Thursday, April 30, 2009

Muscle Memory

Images flash across the screen of my inner all night movie show. Prone, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the wine or the tequila or the sleeping pill to take one away for a few hours. The stuff that the waking hours produce seems like the dream; the dream seems like the reality. And then the phone call comes.

“Our appointment with Chef Mark has been canceled, he has another emergency.”

That has been happening more frequently lately.

It is like a see-saw of good-bad news. Digging out of this one is going to take longer, I fear.

Last night, sitting around the table with a group of guys I taste wine with regularly. One of them, Hank, throws out the question, “What are some of your memories of food from your past?” We go around the table, everyone with their wonderful memories. Hank’s was especially poignant for me; maybe it was because we share the Italian-American experience. “There were eight of us, and we had dinner at six every night.” Hank is the same age as my older brother-in-law, so there are some early post-WWII memories there. He got to talking about a recent meal he had with his family, I think to celebrate his dad’s 90th or 91st birthday. “When we go to sit down, all of us took our places at the table exactly as we had done as kids, all those years ago. It was like we had muscle memory.”

Ahh yes, muscle memory.

All across the world, the Italians who settled in new lands shared their customs. Meals with the family, picnics, baptisms, first communions, it didn’t matter if it were Pittsburgh, Cucamonga, Sidney, Australia or Maracaibo, Venezuela. Maybe we didn’t have the best wine in the world, surely not like the rare vintages we were sipping last night, but what we had, it took. And deep inside we kept stretching, trying to find it in this new world we planted ourselves in.

The chef never called back. I’d rather not talk to him anyhow. He’s just going to want to shake me down for a bunch of free wine and an ad in the paper to prop his sinking ship up. I don’t have the heart to tell him the truth, that he isn’t going to get it from me or the company I work for. I want to share with him some thoughts on how we can move his business forward; I've been talking to all kinds of people for ideas. I even have a few of my own, after all these years in the biz. But I reckon they will ultimately fall on deaf ears. He wants to do what he wants to do, even though it ain’t working.

So what to do? Johnny Appleseed or George Washington? Plant seeds or chop it down?

More and more, it seems like folks are parading around in their fine new clothes, and nobody can get through to these insulated emperors that they just aren’t quite ready for the big tent. And so we go through the dance, trying to lead, but always picking partners who want to go in their own direction at their own speed. People who don’t listen, tone deaf to the new reality that has plopped down right in front of their empty valet stand.

And so we return to our memories, our dreams, about our family meals with our wine and our friends and our good times. The restaurants that get this, the ones that want to feed our dreams, not their pocketbooks, are winning out there. They know how to listen; they give the customer what they want. And in return for making our dreams last a little longer, they get to live another day, only to wake up and return to the line and start all over again.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

It Was 64 years Ago Today

From the "life has funny convergences" department...

64 years ago, April 28, 1945, Mussolini was found and shot and then hanged. Crowds converged upon his and his lovers lifeless body and proceeded to take out their collective rage on them in a square in Milan.

64 years later, in a totally unrelated event the IPhone now has a Gambero Rosso Application.

These two images were sent to me from different people and places and they arrived in my in-box at the same time. Funny how things converge...

When I get older, losing my hair,
Many years from now,
Will you still be sending me a Valentine
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?

If I'd been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I'm sixty-four?

oo oo oo oo oo oo oo oooo
You'll be older too, (ah ah ah ah ah)
And if you say the word,
I could stay with you.

I could be handy, mending a fuse
When your lights have gone
You can knit a sweater by the fireside
Sunday mornings, go for a ride.

Doing the garden, digging the weeds,
Who could ask for more?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I'm sixty-four?

Every summer we can rent a cottage
In the Isle of Wight, if it's not too dear
We shall scrimp and save
Grandchildren on your knee:
Vera, Chuck, and Dave

Send me a postcard, drop me a line,
Stating point of view
Indicate precisely what you mean to say
Yours sincerely, Wasting Away.

Give me your answer, fill in a form
Mine for evermore
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I'm sixty-four?

