This afternoon I was standing in the aisle of a super market looking at a stack of Italian wine. A good looking woman in her middle 40‘s, with a plunging neckline, motioned to the Sangiovese and suggested I try a bottle. “It’s delicious. And it’s Sangiovese. How could you go wrong?”
Indeed. She was making my job easier. In the rush to the holidays, folks are trying to be helpful, get those bottles of wine into hands, any hands, even if they sound like a pickup line. It got me thinking about what we do to get the wine to that point. There are a lot of hands that touch the wine that bring it to the front lines.
Indispensable is the hand of the winemaker. Young or old, male or female, the caretakers of the grape bring the wine into birth. With the help of nature and the sometimes unnatural persuasion of humankind, the humble grape tumbles into a life of wine and then on a journey across a planet to give joy and happiness to the global village of wine lovers. The winemaker is finishing their initial harvest work about now, except for a few late harvest projects in the northern hemisphere, maybe some ice wine in the northern regions. But in Italy, the wine has been put to bed, preparing for the next set of hands.
If it comes to the US or anywhere outside of Italy, usually an importer is involved. The classical importer is a person of discernment, one who knows Italy intimately and also has a working knowledge of the world he is trying to place the wine in. Some live in Italy, some in the US and some commute between the two countries. One of my dear friends, Eugenio Spinozzi, had dual citizenship and lived half and half. He was a global villager. But many people do this. The closer they are to the end-user, usually the better connected they are to the ever-changing realities of the marketplace.
Italy is unique, in my experience, from other countries, in that there are so many opinions and ideas on how to go about advancing wine. In some cases it is simply a matter of turning on the tap, filling up bottles, boxing them, getting a good price and that’s all she wrote. There is plenty of that. The good news is that those wines have gotten better and have helped bring more wine drinkers into the fold.
But then there are those forces of energy that look beyond a warm meal and a dry bed and consider the history, the finesse, the legacy of what they are doing in their daily lives. Those people inspire those of us who see this wine world as a lively and passionate way of life.
History has a place in all of this. In these times, it seems times past have been shuffled to an out-of-reach shelf on a cabinet, away from the sights of most people. And without history, especially in the last 60 or so years, the story of Italian wine is folklore and legend; many just stories with little or no anchor to the truth.
When people sit at a table over a bottle of wine it is like a drum circle, a bonfire, a tribal bonding. Every year at the wine fairs, and all through the year, this happens in Italy. All the time. Right now it is going on, this constant weaving of the story of wine, over a meal, maybe a fire, always another bottle showing up and conversation, endless conversation. Wine is the glue of the constantly evolving culture. Such a vital heartbeat it is.
And then there is the middle man and his retinue of colleagues, which help husband the wine closer to the user. I know the newer people in the business have little or no regard for that segment of the business, but without them Italian wines wouldn’t have gotten this far in America. Some of the giants who blazed trails, like Tony LaBarba of American Wine in Texas. I moan and whine about the flyover syndrome in these parts. Could you imagine what it must have been like in the 1950’s or 1960’s when there were few good restaurants, little to no wine shops and a population that was still under the spell of Prohibition? I cannot.
Ultimately the retailer and the restaurant owner are the ambassadors of these objects of good will that a country sends halfway across earth to share their bounty. And there are many, many kinds of people, with all kinds of ideas of how to go about proceeding forward. Today, in the supermarket, someone had to make it happen that a case stacking of Sangiovese was able to get to the point when a stranger could remark to another stranger about how nice that wine must be. It didn’t just magically appear.
The payoff? For me it is definitely at the table, where friend and foe alike take momentary refuge from the travails of gathering their daily bread. This is such a special moment in civilization, unparalleled in time because of the vast opportunities we have to celebrate it often and readily. And for that we have so very much to be thankful for.