I was waiting in a long, slow line on the freeway for the traffic to pass by an accident on the side of the road. As often happens, everyone was slowing down to gaze at the wreck, which only made the collective crawl slower. But there we were, what can you do? Behind me, though, there was a car with a driver behind the wheel who was going to get through, if they had to make a new lane. Honking and tailgating, screeching on his brakes while talking on the phone and smoking. All this with only two arms and one very overstimulated and under-exercised brain. There was nothing we could do but wait for the fools in front of us to peer and move on. There were no cops moving the traffic along; no law, no order. Just the blunt force of humanity creeping ever so slowly towards their destinies.
Along the way I had been slowly digesting a barrage of disparaging remarks I had recently read about the state of the wine business in America. Mostly it went like this, “Everything sucks! I can't get the wine I want. The current system is a dinosaur and needs to be tore down. I want what I want, is that such a big deal?” One can find it regularly on (wine) blogs, and usually from folks who are armchair quarterbacks or who have no idea of the scale of the wine business in this world.
Then I started thinking about wine and specifically Italian wine, because if this blog is one thing it is an Italian wine blog, non e vero? And so let’s hop into the way-back machine and see how far we have come. It is so much more fun to time travel than to curse the present condition, isn’t it? Take a ride with me.
1980 – I am living in Dallas and working at the Mother of all Italian restaurants in Dallas, Il Sorrento. All of the above wines were available and thanks to the insight of a local trailblazer, Tony La Barba, there was also available Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, which was kind of a stretch for most folks in those days. And the list branched into Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Barolo and Barbaresco vintages going back a few years. Bardolino in a 1.5 wicker basket was a big hit, as was Ruffino’s Rosatello, which was a light, fruity rose, the precursor of White Zinfandel. Also a big seller was Ruffino’s Del Magnifico, which was simply a vino da tavola, also a precursor, this time to the Toscana IGT, or in a smaller vein, a Super Tuscan. Biondi-Santi and Poggio alle Mura Brunello were available. Poggio alle Mura was eventually folded into the Castello Banfi Empire as the crown jewel of their Tuscan holdings.
1982 - Things started changing. I started seeing (and selling) Gaja, Giacomo Conterno, Vietti, Selvapiana, Illuminati, Barbi, Cavallotto, Girolamo Dorigo, Scavino, and Lisini. It was a great birthing, and as I was being born into the wine business, so was all of this wonderful Italian wine coming into America. And imagine, I was in Texas. New York was exploding. But Texas was holding its own. I was selling stupid amounts of 1968 Sassicaia for $28 a bottle.
1990 – Pinot Grigio is beginning its ascent. Santa Margherita was an easy sell, but there are knock-offs and everyone is trying to get a piece of the pie. Even Paterno’s Terlato was trying to blow up the category with line extensions of the Santa Margherita brand. It was crazy; they were giving away Mazda Miatas, all kind of nuttiness. California wine was fighting back with their varietals, fighting Chardonnay and White Zinfandel. It was getting serious, but there was momentum upwards. A long cry from thirteen years earlier when literally there were a handful of wines available from Italy in America. Around this time, 60 Minutes came out with the French Paradox show, and we sold every kind of red wine imaginable in the warehouses. God Bless Morley Safer, I would chant the mantra at night. Ruinite Lambrusco sales were through the roof, they couldn’t bottle the stuff fast enough. A far cry from the scandals in the late 1980’s. Everything sold. And then we started preparing for war in Iraq. And things sold even better.
2001 – Google, AOL, Yahoo, the Bubble and then came September 11. And the carousel stopped. And then a few months later folks stared drinking, right about the time the US started rattling the sabers. Just like 1990 and the first Gulf War, but this time America was a little more wounded. They started drinking more but at about half the price of what they had been drinking. Sales stayed the same, volume increased. And kept growing, until folks just got into the groove of the new reality. America was vulnerable, but Americans weren’t going to stop drinking Italian wines. Just a slower ascendancy, but steady, steadier than the S&P 500. It was a time of innocence lost. And it was also a time I noticed fear in voices. And then anger. Not really a good combination with any alcohol, especially over-barriqued Sangiovese/Cabernet blends from Tuscany.
2011- Saw a year of double digit growth. Italy is the largest importer of wines into America. And while America is not the main market of Italian wine, it is a very large and growing one. But my Italian winemaking friends know Brasilia, Phonm Penh, Hong Kong, Berlin, Vancouver. Theirs is a world market, and they live in a global village. People like Roberto Bava, who travels the globe once or twice a year. It isn’t just America, but America is still very much on their minds in Italy.
Like the car behind me, sometimes you cannot make a new lane, sometimes there is an accident ahead that everyone wants to stop and gawk at. But it doesn’t have to be your wreck. That is all in your mind. Take a look around; there is an embarrassment of riches available in Italian wines in America. Better than ever before. Try some of the ones that have made it here. They got here, not because of some conspiracy of the wholesalers, but as a group effort, lifting and rowing and baling and carrying the stones up the conveyor to make pyramids. They are living proof of the hard work of thousands who have gone before. All you have to do is open your eyes and open your heart. And open another bottle of wine.
written by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy