Back around 1984 I was talking with an Italian wine importer, at Vinitaly. I worked for a small company that brought his wines into the Southwest. We sold a lot of Tocai and Verduzzo, Barolo, Barbaresco, Vermentino, Pigato, Chambave Rouge, Passito di Chambave, Elba Rosso, all the kinds of Chianti, Brunello, Morellino. The economy was very strong. And then something happened.
Just like that, poof, it was over. The oil market tanked. And then we went back to selling Pinot Grigio and oaky California Chardonnay and Merlot. And shiny little Shiraz from Australia.
Back to Vinitaly. We were talking, me and the importer, the Barone. He was pitching one of his Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo offerings, a nice one from the area of Controguerra. Not Illuminati. Another Barone’s estate. Nice guy. Barone #1 was trying to get me interested in Barone #2’s wine, and I had already been working with one of Barone #2’s neighbors. Illuminati. I told Barone #1 that I didn’t think I could do justice, in those times, to two Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo wines. Around that time, he said to me, “You Southerners all stick together.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant. Was he pulling the terrone card on me? I was born in Southern California from 1st generation Italians, Southern Italians, and was living in the South of the United States. “Which South”, I asked him.
“It doesn’t matter.” he replied. “It’s the problem of the South.”
I was offended. Hurt. I wear my feelings on my sleeve, at 22, 33 and 59. That’s one of the problems of being a consummate Southerner. Or is it?
This week, I was visiting a wine buyer in a steak house. He was charged with writing a wine list for one of their new restaurants, an Italian “concept” with a heavy red sauce and steak influence. He wanted to pepper the mostly American list with a smattering of Italian wines. Big wines. Brunello, Amarone, the usual suspects. The place was packed, on a weekday, at 1:30. There was no sales job to be done, these folks were successful and they weren’t going to leave the door open for me to muck it up with all my flowery talk about Valpolicella and Rosso Piceno. Nope, they were going to give the clientele what they wanted.
Two hours later, on the other side of town, I stood in front of a group of servers, talking to them about several Tuscan wines on their list. One of them I had never sold, but they thought I did. I knew the winemaker, so I offered it up to the Italian wine god. There was a favorite Chianti of mine from dear friends and a famous and popular Brunello from one of the category leaders. I waxed on about Sangiovese, the dark brooding type, a traditional, lighter style and an upstart, the Montalcino version. The chefs were presenting new kinds of pizza. They looked OK, not bad. Not sure one would ever find them in Italy. Sure one would, in Rome, one finds everything in Rome. That’s one of the problems of the South.
Where am I going with this? Where I have gone for years and years. In circles. The seminar I did was for a restaurant that was changing their concept; they were becoming an Italian Steak house. Once again, Italy is co-opted with steak in these parts. We just keep going around in this cycle of drilling for oil, finding oil, boom, steak, bust, economy goes sour, we go back to simple, to value, to local, maybe even natural. And then the economy starts to ratchet upward and folks get a hankering for steak. Now it is fashionable to call it a Tuscan Steak house. I get it. And put some Argentine Malbecs on the list too, while we’re at it, so the folks can have something full and rich and familiar. That’s one of the problems of the South.
Does it make you wonder then, why some wine producers in Italy adopt a California style because their main market is the United States? They’re not dumb. They know their markets. Not like me, trying to sell Tocai in San Antonio in 1987 or Morellino in Ft. Worth in 1986. Mr. Smarty-pants. Mr. Italian wine director. Mr. Fool.
I have tilted at windmills in these parts for so many years. People in these parts want giant steaks. They want big, juicy, fruity, oaky red wine pretending to be Italian. They want large scores from Parker and the Spectator. Those are my windmills masquerading as giants.
That, too, is the problem of the South.
The Barone was right.