Lyrics by Paul McCartney

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Just What the Doctor Ordered

The pace of life after Vinitaly has been brisk. The Italians have been flooding the landscape to work with us in our hand-to-hand combat. Welcome to my weekly round-up. Alfonso has gone from ranting to mommy-blogging today.

What does the first picture say about the state of affairs, here in backwater country? A clean cut American male holding a bottle of Dr. Pepper in one hand(the real thing, from Dublin, Texas, made with real cane sugar) and a glass of Brunello in the other? The clean cut American is a hard working farmer who supplies restaurants with some great produce. But he was needing some “Pepper love” so he asked for a bottle of the sweet, unctuous soda so beloved by Texans. At first I thought, “WTF?” and then I thought about what Tim Hanni said about people’s taste buds. The good farmer was just looking for something to balance his meal. Did he drink it with the Italian wine? Yes he did, side by side. And he was, in his own way, a happy camper. Leave him alone, he’s a hard worker. At least he was also enjoying Brunello from Lionello Marchesi.

Lionello worked one whole week across Texas, week before last. Dinners in Dallas and Houston, showing his Chianti, Morellino and Brunello and telling his riveting rags-to-riches story. Lionello understands American marketing and he is, at 72, one hard working son-of-a-gun. Lufthansa had to create a new category of frequent flier as he smashed all records for accumulating miles. By the way, did you know that Lufthansa frequent flyers can trade miles for wine through New Vine Logistics? Lionello however needs "no mo" wine, as his three properties produce a sufficient amount.

In the last week, here in Dallas, we have sold a ton of wine, thanks to Mike and Paul DiCarlo of Jimmy's. Paul hosted Lionello Marchesi, Paolo Cantele and Guy Stout to sold-out houses back in the wine room, the Circolo del Vino.

In one of those seemingly all too often après-wine dinner moments at Adelmo’s, Lionello hosted Paul and some of the local guys for a lunch. Adelmo made his famous steak tartare, which went exceedingly well with Lionello’s Morellino di Scansano.

This week wine luminaries were lining up to work like jets at DFW airport. Monday, Seth Allen, the founder of VinDivino came in with his crew to blitz across the state. I caught up with Seth over a plate of BBQ and Shiner Bock. VinDivino is back up and running with renewed vigor. A few months ago Seth and company parted ways with the Marc de Grazia folks. After 20+ years it was a painful decision, but the economics of the world and the wine industry just don’t leave a lot of room for the super-premium wines. Good luck to Marc de Grazie and his suppliers, some who remain friends after all these years. As for VinDivino, the Italian and Austrian portfolios are lean and ready to go. We had some Gruner face time this week; I think Ms. B will be posting about that at a later date. Suffice to say, I am chilling a bottle of the Loimer Estate Gruner Veltliner "Kamptal" 2007 to go with Bubba's fried chicken and a Beatle’s cover band on Thursday. Good times!

Paolo Cantele spent a week in Texas covering Dallas to Houston and points in between. On Tuesday we were able to get the Apulian wine wonder kid to slip into Texas before the heat, showing his Chardonnay, Fiano, Primitivo and Salice Salentino wines, along with his Amativo, an homage to modern times. The sold-out crowd at Jimmy’s loved Paolo and snatched up his wines with a frenzy only the wine impassioned can exhibit.

Wednesday Pio Boffa from Pio Cesare accompanied Gregory Balogh, the suave and elegant President/CEO of Maisons Marques & Domaines to Texas. Pio is another road warrior who has been on the road for the last 25 years. He is an undaunted ambassador for Piedmont and her wines. When I asked him about the loss of Teobaldo Cappellano, Pio was emotional. “We didn’t agree on politics, but on wine, we were brothers. I loved that man and will truly miss him.” I also asked Pio what he thought of the new Minister of Agriculture, Luca Zaia, he boomed, “I love what Dr. Zaia is doing for Italy!” Well, there you go, another fan of this new Italian coalition government. Today, pineapples and kebabs. Tomorrow, tomatoes and potatoes?

