Sunday, January 06, 2013

Being the Best "Me" You Will Ever Be – Again and Again and Again

There exists in all of us, a certain wiring that whatever stage we are at, we seem to think the decisions we make are the best we have ever and quite possibly will ever make. It happens at 4, at 14, at 34, at 54 and appears to be a mechanism that affects our decisions, our choices, our attitudes and the things we think, make, love, hate and aspire to. We seem to think we always the best me we will ever be. A recent article in the NY Times, Why You Won’t Be the Person You Expect to Be, examines past being and memory, and was the catalyst for this post.

In Italy, in the world of wine, there have been some decisions made that knowing now the why, makes for interesting conjecture.

Why did Soave become so popular in America? Why did the wine marketers seek to produce a lighter, smoother, softer, fruitier wine than what had been and is now being made again? Why was that wine so much more popular then, than the “real thing” is now? Who in Italy aspired to make a wine (and lots of money to go with it) that would provide for an almost irreversible outcome? Soave from the 1970’s is like the tattoo a young person got one drunken Saturday night and it just won’t go away.


Or let’s take Lambrusco. For years, sweet fizzy red juice poured out of Emilia-Romagna, a tsunami of wine that washed over America. Millions of cases, millions of dollars. Even today, that style of wine dominates the production, while other producers, large and small, aspire to make a more authentic style of Lambrusco, only in much smaller quantities than the sweet fizzy stuff. Again it seems to be an irreversible process. Again a tattoo that defies removal or alteration.

Piedmont in the 1980’s? Almost overnight small barrique aged Nebbiolos and Barberas filled the cellars in Alba. Chewy, chunky, dark, alcoholic reds were the rage. I remember as a younger person questioning the winemakers as to why they were doing this. Some of them were selling to me so they attempted to explain that this was the best thing for the wine. That along with the newer high prices, which went over like a lead balloon in the times we were living; times which saw a stock market meltdown (1987) and an energy crisis. No one in my part of the world was buying the message I was bringing back from Italy. And no one was buying those wines either. Eventually many of those winemakers, or their sons and daughters, decided that it would be best for Nebbiolo and Barbera to have their expressions represented as more "authentic". So the barriques started diminishing in the cellars; the alcohol, the oak, the power (and the tattoo) receded. But not the prices.

How about Umbria? In the late 1970’s Umbria was the place to get amazing red wines, balanced, rich, alcohol in check, no excess of oak and good values. Then someone got the idea to amp up their Sagrantino, competing with Brunello and Barbaresco for the title of the greatest red in Italy. And then someone got the idea in Campania with their Taurasi, then others with the Montepulciano in Abruzzo and Merlot and Chardonnay in Sicily. All of a sudden the idea of Italian wine had been upended. It didn’t at all seem like such a good idea to many, but the press loved it. The Wine Spectator, Gambero Rosso, they almost peed themselves to get the word out first. And there we were with stylish wines that got great scores. But nobody was buying them. They were too expensive. They were not competitive with the world market for that category, i.e. Sicilian Chardonnay with a good white from Burgundy, Taurasi with a Chateauneuf du Pape. It was as if the image these winemakers had prepared for themselves was the most important thing. People I would talk to in Italy would argue that this was a good thing, that I was tainted with a New World perspective, that Italy had to do this to compete on the world stage for consideration of greatness. Except all the things that made Italian wines great, these people were casting out, like someone’s clothes when they die. Not needed anymore, Not relevant.

And then these winemakers and wine marketers went out naked into the world. And the snowstorm hit. And they wondered why they were so cold. And so alone.

It’s great to have a fast car, but if you don’t have any gas, it’s not going to take you anywhere. And this is what we do, as humans. We think of something we want to do, or be, and we decide it has to be, because that will make us a better human. Happier. Wealthier. Famous. Loved. And then, like that tattoo we just had to have, it doesn’t quite appear as wonderful as we once thought it was.

And, according to that NY Times article, we do it all the time, in all phases of life. Which is kind of a conundrum. Do we do it? Or do we not? Do we lighten the wine because it’s too high in acid and we can’t sell it? Or do we hang tight and expect to find folks who will like it “as is.” I think of the white winemakers in Friuli who have had to deal with that their whole career. Or the many Chianti producers, who were tempted by Merlot and Cabernet for the sake of making their wines more palatable to folks who wanted the wines to resemble a Cabernet or Merlot. Some of the folks in Montalcino went over the cliff in the early 21st century, by aspiring to make a wine that would garner great scores and sell for a premium, and in those hedonistic times, the wines seemed to sell through. Until they got caught. Again, once you get a tattoo it’s hard to remove it. In Montalcino, they have been grafting back to Sangiovese in the hopes that the scar won’t show.

So dear friends and readers, that is what I am pondering this first Sunday in January, while my neighbors are roasting hot dogs and watching football, dreaming of just who they will be this New Year.

Imagine winemakers going through this same process, making the best wine they will ever make – again and again and again - and no wonder things are constantly changing the way they do.

How do you remember your past self? Have you changed much in the way you thought you would be when you envisioned this time 10-20-30 years ago? What do you imagine your present “me” is envisioning of your future “me” in 10-20-30 years?



wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

6 comments:

Francesco Bonfio said...

Thank you, Mr. Cevola, for this admirable post.
It reminds to me (and probably to you, too) an article by The Wine Spectator, piublished in the mid '80s, where they interviewed Louis Iacucci, at that time one of the most important, if not the most, american wine retailer specialized in italian wines.
At a certain point he stated more or less so:
" I do not want to buy italian wines that taste like french wines, and I do not want to pay french prices for italian wines".
Francesco Bonfio

Wine Curmudgeon said...

You did it again, pal. Brilliant.

Avvinare said...

Well done, again. Let's see what 2013 brings us all.

James Koch said...

Industrial Lambrusco (3% -10%), "a tattoo that defies removal or alteration." Classic! :)

Do Bianchi said...

great post, as always, Ace... great photo of Alice (for all the mishegas of her visit, that was a really fun party...

I recently read a short piece that a famous Piedmont winemaker wrote about another.... and it made me think about how Italian tide of wine revolutions — stainless steel, new (large) barrels, new (small) barrels, French grapes, American styles, etc. etc. — have always packaged themselves as conveyors of tradition. How many time have read the expression, "for the production of traditional wines using state-of-the-art technology".

When you really examine the origins of the wines we drink today from Italy, we discover that there really was no tradition... Giacosa and Mascarello rewrote the book on Langa in the 1950s and 60s (they were innovators! not defenders of tradition). Brunello? We all know that story. Even when you look back at Chianti, you see that the "tradition" emerges as acutely self-aware innovation at the outset of the industrial era.

Wine has such emotional and nostalgic power over us. We want it to represent a trace, a legacy, a tradition, a transmission of what came before us... But as this piece illustrates, wine is ultimately what we project on to it... just like the NY Times piece you quote from (I thought it was a great article, too), when we really look back objectively, we realize that all of our memories and memory perceptions are colored by our human condition...

Sorry for the long comment here! Just trying to work out some of the same issues that you are...

Great post... keep them coming please...

Alfonso Cevola said...

thanks Jar, great observations. more to come

to be continued

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