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


A.M. said...

Ciao, Alfonso. I came across your blog by way of a Google image search. You're a very eloquent wine guy. I truly enjoy your reflective style, especially the thought of navel gazing in Marfa, TX. What an interesting cultural cross section you bring to your readers!

Buona Notte!

Sklenicka said...


SB said...

Ah, Simone Martini. The right images for a discussion of mastery. That's not to say there isn't a place for Uccello, Lippi, Titiano, Parmigianino, Caravaggio, Corcorante, Boccioni, Marini or even Sandro Chia. Each great but also of their times.

Just like you can't expect an artist today to paint like Martini, modern winemakers have to make their own wines that match their times. Many of the younger ones are showing their rebellion by ditching the barriques their fathers brought to prominence. It's coming.

Alfonso Cevola said...

A.M.- Grazie. great words from an artistic one such as you.

Thanks Sklenicka!

SB- wonderful of you to stop by and contribute. interesting and welcome thoughts.

Wayne Young said...

Awesome post, alfonso. I hope to be the "inside man" working over here for the same exact change you're trying to promote.

Keep chippin away...


Kevin Hamel said...

I wish I were laughing at this as hard as I should be, rather than shaking my head and waiting for your advice to be headed. Back in the late '70s and early '80s I worked for Darrell Corti and when he took California wines to Italy, they'd all ask "Why are they so woody and alcoholic?" And I know that when a bunch of Bardolino producers were tasting my wines at Preston in the mid '90s (none over 14% alc, by the way) and calling them "vini corposi" they were not being complimentary!

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks everyone, I am overwhelmed. Pass the tequila...

Luca said...

But, but but...
when you talk with an Italian oaky wine producer, he normally says that it is to match the american customer wishes. Is the common american customer fed up of oak and related features?

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks for your insightful comment. In the past I would say the American wine drinker wanted lots of fruit and wood. But California can do that kind of wine, why should the Italians walk away from what they do so well? After all these years of struggling to gain a place at the table that only the French wines had for so many years, why throw away the opportunity? I think some, but not all, wine critics have led the charge for those powerful wines. But the tide is turning. Now the bloggers and the sommeliers have a greater voice in these matters. And what I am being told is they are looking for restraint and subtlety.

America is waking up!

Bryan said...

Alfonso I have come across the same problem with Italian wines recently. I would consider myself a novice wine drinker but I always knew there was something slightly off about the Italian wines I drank and you have articulated it perfectly. The strong alcohol taste is very off putting and has caused me on more than one occasion to pass on an Italian Reds.

Cheers Keep up the good work

Anonymous said...

Just commented on my local valle d'Aosta wines, but thought I'd add a post here too. The winemaking here is pretty reliable: with small mountain vineyards they can't afford not to, but the problem of over-strong wines is here as well. Last year I went to a tasting at the local agricultural institute. Now Pinot Grigio can be an anodyne drink when from the Veneto, but here I tasted an example of 15.5%!! I said to the server at the tasting that although it had good fruit it was too strong and he agreed. Now this was at a college where they experiment, but I hope they learn that for some grapes this is not ideal!

By and large local wines are not heavily oaked as most is for the lcoal market. I quite like older oaked wines (il gusto Inglese) and some of then can take it, but I'd agree a bit of moderation is a good thing.


Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks, Sue. Come back and visit anytime. Great comment!

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