Pio spoke to a throng of fans at the Sigel’s’ Elite wine shop, selling and signing wines for local wine enthusiasts. Afterwards, Steak and Champagne at Nick & Sam's, a local steakhouse, which was packed with steak-eating, Bourbon-swilling, Bordeaux and Barolo and Napa decanting wine drinkers. Speaking of potatoes, if you have never tried them, the fries at Nick & Sam's are some of the best I have ever had. Top notch service and great steaks, we compared the 2004 Château Magdelaine and the Pio Cesare Barolo, a really tough assignment. But glad to be of service!

Thursday - Daily-Double. Serena Bonacossi flew in for a meeting and the annual pilgrimage to Adelmo’s for lunch. I met with her and her local manager and all around nice guy, Ed Kukol, for a round of tastings of the Capezzana wines. Several years ago I went to the estate and met with Serena and her family. Her grandfather Contini Ugo Bonacossi is an amazing fellow. He was manning the booth at Vinitaly this year, an octogenarian who works every day. Lovely family. Serena wanted to show her latest Carmignano and Ghiaie della Furba, which I have a soft spot in my heart for. Great wines from an historic property . Wine was first made there in the year 804.

Later that evening we had to “gear up” for another sold-out dinner at Jimmy’s, this time with Master Sommelier Guy Stout. Guy was only to happy to strike a pugilistic pose for the camera.

The lineup of wines was eclectic, from Franciacorta by Contadi Castaldi to Verdicchio di Matelica from a beloved producer, La Monacesca. I was able to taste with owner Aldo Cifola at Vinitaly this year, and am happy to report the wines are stunning. The 2006 La Monacesca didn’t disappoint the crowd at Jimmy’s’ By the way, those tastings at Jimmy’s, always (at least) two women for every man. I need to get some of my lonely single men friends to these dinners, there were a lot of women carrying out boxes of wine that night.

One of my favorite gals who I like to talk wine with brought her beau. I snapped this shot of them and told him not to screw up or he’d be dealing with the Italians if he broke her heart. I think he got the message.

Red wines? Teroldego, Brunello, Barolo and Amarone, followed by a late harvest Moscato from Sicily. We ran out of wine, sold so much Mike Di Carlo ran out of register tape. More good times!

Guy and Paul, now here are two fellows I’d like to have with me in the dark alleys of life. Nobody’s gonna mess with these boyz. That night we broke records for wine sales, as Jimmy’s is a retail store and we made everybody a deal they couldn't refuse.

One thing Guy, the back room, we refer to it as the Circolo del Vino, not the Goombah Room. I know you worked hard getting to where you are and all that, but a little respect for things Italian, ok? I don’t want to tell you twice.

Nah, really all in fun, Guy was great and we had a ball. And those diners were Jimmy’s stimulus program that night. Business is picking up. The key to success, is to stay in the game and keep on swinging, day in and day out.

Speaking of swinging, the weekend brought me my afternoon meeting with my Italian guru, the iconic Mario Messina, godfather to almost every Italian restaurateur in Dallas. Mario, at 92, was making a light lunch of zucchini and halibut. Whenever I need to talk to someone with a world of experience I head over to Mario’s house for a café’ and some conversation. Mario, you got me started in this Italian crusade, you helped to steer me to a career that I have loved for over 30 years. Thank you, Padrino!

And that leaves me to the end of two really busy weeks on the wine trail. Friday night we took some of the great old wines out of the wine cellar and shared them with our young friends. But that’s a post for another day from some other bloggers. Take it away, Ms. B. Have at it, Dr. J.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Measure of a Master

What does one do if they think the Italian wine industry is going in the wrong direction? And if one has a rather large interest in the success of the Italian wine industry, how does one go about letting one’s thoughts, opinions and feelings be known?

Simple. Make sure the people you are trying to convince think it is their idea.

Last week I was talking to a Tuscan wine producer. And I was lamenting that too many wines from Italy are over-oaked and too alcoholic. He looked at me and said, “I agree.” And then a few seconds later he said, “But you don’t think my wines are like that, do you?”

