By Beatrice Russo
I hadn’t heard from Italian wine guy for over a week and was starting to worry. What with the earthquake in Abruzzo and all, I started thinking the worst. I called Tracie B down in Austin to see if she had talked to him. The old man was OK. His Blackberry was down and he wasn’t getting any email. So I called hid friend and he handed his phone to the Invisible Man and I talked to him for a while. The following is an excerpt from our somewhat lengthy phone conversation.
Q. So what’s going on with you in Italy? You have everyone worried about you.
A. Hey, I’m OK. I have had technical difficulties. My phone and email have been down for several days.
Q. Bummer. What do you mean, technical difficulties?
A. I busted a tooth on the first night I got to Italy. Along with my phone and email, my camera has also been on the fritz. Everything is breaking.
Q. So where are you now?
A. I’m in Valdobbiadene, listening to birds and other creatures. No horns, trains or cars, just the sounds of nature. Bees buzzing, donkeys braying, good stuff.
Q. And Vinitaly?
A. I really am thinking this last Vinitaly might be my last for a while. People here just aren’t getting the crisis. Everyone is asking about better sales and they are looking to America to make them up. I don’t see it, seeing as we just ran our first quarter numbers. The French are in the tank. The Italians are holding on, but the cases are down. The good news is, the cost per case is up. Folks seem to be trading up a little. But buying less cases.
But this is like 1985 all over again.
Q. Uh, that was like before I was born, dude. Can you explain?
A. Yes. Italians were starting to embrace barriques and international grape varieties in places like Piedmont and Tuscany. Prices were climbing, even though the dollar was strong against the lira. Barolo and Super Tuscans were starting their long descent into Parkerland. Spoofed wines. High prices. Weird names. Crazy Miami Vice looking labels.
Q. And that relates to now in what way, Obi-Wan?
A. Look, Vinitaly is an unnatural environment to begin with. Pavilion after pavilion filled with the hopes and dreams of so many Italian producers. But many of these folks really don’t have a bead on the markets they are wanting to get into. They talk about China and India being the new England and Russia, but in reality China and India have serious infrastructure problems. They need rice and petrol before wine. But many Italians have bought into the mantra of those two countries being their salvation. And America? They look to America to swallow up untold quantities of wine without regard to price, flavor, wood, concrete, label making sense or fantasy label. And all along no one wants to listen to the Silverback.
Q. You lost me, Ace.
A. Look, America isn't the center of the universe, but we do have a growth potential for wine. But this is a particular market. These over alcoholic, over wooded, over priced wines with hard to understand labels just won’t cut it anymore than a barrel fermented Soave or Pinot Grigio will.
Q. What was your favorite wine at the show?
A. I loved the 2004 Brunellos from Il Poggione and Renieri. The 2005 Chianti Classico Riserva from Querciavalle was a standout wine. Light Sangiovese color (like the Il Poggione) and delicate flavors. Fruit before wood. I had a Sylvaner from Abbazia di Novacella that lit up my Christmas Tree lights.
I learned that Abbazia di Novacella earns money for the Augustinian order through the sale of their wines. Bringing wines to America to help baptize Abraham, interesting thing in these times.
Q. Biggest surprise?
A. I met with the Santa Margherita folks. Seems that Luca Zaia had just been there. They love Zaia in Prosecco land. Up here in Valdobbiadene, they worship the guy. Kind of gives me the creeps. Seeing as he is a food zenophobe. Trying to banish kebabs and pineapples. Very strange agenda.
Q. Did you see anything that really caused you pause?
A. The earthquake in Abruzzo. This is a tragic event on the scale of a Katrina. Many lives have been lost. Now many businesses will also be lost. It could take close to a generation for the Abruzzo wine business to recover. I feel terrible for these poor souls, and now they are starting to do hundreds of funerals.
Q. When will see you back home and on the streets, old man?
A. Before the week ends. I can hardly wait to be back on the front lines. That’s the only place that seems to make sense.
Q. We’ll be waiting for you, Ace.