Sunday, August 26, 2007

Made to Measure

My grandfather almost 100 years ago-click image to enlarge

I spent the better part of Friday and Saturday at a trunk show in a men’s store, showing Italian wine. Several young men came down from New York to show the latest from Gianluca Isaia, a family of tailors from Casalnuovo, near Naples. I love this line from their web site. “Neapolitan tradition holds that the closer a jacket is cut to the armhole, the more comfortable the fit. Northern manufacturers adopt the attitude of a deeper armhole, ‘for greater comfort’, as they do not have the tailoring skills to emulate the comfort achieved by a true southern tailor.”

These days, respect for the Southern Italian tailor eclipses the work of the Southern Italian winemaker. When one plunks down $3,000-8,000 for a suit, considered the best in the world, it makes me happy and sad. Happy for the respect the tailor has gotten for their artistry, sad for the winemaker who still has far to go to get that level of respect and price. It will come, but probably not in my lifetime.

My family, on both sides, started out by working with their hands. My mother’s mother was an amazing seamstress in her youth, working in Dallas in the days when Neiman-Marcus had just started up. She could do a perfect blind stitch by hand, my aunt once told me. I know she could roll dough for the casalinga (home made) pasta with a broom handle and it always came out perfectly round. She and the family she came from were artistic and artisans in many ways.

My grandfather and father as the business grew-click image to enlarge

My father’s father also came from similar beginnings. His father was a wholesale leather merchant. And the sons learned to make shoes, but not just any shoes. And business, but not just any business. When he first moved to Dallas 100 years ago, setting up shop at St. Paul and Pacific streets (now a gazillion story building for the corporate folks), he would work many hours at the machinery. By the time my father was a young man, my grandfather had learned the way of business, and hired workers, learned to delegate and watch the cash. He did well, retiring at the age of 50 and living for 47 years in retirement. But he learned the art of business, did not like to work the heavy machinery all his life. When my father went into that field, he worked as a sign of respect to his father, in the shop, but he hated every moment of it. He wanted to be an artist too, an actor or a musician. He never was able to realize his dream in that way.

They lived well, for theirs was a time when the American dream was alive and well. And they dressed well, like any respectable Italian, southern or northern. I always had a respect for fine clothes, though in the 1970’s I abandoned sartorial splendor for a more comfortable, tribal Aquarian image. It lasted longer than my family cared for, I am sure, but as soon as I started going to Italy for the wine business and visited wineries near clothing manufacturers, the light turned back on inside. We could have our Montepulciano d’Abruzzo with Brioni, our Attolini with Agliancio. The tailors loved to barter; wine was as expensive for them as their suits were to us.

Now I am not overly interested in image or keeping up with the styles from Paris or Milan. But I do have a sense of responsibility to measure up to my cultural expectations of suiting up. Thankfully, in the corporate world, the suit is back, as is the tie, and the French cuff, and cufflinks, and leather. And so, when I looked into the trunk on Saturday, with the bolts of fabric so masterfully woven in Southern Italy, it didn’t take more than a night to sleep on it to decide to pick a fabric out of the trunk and order up a suit of it.

Winemaking and wine marketing is very much like the fashion business. The fashions of flavors ebb and flow as do the lapels and hemlines. But well-made is timeless. A great tie or suit will look good 5 or 10 (dare I say 20?) years from the time it was made for. Wine, well made, can go down the road too, and be a wonderful reward for the patience one put into keeping it. And while one can wear a suit many times, one can only drink that wine once. Unless one buys a case or two of it.

The boot maker and the tailor inside my bones recognizes this artistry and will pay for it. Now, for the day when people will look at the wines from around Naples (or how about all of Italy?), and see them measuring up in the same way, as they do a suit from Kiton or Isaia.

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