I looked him straight in the eyes and said,” Do you want the truth or do you want me to tell you what you want to hear?” He replied, "Oh, we know each other well now, I want you to give me the truth.”

Still, I wasn’t sure he really wanted the truth. Something from the last twenty years gnaws at me, a little voice on my shoulder that whispers in my ear, “Don’t show it all, just show ‘em a little. Let them guess what is underneath.”

So I respond, “Would you like to save $150,000 this year?” “Of course,” he replies. Now I’ve got him. “Then buy only half of the barrels you normally would and use them longer. Surely you have strong enough wines. And it would be such a reduction in your carbon imprint.”

The winemaker now has food for thought. I haven’t scolded him for his virtually undrinkable wines. But hopefully I have put him on the road to recovery. And it will be all his idea.

A week later, I am talking to a producer from Piedmont. Over the phone it can be easier to convince winemakers to change. But now I have an anecdote. And over the phone they don’t see my face, so it is my little voice inside of their head this time.

I relate to him my concern that too many wines from Italy are over-oaked and too alcoholic. And then I proceed to tell him the conversation that I had with the Tuscan producer. When I finished with the point about the producer being able to save $150,000, my Piemontese friend affirms that said producer would exactly do that, and that would be wonderful.

We call that imprinting. Now we are starting to change the Italian wine world. One barrel at a time.

It’s been one long battle of San Jacinto for the last 20 years. My opinions haven’t been popular. People don’t want to hear that they need to change. Change is uncomfortable. But inevitable. The next generation is going to do it anyhow. So I load up my jackass cart and head into the marketplace of ideas with my sad and crazy ideas, looking to plant them in the next garden.

You’d think these folks would want to know. After all the business I follow in America represents 8% of all Italian wine coming from Italy to the USA. That’s a fact. But often I feel more like I am the Invisible Man.

The measure of a master is his success in bringing all men around to his opinion twenty years later.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thank God for Emerson. The quote above gives me strength. As long as I have strategery. And I do. I feel this battle in the hinterlands of wine-drinking America has, for the last 20 or so years, seen some advance. But we are still considered backwater by our Italian colleagues. I’m convinced if I lived in SF or LA or NY that I’d get a similar response.

No, the key is to plant the idea, water it occasionally and then let ‘er grow. If it grows, then we all win. If it dies, hey, it’s a big wine world out there. Someone will get it. Every dog has his day.

But right now, I’m feeling good. I am embracing mastery. And the world will be a better, safer, happier place for Italian wine.

Images by Simone Martini

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Best Moment at Vinitaly: Savoring Life with Roberto Bava

I’d had it. One more over-oaked, alcohol soaked Tuscan wine and I was going to go bonkers.

It was then that I decided to visit my friend Roberto Bava. We don’t do business together, but he has been to my home and I have visited him in Asti. We are friends. I needed to visit a friend, simple as that.

I sidled up to his booth at Vinitaly, where he welcomed me. We talked about ideas, about the world, about whatever moves us. I needed that. After three days of pummeling my palate with wine I just wanted to take a break.

Roberto doesn't lack for energy or ideas. He is like an Italian version of Marshall McLuhan, or Seth Godin. Heaven forbid if Bava and Vaynerchuck ever join forces, although the two are universes complete on their own.

Bava sat me down and showed me his latest sparkling wines, Giulio Cocchi, Alta Langa DOC. We tasted four: the Bianc ‘D Bianc, the Toto Corde, the Rosa and the Oro.

The Bianc ‘D Bianc is a vintage Chardonnay in the Metodo Classico. My scorched tongue was starting to come back from the trail of broken tears, the result of two days of intense tasting of red, mainly Tuscan. I felt this lithe spirit begin to coax me back to the realm of the living. Juliet of the Sparklers.

The Toto Corde, a vintage blend of 30% Chardonnay and 70% Pinot Noir, was a step further in the rehabilitation of my palate which was ascending from the Dantean hell of wine tasting one often experiences in the trade halls at Vinitaly. Not Prosecco, no, no. Not Franciacorta, either. And not Champagne, this Alta Langa appellation for sparkling wine is regenerative and restorative at the same time. The veils were being lifted.

