A cautionary tale, jettisoned from the vacuum of commerce
Back in the early 1980’s I decided to make wine. It started out as a way to identify with the winemaker and their task. I was fortunate and made some wine that I liked to drink. The problem was I made a lot of wine.
Nothing wrong with it, but I was just getting into wine collecting and tasting on a regular basis and my education wasn’t going to be served well by drinking my daily drek.
Eventually I gave away or drank most of the wine and went back to sampling wines from all over the world. I still have a case or so of wine, some in large format bottles, to see how well they age.
A few nights ago I was talking to a friend who is looking to open a little Italian wine and gift shop. One of the first things that came out of his mouth was "Giuseppe is going to help me get my own private label together." This friend was still a friend and not yet a client so I opened my unfiltered mouth and let it fly. "Jerry, who in the hell do you think you are? You are not an Italian. You don’t live there. You are not a winemaker. You are a merchant. Why not stick to what you do best and source wine from the people who do what they do best? It isn’t just a label, man; it’s a way of life!"
I guess I scared him off a little, although I doubt I talked him out of some future folly. But it got me to thinking about private label wine from Italy and what a bizarre proposition it is.
Imagine a wine shop owner or a restaurateur sitting at their family thanksgiving table with an ever-present bottle of private label wine. Every day they schlep the stuff and because their pride is such that they have convinced themselves that they are a "wine producer" they expose themselves to their family, friends and clients, on a daily basis, with these endless bottles of wine. They cost $5 and they sell for $20, $50. They're genius in their own mind, but they have also become prisoners of their own making. They have hypnotized themselves into believing that this is the best wine and no other wine comes before it and because of silly notions like that they risk cutting themselves off from the community of winemakers all over Italy and the world. What did you say? Isn’t his wine made by winemakers somewhere in Italy too? No doubt there is a hand of man involved in the project. But it is a recipe, a formula, another product from the catalog of someone who has planned his life in terms of profit and gain. And in reality one loses out to so much the world of Italian wine, and culture in general, has to offer. All for the sake of a dollar?
To do so undermines their credibility in other areas. Where do they get their fish from? Are those really black truffles? Is the Pecorino truly from Italy?
I wish restaurants could serve the food on the table that I have had in the kitchen of the winemakers. From Puglia to Valdobbiadene, Controguerra to Suvereto, in the homes of wine makers; not only their wines, but their tables have been shining examples of the best and the brightest from Italy.
So how does it get turned around, when the Italian experience is represented in America, that we have, from single storefront restaurateurs to mega big box chains, telling us what Italian wine must be?
There is no provenance in profit, or abracadabra to artisanship. It comes from the soul, not the spreadsheet. It isn't a game, it is someone's life. And that is, dear listeners, why private labels are often a pitiable surrogate for the genuine article.