Sunday, February 08, 2009
Dead of Winter-view
Interview by Beatrice Russo
Alfonso seems to be a bit distracted lately, what with his new gig as a clogger, the accolades and the busy travel schedule in his future. What does he think? That he’s the rock star? I was back home this week, gathering some of my stuff, doing taxes and hanging with friends. Before I head back to South America to work the harvest, I sat down with him over an ancient bottle of Sassella, and picked his brain. He apparently thinks he has something to say to his 3 loyal readers, so he is getting a little help before this shill is gone.
BR: So catch me up on what’s going on lately AC? Have you found a way out of the corner that you painted yourself into?
AC: I see you haven’t lost your lust for snark, young grasshopper. Thanks for caring. I decided against getting out of the corner in the traditional way and just broke on through the wall.
BR: A while back it seemed you were whining about how much this Italian wine blog was taking your energy. How goes it now?
AC: I cut down to two posts a week, and proceeded to get some of my life back. I really don’t know how I did three essay length posts a week for almost three years. But now with only two a week, it seems like a walk in the park. Readership is still strong, my posts are still those non-linear stream of consciousness genre-bending rants, but I’m ok with them now. Many of my friends and readers are thanking me for that too. They were telling me they couldn't keep up with the posts and were getting frustrated with my proclivity for providing posts so prodigiously.
BR: Wow, glad I asked. Good to see you got your confidence back. So you put your Italian wine blog on a diet, what do you do for fun now?
AC: I was looking for a way to make money with this blogging thing, so I proposed to my work that I get together a team and start a blog, one for the industry and corporate types along with all the rest of the folks who surf on by.
BR: I remember you mentioning folks like Eric Asimov and Jon Bonne, who have wine writing gigs but also do the blog thing, you called it clogging?
AC: Yeah, corporate blogging. So, we worked up a name, The Blend, something that would encompass wine and spirits, and the synthesis of flavors and interests.
And hey, it's not just the superstars doing it; there are other folks around the country doing this too, like Dave Buchanan and Steve Bachmann.
BR: Ok, you just went into crypto-talking points on me. What are you talking about, Senor Viejo?
AC: I see the Latin language is suited to your temperament, young bumble bee. Let me elucidate. Our industry is changing rapidly. Companies are merging; wineries are shifting their allegiance to other forms of delivery, whether it be outside of the three-tier system or by incorporating new ways to lure folks to try their products. I think the world I live in has been successful to a point. But now those existing frameworks are being challenged and folks are storming the castle, in a manner of speaking. Look at what someone like Gary V has done to bring new wine drinkers into the fold. Well, I’m not looking so much at the new folks, in this case, as in giving the established people in the conventional networks an opportunity to peer through their window and see where the change will be taking them, and all of us. That said, if I can make the folks aware, those who built the industry into such a large behemoth, perhaps they can get on the Change Train and help move our industry forward. In other words, be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
BR: and you think you are going to do this with a blog? Dude, what have they been putting in your Añejo?
AC: Bea, look, I’m not Moses. I’m not John the Baptist. At least I hope I’m not. I’m the Invisible Man. Everyone says everything around me and asks me not to say anything. I often forget most of it, because it is rumor, not true or at best, wishful thinking. But what I get in the deal is people speaking their minds to me and those are pretty valuable indicators in these days. From the customer on the retail (or restaurant) floor to the Executive VP on the Sixth floor with a view and a clear shot. People talk to me. And because of that I can be a better shape-changer of the industry by seeing where we are going, trends and otherwise, and letting anyone who wants to know, know about it. Open access, free exchange of information, linking up, sharing ideas. The sum greater than the parts, that kind of thing.
BR: So you want to play God in the wine business.
AC: Nah, nah, that’s what we have Bacchus for. No, I’m just sounding the trumpets.
BR: OK, Joshua, but God told your friend Jeremiah, "You will go to them; but for their part, they will not listen to you".
AC: Funny girl, I see you’ve been reading something other than Glamour and Seventeen, Bravo! All kidding aside, it’s just an experiment to see if we can bridge the gap between the Twitterers and the Corporate Jet set. Everything has a life cycle and our country is experiencing a sea change.
BR: Are you telling me you’ve gone back to being a vegan?
AC: I never went that far, but you’re on to something. Our business must develop sustainable sales programs that don’t rely on the few wine drinkers to keep it propped up. The era of rampant consumerism is over. Over. Now we must expand the bench, widen the field and bring more wine drinkers, drinking a little bit more wine everyday.
BR: Were doing our part in Argentina.
AC: Yes you are, along with eating grass fed beef when you do eat meat, which has a smaller carbon imprint. Bravo to you and your new country.
BR: What else is rolling around in your head, AC?
AC: The idea that restaurant prices are too darn high. I saw a Zenato Amarone on a wine list for $168 the other day and almost had a heart attack. That just doesn’t make any sense at all. Those days of 3x, 4x, 5x markups are over, too.
That and the reality that a lot of the larger company salespeople have so much on their plates lately, along with just not being into wine and the career of wine. All these cool and groovy wines that we search out for our customers, those customers never hear about them from our people on the streets because they are too busy doing other things. It’s not a secret; I had this conversation with a sommelier the other day. I told him that when I look at a wine-by-the-glass list or the sommelier special wine selection list, I rarely see products from the company I work for, even though I know we have the same level of products. Organic? We have ‘em. Biodynamic? We have them, too. Small farmer, small production, no oak, no ML, not plastered all over retail? We have them. In fact they are so not available in any retail that it is a punishment to see a list and not have one or two of the really wonderful wines that we all go nuts over. I don’t want to go into a restaurant and only drink our products, but I'd sure like to see the ones that we have offered as well. And that ain't happening enough.
BR: Didn’t mean to raise your hackles, AC. Remember your shingles. So where you off to lately?
AC: I just got back from NY and later this month I’ll be heading to Napa Valley for the wine writers symposium.
BR: And Italy? Anytime soon?
AC: I have a trip planned for April. Some big things shaking and I'm excited. 2009 will be a year to remember. I hope I’m still working in a year, what with downsizing and the economy as it is. If I’m not, I might just head on down to Argentina and work the fields with you, how would you like that?
BR: AC, you're like a dad to me, so I don’t want you as a Facebook friend or anything like that, but you’d be more than welcome to join us south of the border. But I don’t think you have to worry. Just keep stirring the cauldron, you’ll be fine. What else, any last thoughts?
AC: In a perverse sort of way, I have been researching the 2008 Bordeaux harvest and am fascinated with the way the wine trade in France is going to sell this vintage. I have been asking all kinds of experts for their opinions on the vintage. It’s all over The Blend if you want to read about it. Having been in Tuscany for the 2008 harvest, I think we can all benefit from the way the Bordelaise spin their web. Those folks in Montalcino especially, could learn from their French cousins. But we’ll see. Right now I’m trying to figure out how to get folks to buy the 2005 Piedmont and Tuscan red wines, especially the higher end ones like Barolo and Brunello. Folks like Giacosa, Tua Rita, Dal Forno, Roberto Voerzio, to name a few in my world, these winemakers have lost their market in America. And I’m not sure they know what to do with us. They’ll probably have to look elsewhere until we get to a place where a $300+ bottle of wine isn’t a stretch. I’m not sure when we’ll see those days come back, if ever.
BR: Well, on those uplifting notes, I have to meet friends for beer, AC, so thanks for taking the time to rant and rave with me. And thanks for the yummy Sassella.
Images provided by the Italian cinema. The movie? One of you rock stars out there knows, for sure.