A plate of crackers with fois gras appear. No heavy cheese or home made salumi. This was my tongue's Betty Ford mini-clinic moment. I was feeling better. The depth of the Toto Corde with the snack was one of the perfect matches I had during Vinitaly.

Along the way, Bava and I are chatting about anything and everything. We just pick up the last conversation we had and head forward.

He doesn’t need me. Or the company I stand with. This is freedom for both of us. We don’t want anything from each other, just camaraderie and sharing of ideas. Making the world safer for Italian wine. Two friends, talking about wine, life and the future.

The third wine, The Rosa, a Pinot Noir in purezza, brings in depth and a baritone aspect to the tasting. Bava is a musician, sings in the choir at his church in Asti. He cannot live without music. And his wines are trios and quartets and whole orchestras of his life’s work. We’re working on a quartet in this moment.

The last wine, the Oro. 1999 vintage. 80% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay, with a twist. The Chardonnay is appassito, a riper harvest left to dry and concentrate the flavors and the sugar. Not sweet, but an older style of sumptuousness, often found in wines made in the days before micro-ox, spinning cones and heavy toast barrique.

Gorgeous wine, and dear to the wallet. But we plunk down the dollars for a Selosse- this is a similar experience. Oh, it isn’t Champagne? Yes, it isn’t. And it Bava makes no apologies for its provenance. Does Umberto Eco express regret for where he comes from?

Not finished with me, Padre Bava had purged me of the torments of the Tuscan barrique torture. Now he would issue my absolution. But first I had to do my penance.

Bava is passionate about cacao and chocolate. He has a network of monks living and working in South America to reclaim patches of land that have been laid bare by Conquistadores, both ancient and modern. And in those lands, these monks have planted cacao. He took me through three levels of Paradise through his OIOIO line of cacao, the 45% Criollo Java Cream, the 65% Sabirano ( from Madagascar) Macis and the 70% Otonga (Ecuador). What next?

Before sending me on my way, refreshed and ready to take on the Piedmont Hall, Roberto pours me a little sip of Barolo Chinato.

How does one go back to making the rounds on a Sunday like this? I have been washed and purged and my palate has been re-anointed.

Thank you, my friend, thank you.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Vinitaly 2009:The Makeover

So many crazy things happened during Vinitaly this year that there is no place to turn to but sophomoric humor. I can’t change the way the Italians think about the current “crisi” but I can change the way they look. So to lighten things up a bit on these pages (something folks have been telling me I “need” to do lately) I thought I’d call on my Hollywood make-up artist friends (actually they are friends with Bea) and see what we could do to update the look of some famous Italian wine personalities that are instrumental for turning the ship around. After all, modern wines call for modern looks; that is the essence of bella figura, no?

Angelo Gaja was honored for his family and their 150 years worth of involvement in wine. Angelo, it’s time to go green and red and fly the Italian flag proudly on your face. The green glasses show vision for a greener future and the red rug shows you still have the fires burning bright.

Dino Illuminati and long time client Adelmo Banchetti, from Dallas, Texas, are always clowning around. These guys know how to have a good time. And while both of these gents have made huge strides in their wines and their food over the years, their “look” has gotten old. So if Adelmo and Dino aren’t going to Twitter and Text, they can be at least entertaining to the young folks who are. For the makeover, we have given Adelmo his fondest wish, to be the clown with the funny nose, the flaming red hair and a hickey. Kind of a mixed message, but Adelmo likes edgy. For Dino, we have gone a little mad professor with the hair and the beard, but with the cool edge that only Jackie-O Ray-Bans can transmit. So we have fun and edge and cool and now they’re ready to embrace further modernity and the future. Avanti ragazzi!

We’re going Western with the next two gents. Think Westworld. Riccardo Cotarella had done traded in his Porsche Cayenne for a Vintage American pickup. Along with that he is ordering a slew of American oak barrels to make the complete transition for one of his special wines from the Maremma. The man is a cowboy and a driver at heart and now the vision is complete. Bravo, Riccardo.

