect match that is all but spoiled any future possibilities. I tried to rematch another Ghemme, that didn't work.

Then, one day I just went into my wine closet and pulled out a wine, any wine. And started popping a cork or two.

I let go.

You see, it's not that important that the wine be perfect. Getting everybody there safe, that's important.

So if, one of the side dishes isn't working out, or you only have 4 desserts instead of 5, or you can only get a Vin Santo instead of a Passito from the Veneto, it's ok.

Just get everybody home. Safe.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Walking In the Evening, In the Rain

In the 14th arrondissement, in Paris, there is an area where artists and photographers have lived for some time. The Rue d’Alesia, something about it seems familiar beyond time and space. Giacometti lived and worked here, seemed to be happy, even if it kept him up until 3 AM at times.

The creative process doesn’t have a timetable. It needs to be nurtured. And fed. But the act of creating something, be it artistic or just something useful, needs to be exercised often.

Tonight when I went out for my what was once a run and is now a walk (for now) , I was almost run over, by someone who was too distracted to actually pay attention to what was right in front of them. How does that happen?
In 2001 we had the ruins of two skyscrapers and 3000 people lying in front of our eyes. We were in the mood to be united, “Let’s roll” was our anthem. America was under attack and we weren’t going to take it without giving back some ourselves.

Somewhere along the line it coarsened us as a country and as a culture. We need to work on that.

My 90 year old aunt and I were talking the other day and she was talking about how rude everyone seems to be.

It happens all the time, with strangers, with friends, with family even.

Are people too busy?
When I was a little one, it seemed my sister had time for me. Of course I was helpless and she probably understood that. When we grow up do we stop needing that kind of consideration? Is it too much to expect from folks? It probably is.

Everyone is so busy, so distracted. So hard to connect, even with ones we know and love.

When my son was a little one, I spent a lot of time with him, taking care of him, walking with him, traveling, hanging out. I loved it. I miss it. I should have had more children. One of my friends started a whole new family. I think his new wife isn’t much younger than his oldest child. And now he has a whole new slew of babies.
I swore I’d not let being too busy get in the way of my family. I made a lot of sacrifices, spent a lot of time care giving. Lost my wife along the way to an incurable disease. Stuck it out in the good times and the not so good times. 2006 has been a challenge to me and the family here. I think about my dad, he’s been on my mind, as has been a brother who didn’t make it through childbirth. Funny though, today he was talking to me through the mist as if we have known each other all my life. He’s one who can never disappoint me. What did it mean to my dad to lose his first son? A young man with hopes and dreams, I miss you pop. I wish you would have spent more time with me and my son.
When my Sicilian family came to Texas 5 generations ago they understood the need for the family to stay strong. That family had a reunion last summer. I found out about it afterwards. They didn’t know we came back to Texas 30 years ago. How could they? Hey, a lot of our California family has all but written us Texans off, we’re not part of their inner circle, their priorities have shifted. They have their bright lights on but they don’t see us walking in the evening, in the rain.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Looking Back Through the Keyhole

Some time ago I looked through the famous Roman keyhole to view St. Peters. It was in a time of innocence and hope. Today might not be as innocent but the hopefulness of an earlier time still lives within.

We are living in a ruder world. People are not so patient with each other. I know in my world, our industry is really in a state of conflict the likes of which I haven't seen quite like this. Is it greed? Is it power? Is it progress?
Ideas of beauty, like power, change in time. 50 years ago Gina was the image, now Giada is.

50 years ago red high heals were a fashion statement, now it's Gel-Kayano's that set the pace for a more health-centered outlook.

A month ago I broke a toe. I haven't run a mile in a month. I'm trying to be patient with myself.

Five years ago we were a country the world looked to with awe, with passion, with pity, for strength. Now we are pitiful. I have no intention of cutting and running from this country, but it better start rewarding good behavior and bringing back the best and the brightest into the mainstream.

Our toe in America is broken. We have bumped our collective foot in the dark, by our own deeds. We have bullied people, and expected them to salute us for our misdeeds. We are losing power. I saw this in ancient Rome, walking the hills as a young man. Before that my ancestors lived it and some of that lives on in these bent bones.

We must re-juvenate our society. We must bring our people back under the tent and embrace our wisdom and our democracy. Something has invaded all of us and we have allowed something lesser than the best to clog our arteries and our air.

Does anyone really care about the score of a wine if our world is unfit for our children's children?

The ancient bones have been rattled and they have rattled back. We must bring back strength of character or the view through the keyhole won’t make a difference from either direction.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

T.G.I.F ~ Thank God It’s Faux-day

Looking back over the year in wines, today I’d like to share some of the unknown wines from Italy that I’ve been told about. Some of these wines have been on wine lists, some have been mentioned from people I have met. I’m not making this up. One of these wines is not like the others. One is real, the others, it seems, were found on the Wine Trail in Italy, during 2006.

