Sunday, November 08, 2015

Blood, Sweat and Tiers - Speading a Wine Culture in America

From the “my world and welcome to it” dept…

GOVERNMENT WARNING: According to the Surgeon General, women
and men who enjoy Italian wine, run the risk of becoming happy.
“That was one hell of a week,” I thought to myself as I landed in rain-soaked Dallas late Friday night. Earlier in the week I’d driven from Dallas to Austin in the fog, and then again the next day from Austin to San Antonio (again, in the fog). After two days of work in the streets with salespeople, I drove home that same day. 700 miles in two days. And then on a plane to New Orleans, for two more days of the same. It was in the French Quarter that I had one of those wonderful epiphanies about the wine business. I mentioned it to my colleague, that at this very time all over the US, people like us were doing the same thing – showing wine to restaurateurs and wine shop owners – and people like us had been doing this for years and years. To me, it was a most wonderful moment, a realization that we are many who are devoted to elevating the culture of food and wine in our world. We, reviled members of a three-tier system. It was revelatory and wonderful.

Damon Ornowski - tireless warrior for wine
I’ve written before (here, here and here) how I feel about the three–tier system and its role in wine, but that's not the focus here. No, what I felt last week, and especially during the O-N-D (October-November-December) period, there’s a theme to it that keeps coming up in my thoughts. It’s ridiculously intense work, door to door, day after day. Relentless. Competitive. Full of change. Can be full of disappointment. But when you see the tide turning, it’s like catching the best wave, the one you waited out on the water for all day. And then you just ride it and ride it and ride it on in. And then paddle out and do it again.

Soave in New Orleans and Lagrein in Houston - all part of the campaign
Man, I am brimming with energy when I feel those things. Where were we? We were in New Orleans and we were reintroducing Soave – (Soave!) – to a skeptical buyer. We turned him back to bright and crisp and delicious. Then the next buyer – she had just gotten back from an Alsatian tasting – and she remarked how similar this humble little Italian white wine was to its French cousins. Have we finally made it to the Promised Land? It sure feels like it.

Yeah, I’m writing this from a perspective of many years now. Yeah, there have been many victories along the way. And yeah, I’m not in this alone. It just seems like a golden moment, when wine, and Italian wine, is being embraced by America, and not just because it’s cheap or we’re in a red-checkered tablecloth mamma-papa trattoria. We’ve hit the vein.

Bobby Stuckey - "Sleep, who needs it?"
I’ve got to thank the sommelier community for bringing their reinforcing energy to this task. Before, long before, we had to apologize, especially to the established cabal of tastevin-adorned gatekeepers. Italians, we were the undocumented ones, without papers, barely legal in their eyes. And then, the new generation started showing up - sommeliers, then wine shop owners, salesmen and saleswomen from the distribution channel – and there was no going back.

Frank Cornelissen - harvest is in, back to the streets
Now, the young ones take it for granted that people, of course, want to buy and pour and drink wines like Soave, Friulano, Brunello, Aglianico, Etna Rosso, Inferno and Gattinara. But it took years to get here. For better or worse, I witnessed this procession, and watched the incremental growth. Yes, it was painful at times. It still is. But now I know we cannot be sent back. Italian wine has secured a great piece of the American pie and we’re not giving up an ounce without a fight.

And these men and women, the ones who go out in the mornings with their wine bag and their price sheets and their deals and their dreams – they’re the army I’m part of – they’re the past and they’re the present – and they’re the future.

So while the world burns – and it is burning fast and furious – I’m going to continue to skirmish, whether it is to bring Lambrusco to a pizzeria or to make sure all the Ribollas in that little retail shop by my house are all set together, so folks can find them and buy them and come back for them. Because twenty or thirty years from now, I know Americans will be ever so much more in love with Italian wine.

Yeah, I’m a dreamer, yeah I’m hopeful. But if you’d seen and tasted and heard and felt what I did this last week, you’d be a believer too. There’s no going back, baby.

I can’t wait to see what happen this coming week in Indiana – and I’m talking to you in Indianapolis, Ft. Wayne, Elkhart and Merrillville (and let’s throw Chicago in there for luck) – I’m coming for you – we need to talk. I’m going to make you a deal you can’t refuse. And you’re gonna love it. I know that now.

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