Piero Antinori is going a little more raffinato on us. Maybe it’s the time he has been spending with his Franciacorta project and the proximity to George Clooney’s lakeside manse. In any event, Piero is kicking back, enjoying his status as the Marshall of the Maremma. Nothing gets by Piero, nothing. He sees everything and knows where all the bodies are buried. He is a Superior Tuscan.

Romano dal Forno has been talking to his son. Time to spruce up the place. Done. Now, what to do about all those years that have passed, how to upgrade the look? How about a little bad boy rocker, a cross between liev Schreiber and Sammy Hagar. Red hair is all the rage in Italy for men these days, and Romano isn’t immune to the lure of the fiery red. Yes, he has capitulated to the pressure of fashion, but with that Jim Croce ‘stache, he makes for a dashing vision of the modern winemaker in the modern times.

And finally, this wouldn’t be complete without a chime in from dear old Luca Zaia, the dashing Minister of Agriculture. Some think we don’t like Luca on this blog, by au contraire, we love Luca. And he loves us. Keeping with the musical theme, our fashionistas have chosen to give Luca a modified Beatle look, in homage to Ringo, the underappreciated one. Instead of drumsticks we have given Luca farm implements in which he can drum home his message. Doesn’t he look fab? How do we get his autograph? He is saving Italy from pineapple and kebab and giving Prosecco its rightful place alongside Champagne as one of the greatest bubblies the world has even known. And he does it all by acting naturally. Auguri, Doctor Zaia.

There you have it. This was the best, the greatest, the most modern Vinitaly ever. I’m so glad we didn’t miss it.

Next year let's do it in Vegas. The Italian's would love it. Good times!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Croce e Delizia

Dream fragment: A great hall filled with people. Two men who must pass through the crowd to the other side of the long, narrow hall. From a distance above this appears to be set in a Gothic cathedral. Is this a ceremony? As the men make their way, they walk directly through the people, who have become formless but not invisible. They have no presence, no corpus, they are all ghosts. Except for the two men, who advance towards the other side of this great passageway.

Before the earthquakes in Italy last week, another dream: We are in the countryside. It is a perfect day, sunny and temperate. From over the horizon a missile bears down upon us. I look above and realize if this thing drops I am dead. It is heading in my direction. There is nothing to do, no time, everything is finished. The bomb dropped, maybe a half mile from where I was. The earth shook relentlessly, feeling like we were all going to be pulled towards the core of the earth.

As I walk the great halls of Vinitaly, I see people I know. Sometimes I don’t recognize them, sometimes they don’t recognize me. Some of these folk I have known now for almost thirty years. Some I have just gotten to know in the last few years. All of us, living our lives, how much this collective honey gathering has been done for the sake of making Italian wine a greater expression of the culture and people and land of Italy?

Over the years I have had passionate, lively and sometimes explosive polemics over the direction Italian wine is going. I remember in 1985 talking to a producer of Barolo about his exclusive use of French barrique for the aging of his wines. I told him then that I thought the wine would suffer under all the weight of the wood, not to mention how much more it would raise the price of the wine. He responded by telling me that I was a young American and that the world is a large place, larger than the way I learned about it in school in America. Yes, I was young and inexperienced and an American, all sins which I was guilty as charged by my more learned and experienced farmer colleague in Castiglione Falletto.

I have had more than my share of passionate discussion about Italian labels. I was an art major at the university, design was my background, coupled with an intimate feel for American marketing. Over the years, I have seen labels that had as much appeal as a mullet haircut. But as we have recently seen, in Italy the mullet is enjoying a renaissance. Wonderful step forward for all of humanity. Why is it a label is so important? I imagine Caravaggio or Simone Martini looking forward several centuries from their time to see their work and how it had survived the fashions of time and wonder why the label designers don’t understand this. But it is after all a product, to be opened and consumed and then to be sent to the trash bin. It isn’t art, no matter how much we want to imbue it with nobility and grandeur. It is sustenance; it is a measure by which we get through the day. Art? Art is not essential for survival of the species. Nourishment is. And perhaps it is because our farmer knows that we will ultimately need the fruits from his harvest, that a misplaced label, or too much wood won’t really matter all that much in the greater scheme of things.

