Earlier in the week, back home in Texas, I was lying in bed late at night. The wind was howling. A huge winter storm was bearing down over my roof. Snow, ice, winds, tornado sirens going off, alarms. Another winter surge, another whiteout. And so my mind raced, thinking about Friuli.
I don’t really know that much about the area. It isn’t exactly in the center of things. And for me, it isn’t one of my go-to regions. Alto-Adige has more draw in my business life, as does the Veneto. In fact, as I think more about it, I have spent an inordinate amount of time talking about wines from Friuli without the requisite sales volume. That’s a real shame, because these are good wines. But there are problems. And after tasting through a series of wines from Friuli last week at the Vino2011 events in New York, some of the same problems exist that I initially observed when I first got interested in these wines back in the early 1980’s.
Seeing as I am on my way with the COF2011 blog crew to Friuli, and specifically the Colli Orientali, I thought it would be illustrative to make some notes and see if the following week addresses concerns I have for these wines as they pertain to the American market.
With expression, that’s another realm. The artist’s world. Experimentation, stylistic decisions. Things that one cannot tell an artist that they have to do. It doesn’t always depend (or relate) to selling. As an art student in the university, I get it. I understand. My dad always told me if I would just make more picture of sunsets, I could sell them and make a good living. I did not share his views, pertaining to artistic expression. From a commercial point-of-view, yes, he was on to something.
Along the way, Friuli and the neighboring areas began to send Pinot Grigio to America. Looking at the latest Nielsen reports, of the top ten selling Italian wines in America, six are Pinot Grigio. None are from Friuli.
They are from the Veneto or Trento. They are selling sunsets.
So expression, high mineral style, healthy acidity in white wines, has set the stage. Not a problem if you are making small batches and deal in one-on-one relationships. This blogger get together is an investment in some of that. Bringing wine enthusiasts, sommeliers, wine buyers and the like, also helps to cast the vision of what it is that they are doing in the Colli Orientali. Classic estates like Felluga, master sommeliers like Bobby Stuckey and marketers like Joe Bastianich also raise the profile of wines from the area. Go to Vegas, New York, San Francisco and Boulder and you will find the Friulano freight train clipping along with great momentum. But one tree (or four) does not a forest make. Especially if those trees are thousands of miles (physically and emotionally) from where the rest of America lives.
Recently, I was driving from Alma to Fayetteville, Arkansas on Hwy 540. I thought I’d surf the radio stations, see if I could find a blue grass or country music station to listen to. What I did find was a plethora of hell and brimstone preacher programs, talking about all kinds of things. Things like, “Women need to be subservient to men”, “the coming Rapture”, “the need for government to stay out of the health care business”, and “why John is the only Gospel that tells the Truth.” I am not citing these examples because I want to mock anyone. But to illustrate that a large segment of outer-America thinks differently about things than folks in the inner cities do. Or folks on both coasts or in Austin or Telluride. It is a fact in dealing with selling anything that we need to know who we are looking to sell our little something to. Drive through America, it can be more enlightening than getting an MBA. Go into a little store in West Siloam Springs, Oklahoma and see what folks up there think about sweet Lambrusco or the new-fangled Moscato. Eye-opening.
Sauvignon and Chardonnay? In a world competing for wine list placements, one is up against France, California, New Zealand, and Oregon. I love the Sauvignon and Chardonnay from Colli Orientali, but wine buyers looking in those categories, generally are looking to more mainstream areas for those products. And if you have a Chardonnay that will go on a wine list for $80, you are competing with Burgundy, Carneros, and Russian River.
Red wines. Same thing with Merlot or Cabernet. Other areas, Napa, Bordeaux, Maremma have the advantage in the marketing area. They are sexier than the perception most people in America have about a COF Cab or Merlot.
I have tried to sell everyone of these wines and have spent a lot of time (and samples) trying to get them into the hands of people who say they want wines like this. And when we overcome the usual objections (weird names, varieties that most folks do not recognize, hefty price tags) and manage to get them on a wine list, my experience has been that the wine buyer comes back to me with this: “These wines just don’t sell.” Again, in the battle of expression vs. exchange, the momentum of product is of cardinal significance when it comes down to keeping the doors open and people working. I’m sorry. I wish it wasn’t so. Maybe we’ll find some collective energy to create some drive for these wines with this trip.
The wines I tasted last week, especially the price tags that were pinned to them, if that was an early indication, I think we’re going to have many a late night over glasses of Picolit, Ramandolo and Sgnape with these folks. At least the ones who want to engage in a working dialogue and who truly are searching to stake their claim in the American landscape. We’ll see. Maybe more than a sunset, maybe even a ray of sunshine.