Over Crispy Duck and a bottle of Valpolicella Classico Superiore, a fellow looks at the wine we are drinking and asks me if I like Italian wines much. I tell him yes. He says he hates French wine because he hates all things French. I ask him if it is because of the differences between our political orientations (the French and the U.S). “That’s it”, he affirms. “Good”, I say, “next time you hate what a politician does punish the farmer.” He changes the subject to tell me how much he loves Barolo di Montalcino and then asks me to taste a blue 1.5 liter glass bottle of Australian Shiraz he bought for $3.99. That would be the equivalent of a $ 2.00 bottle, a “2 buck sucks” wine. Classy guy, a real big spender. He’s the only person I have ever heard from about the illusive Barolo di Montalcino, but I’d like to taste it, maybe next year? While we were talking another person leaned over the booth and heard our conversation. He had recently been reading about the introduction of Italian wines into India and China. His favorite wine was a Pinot Noir from California but he was very excited about a wine he had read about, a Primitivo di Manchuria.
Finally a wine to go with Peking duck! It doesn’t get any better than this, as they say in old Milwaukee. I get calls often, in the trade, from people looking to find a particular wine. Seems they know they can ask me even if I don’t represent the wine. So a good old boy calls me from Houston asking about a Super Tuscan he’d just had at a fancy steakhouse out in Sugarland, Texas. Something called Flatulentello, or something like that.
I could only hope this person isn’t a doctor or a lawyer or someone I might need to help me some day, to stay alive or out of jail. An email from someone who wanted to know where they could find this Sardinian wine that they had at a restaurant in Houston, near a shopping center, something called a Vermentino di Galleria. A white wine, from the vineyard of a restaurateur. In the immortal words of Joyce, "yes, yes, yes." I’m on it right away. Earlier in the year I got a call from my colleague, Guy Stout. Guy had a friend who was looking for a wine, made for an “adult film star”. Something called, Sogno Uno. Robert Parker reviewed it, gave it a 90 or a 91, why not? He couldn’t rate it a perfect “10”? A blend of Cesanese, Sangiovese and Montepulciano Probably my favorite, though, was on a wine list this week. A new trans-regional effort, a Valpolicella d’Abruzzo. A wine that embraces the northern tradition with the central-southern sunshine. Something to go with crudo or agnello. A wine for Berlusca, for the new Italy. Even if it’s in Frisco, Texas.
So, tell me which one do you think is believable? Comments welcomed, operators are standing by.
As for me, I think what Grouch Marx said to a cop in one of his movies is apt for my present state of mind. “Arrest me, I need a rest.” And that's all she wrote.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

For a Fistful of Dollars

Last week, I waxed about the glories of the Viviani Casa dei Bepi Amarone. A friend who is a sommelier, wrote back, saying that he “giggled” when he decanted the wine. Ah, the enthusiasm of youth.
But what a wonderful thing to have happen. And to those folks who dine there, they will put out $157.00 for that bottle. That's less than what it is retail in SF/LA/NYC. A real deal.

A far cry from what I ran into this week farther up the highway.
Day 1) Out west, an “Italian styled” place was setting up staff seminars. Would I take a look at the list?

Would I like a tooth pulled without numbing it first?

A list that is 70 % California (read: Silver Oak, Silver Oak, Silver Oak.) Umbrian wines from Tuscany, Campanian wines from Tuscany. And when they do get it right, aside from the only three regions that matter for red wine in Italy (that would be Tuscany, Piedmonte, not my spelling, and Veneto), then they just put the wines into the “Miscellaneous Reds” section. Like mystery meat. Treating Aglianico as if it were Spam.

And who out there have ever heard of a Valpolicella d'Abruzzo? It was on the list, in the Veneto section.

A wine that costs $6.00 selling for $10.00 a glass or $38.00 a bottle, that’s just wrong. And a Brunello that costs $35.00 going for $120.00, as if we all have that kind of discretionary income, what’s wrong with these knuckleheads?
Day 2) Another foray into an Italian spot for lunch. Asking the server about the wines, he delivered “we have Merlot, Cabernet, Chianti, Shiraz, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay. Which one would you like?” How about telling me who made them? Forget it, I walked behind the bar myself to see the death of the Italian restaurant in middle America. There was barely an Italian wine by the glass, between California, Australia and Chile, and the lone Italian wine was a pitiful Chianti. Not as good as the one you can buy in a market in Italy for less than 2 Euros.

What in the hell is wrong with these restaurateurs?
And the salespeople who call on these places?
And the diners? Where is the outrage?

Day 3) I have gotten my prescription refilled and had my rage medicine re-adjusted. And also went to the woo-woo Doctor to have my chakra’s re-aligned. Really. Not joking.
Some of the restaurant owners remind me of the guy in the picture, lots of gold and glamour. But really, do they ever look at their world? I know some folks do, my friend who gets excited over a bottle of Amarone that he will sell as a great value (and at $157.00 it’s 5 times the wine Silver Oak is, but there are only 6000 bottles of it made and there are 50,000+ cases of S.O. being made). But for every one of the excited ones there are guys out there who would rather not deal with it, buy it for $6.00 and sell it for $38.00. And you don’t want to ask if the fish is farm raised or wild. Or which kind of mushrooms they use. (Hint: they aren’t porcini).Who’s putting who on? This is a what a gentleman today called a scherzo. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. More is coming to this industry, assaults are coming from all directions, and friends for years can no longer share ideas and move things forward as easily. I haven’t seen something this disjointed since I last had a barrel fermented Pinot Grigio.
If these were the good old days and restaurants were Mama Leone’s I would understand. But when Mama Leone’s wine list from the 1960’s begins to look like something I wish I had seen these past few days, then we definitely have run aground.

I’m not interested in attending another funeral. If Chianti is dead, along with the future of Italian wines in restaurants, then maybe moving to Oaxaca and tending a mezcal field might not be such a bad idea.

This industry has invited anarchy to the table. Bring it on. Make my day.
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