When I was younger the older wine producers would listen to my thoughts, about their wine, about their labels, about their expensive barrels and they would make this barely perceptible grimace on their foreheads. The tell on their face was that I was young and inexperienced and that they were Europe, they were Italy. They knew what would be better for all of us, especially gli Americani. So I would pack my luggage and head back to America to spread the word as they so ordered.

A generation later, the younger wine producers hear an older man rant, about their wine, about their labels, about their expensive barrels, and this time the frown on their forehead is more pronounced. What it tells, without words, but without doubt, is that they know better. They are young and this is a different world, and one must be positive about all of these changes. Or else. So I pack my luggage and head back to my post, the one from which I will never be called back, and ponder on all these “changes”.

In search of the timeless I have run smack dab in to the middle of the transitory, once again. Except this time, I have walked to the other side of the great hall. I have seen through the folly of the mullet, and have no time for delusion.

Images from the Abazzia di Novacella Museum

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Interview: The Last Vinitaly

By Beatrice Russo

I hadn’t heard from Italian wine guy for over a week and was starting to worry. What with the earthquake in Abruzzo and all, I started thinking the worst. I called TB down in Austin to see if she had talked to him. The old man was OK. His Blackberry was down and he wasn’t getting any email. So I called hid friend and he handed his phone to the Invisible Man and I talked to him for a while. The following is an excerpt from our somewhat lengthy phone conversation.

Q. So what’s going on with you in Italy? You have everyone worried about you.
A. Hey, I’m OK. I have had technical difficulties. My phone and email have been down for several days.

Q. Bummer. What do you mean, technical difficulties?
A. I busted a tooth on the first night I got to Italy. Along with my phone and email, my camera has also been on the fritz. Everything is breaking.

Q. So where are you now?
A. I’m in Valdobbiadene, listening to birds and other creatures. No horns, trains or cars, just the sounds of nature. Bees buzzing, donkeys braying, good stuff.

Q. And Vinitaly?
A. I really am thinking this last Vinitaly might be my last for a while. People here just aren’t getting the crisis. Everyone is asking about better sales and they are looking to America to make them up. I don’t see it, seeing as we just ran our first quarter numbers. The French are in the tank. The Italians are holding on, but the cases are down. The good news is, the cost per case is up. Folks seem to be trading up a little. But buying less cases.

But this is like 1985 all over again.

Q. Uh, that was like before I was born, dude. Can you explain?
A. Yes. Italians were starting to embrace barriques and international grape varieties in places like Piedmont and Tuscany. Prices were climbing, even though the dollar was strong against the lira. Barolo and Super Tuscans were starting their long descent into Parkerland. Spoofed wines. High prices. Weird names. Crazy Miami Vice looking labels.

Q. And that relates to now in what way, Obi-Wan?
A. Look, Vinitaly is an unnatural environment to begin with. Pavilion after pavilion filled with the hopes and dreams of so many Italian producers. But many of these folks really don’t have a bead on the markets they are wanting to get into. They talk about China and India being the new England and Russia, but in reality China and India have serious infrastructure problems. They need rice and petrol before wine. But many Italians have bought into the mantra of those two countries being their salvation. And America? They look to America to swallow up untold quantities of wine without regard to price, flavor, wood, concrete, label making sense or fantasy label. And all along no one wants to listen to the Silverback.

Q. You lost me, Ace.
A. Look, America isn't the center of the universe, but we do have a growth potential for wine. But this is a particular market. These over alcoholic, over wooded, over priced wines with hard to understand labels just won’t cut it anymore than a barrel fermented Soave or Pinot Grigio will.

