There are few characters in the Italian wine business that merit this trilogism. Sure enough there will be those folks who think this is about someone they know or even themselves. I will only say this, one more time, it isn’t always about you. For sure, this time it isn’t. It is about someone, but please dear listeners, all in due time. All in due time.
Over the course of my lifetime on the wine trail I have noted certain archetypes in the business. For today’s journey we are uncovering three of them, the bottle handler, the broker and the bureaucrat. Their stories are interwoven in time and happenstance.
The Bottle Handler
When he was young, the bottle handler fancied himself quite the sommelier. He would put on his brown suit and tie and take the elevator up to the top floor of the lofty dining room, filled with the most exotic bottles and people. He saw this little place as his own personal theatre in the round, where he would dazzle the dining masses. Rare wines from France and Italy, and massive wines from the West Coast, all were colors in his palate of flavors and amazement. A couple orders steak and sole; no problem, there would be a match. A party of four orders shrimp, prime rib, chicken and pasta; easily solved. A party of sixteen was ordering everything under the sun but wanted a wine to go with it; can do. And for a time the bottle handler reveled in his power and his prowess. And then he grew tired of the heights he had achieved and sought a more down to earth place in which he could ply his trade. He was after all, an artiste and his talent was being wasted on the tourists that flocked to the top of the little tower that rotated. He wanted “the” dining room that “the” players were dining in.
And so he found such a place. Rare Venetian glass and soft muted light. Plush carpeting and gueridons for classic table side presentation. Rolling carts with decanters and candles and all the accoutrements of the art of wine service. He had arrived. Bin after bin of ancient vintages; 1st growth Bordeaux, famous Barolos, Hocks and Mosels, Grand Cru Burgundies and vintage Port. He was in sommelier Paradise.
And then as it often happens in Paradise, he grew tired. Tired of Pommard and Pouilly Fuisse and Piesporter. Tired of Barolo and Burgundy and Brunello. And tired of the people who came in looking for the new California reds, as young and vigorous as their escorts. But serving the Old Money was wearing. And so the bottle handler cast himself out of Paradise.
Our next phase of the story takes us to an intermediary archetype, the broker. Really a merchant without a shop or inventory, the broker works for a supplier of product and is a factor between a producer and a storefront. Often a broker is seen as a idle person who leeches of the work of others, dawdling away countless hours over three hour lunches and innumerable bottles of wine. A percentage of everything that goes through the broker is kept and in return there is the promise that the broker will build the business and bring satisfaction to both sides that are separated by the broker. Our broker was fairly motivated. His beat was Italy and he lived in Italy in his mind. But his battle ground was the under developed American market. The broker had a chip on his shoulder. He thought he knew wine about as good as anyone could. He lived in a fishbowl of his own making. Whenever he would venture out into America he felt the untapped potential of the American wine market tangoing with his unflappable aptitude of domination. He had a very good opinion of himself. As a self-appointed show horse of the wine business he snorted and bucked to show his competitors that he was a leading man.
But he was troubled. He didn’t really believe it when he was away from the limelight. He had doubts. He wasn’t quite sure all the people liked him. His wines didn’t always get good reviews, if they even got reviewed. He lost sight of their provenance and began to lose confidence.
It took many nights on the road, talking to many different kinds of people. It took trip after trip to Italy. To France. To California. To New York. And then a light went off in his head. These wines were ahead of their time. They weren’t reviewable because they weren’t yet fashionable or desirable in a way that someday they might become. And so the broker opened the gate and walked out of his garden, in search of that day in the future.
Our final segment of this triptych revolves around the model of the bureaucrat, the pen pusher, the strategist, the corporate man. The lifer. This one is the most frightening, because there is little room for idealism. Time is limited. Pragmatism directed at self-serving survival rules the roost on this vessel. It isn’t always about the best for the most. This is where the challenge to one’s integrity is most subtly tested. Daily. Minutely. Our man here wrestles between personal comfort and the faint promise of a legacy. But who cares? The up and coming young generation knows nothing of history, cares not about the stories. “Get out of the way old man,” is the mantra. And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Is there a way to mend the tired and broken bureaucrat? Can an old dog be taught new tricks? Possibly, if the bureaucrat hasn’t bought in too deeply of his own persuasive argument. The one he gives to everyone around him to convince them of his infallible ways.
This is where the mirror of reflection, if it isn’t too tarnished, can come in handy. That, and a willing heart that hasn’t forgotten one’s inner child. And if that doesn’t work, there are examples that might jolt one out of stasis and complacency. Not to mention to remember the young thundering herd at one’s back, advancing, rapidly, daily.
Yes, the bureaucrat must battle hubris, developed by becoming proficient in his field. But the future is a moving target and the times are relentless about spitting out obsolete overseers. Crops are rotated, fashions change. Early adaptors evolve. Or so we would like to think. Or to hope for.
These three pieces of the wine trade are necessary. But they must run efficiently or perish. Such is the law of the competitive jungle. I have studied these three characters my whole career from near and from far. I have had a macro and a micro view of them. I think I know then well, as I have been in such close proximity to all of them over the years. But for all I know I might have been too close to really know them. In any event, we are all here, now, at this juncture. The wine business is shaking and moving and changing like the earth above a fault line as it quakes. There is danger and excitement and uncertainty. And these three stagemen have arrived at this confluence together. No kiss and tell this time, except from that solitary someone who shrouds this trio of players on the stage recognized by him as the unwavering wine trail in Italy.