Q. What was your favorite wine at the show?
A. I loved the 2004 Brunellos from Il Poggione and Renieri. The 2005 Chianti Classico Riserva from Querciavalle was a standout wine. Light Sangiovese color (like the Il Poggione) and delicate flavors. Fruit before wood. I had a Sylvaner from Abbazia di Novacella that lit up my Christmas Tree lights.
I learned that Abbazia di Novacella earns money for the Augustinian order through the sale of their wines. Bringing wines to America to help baptize Abraham, interesting thing in these times.

Q. Biggest surprise?
A. I met with the Santa Margherita folks. Seems that Luca Zaia had just been there. They love Zaia in Prosecco land. Up here in Valdobbiadene, they worship the guy. Kind of gives me the creeps. Seeing as he is a food zenophobe. Trying to banish kebabs and pineapples. Very strange agenda.

Q. Did you see anything that really caused you pause?
A. The earthquake in Abruzzo. This is a tragic event on the scale of a Katrina. Many lives have been lost. Now many businesses will also be lost. It could take close to a generation for the Abruzzo wine business to recover. I feel terrible for these poor souls, and now they are starting to do hundreds of funerals.

Q. When will see you back home and on the streets, old man?
A. Before the week ends. I can hardly wait to be back on the front lines. That’s the only place that seems to make sense.

Q. We’ll be waiting for you, Ace.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Imported from Italy

From the Archives ~ March 4, 2007

It’s that time of the year. A month or so before Vinitaly, the annual Italian wine trade show in Verona, I start getting invitations to visit wineries at their booths. Over the past week I have received several requests to import new wines from various producers in Italy. “We want to be in America,” they say. For this family, let’s take a look at what being in America entails.

For my family, it meant several voyages on large ships over a period of years. First a father would come and get work. Then he might go and bring his wife back to America. We were aliens in those days. But the fences were down, the gates were open. It wasn’t a matter of walking or flying, it was many days, even weeks, of rough seas, cold weather, strange food and crowded conditions. But there was a dream to pursue.

I have an Italian friend today who is new to America. This Italian sees the limitless possibilities America has to offer. Perhaps the mate of my friend, an American, can see the aspiration and the idealism that a new set of eyes grasps so eagerly. America is promise, America is hope. This isn’t some vapid flag-waving on my part, if one can just see though others eyes, it is clear.

Back 100 years or so, with the cart and the donkey, the pace of progress was limited to my ancestors. They got along better than most, but they saw past their horizon to a place where nothing was impossible. There was sickness, there were accidents, there was fate. But there was potential and room for optimism.

In Palermo, my great-grandfather gives his daughter away in marriage. My aunt Vitina stayed on in Sicily with her Giuseppe, they had a good life. They were fortunate; my great-grandfather had a good business, trading in wholesale leather. They had a car, they were upwardly mobile, in the stream of progress.

His son, my grandfather didn’t have to leave Sicily at 15, but he took a chance and set out for America. Less than 20 years later he was a prosperous business man, also in leather goods and real estate, in Southern California. He had a car and his son, my dad, was being groomed to follow in his path.

My mother and my dad’s mother six years later. This time with one of the new V8 Ford roadsters. When my parents married, they took that car up the coast of California and the Northwest, past the new Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. All of life was shiny bright and new to those 21 year olds.

35 years later, in my brand new 1969 Fiat 124, I took that same road up through Big Sur and Carmel, past San Francisco and into the wine country. Last week I revisited some old friends along the wine trail.

A few years ago, my son, Rafael was living in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Again, we pose with our beloved cars. A few months ago he lost control of his car in the rain. The car didn’t make it; fortunately he walked away without injuries. Our freedom, our cars, imported dreams, imported from Italy. Made in America.

Back in Dallas, on a sunny day in the spring of 1917, my mom and her siblings hang on a now-ancient Phaeton.

We made it here on the back of donkeys, on ships stuffed with hopeful souls, and in cars, more cars, fast cars, speeding towards the dream that is still America.

If you think it is going to be easy to bring your wines to America, think again. The gates are full. You must have a better business plan than just a wish to send your wines here on a boat for us to sponsor. You had best book passage as well and join us for a time, get to know America a little better. It will soon be the largest market for Italian wines, larger than even the Italian domestic market.Welcome to America.

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