Thursday, May 21, 2009

Zen and the Art of Montalcino Maintenance

I’m in Austin this week and enjoying the company of people who are really interested in wine, even Italian wine. Business here seems to be revving up and after a day with a producer from Montalcino, the reception has been, well, humbling.

I say this because we are just beginning to get into the 2004 Brunellos after what has seemed to be one of the longest years of selling a vintage. The vintage has been the 2003, which got hit by the perfect storm of a lesser than great vintage, the “little problem” in Montalcino and the October 2008 world financial meltdown.

So the warehouses and shops and restaurants have an ample supply left of the 2003 Brunello. Pity, because today as we tasted the 2004 from Caparzo, I really felt sorry that a great vintage like the 2004 is suffering only because of the circumstances we have all found ourselves in.

What to do? Is the '03 Altesino Montosoli so terrible? Of course it isn’t, after all it is the sibling rival to Caparzo and Guido Orzalesi would tell anyone that the wine is sound and bonafide. By the times aren’t yet receptive. Or the ship has already sailed for the 2003. So, once again, what to do?

I would (and do) advise to simply take the hit and close them out. Now. Lesser wines are taking the hit. Dolcettos and Barberas are streaming through the wine bars having been discounted to ridiculously attractive levels, ones that even I would bite on. And I need no more wine in my closet.

In the case of the 2003 Brunellos if only to give the 2004 their time under the spotlight, even if it is only the life cycle of a drosophila.

Which leads me right into this question: Why is it the market seems to get so interested in Italian wine after it has been discounted to cost or below?

Really, three times in this month I have had wine buyers, somms and restaurant managers wax the glories of a particular wine or two. After the third one mentioned it, I started to wonder how wines like these got their legs so deep in the community. We’re talking Dolcetto and Barbera and from producers that are well known, Einaudi and Vietti. And let’s throw in the Fontodi Chianti Classico Riserva, too. I heard that one lately too, even though it probably is a residual memory serving only to try and diminish any of the legitimate attempts to sell Italian wine for what it is worth. More on this to come.

The Dolcetto. I saw it on a list Out West and thought, what the heck, seems like a good wine that someone bought and didn’t know what they had. It was lively. And then again, I saw it, in another fancy place. Ok, good, the wine buyers have sussed out a sleeper, and we all benefit from their acuity. Hoorah for us!

The Barbera. I started hearing about this little beauty from SB (somm-buddy) who comments on this site. I knew the place, went up to the estate in Castiglione Falletto back when the crust of the earth was cooling. I got it then, just stood up a bottle of their ’81 Nebbiolo to let the dust settle. Had first communion with Alfredo, OK? I get it.

And then the dirty little secret comes out. The wines were “discounted”. Closed out. Disontinued. Disco’d. Why? Upon a little digging I hear that Remy Amerique, the importer for Vietti, is sandbagging their wine division. So these folks are possible soon without a home. No future? Time to disco? Sure seems like it.

And Einaudi, are they without an importer? They still show up on the Empson site, so it doesn’t look like that is their fate. Overzealous buyer at the distrib? Perhaps, but I’m not sure. Maybe my Empson peeps reading might share some insight. The wine is real. Good. So, what happened?

How to get excited about Italian wine when it is not on close-out?

Look, for a generation now some of us have been carrying this donkey up the hill. The Italians always undervalued their wine, almost apologizing for it because of the price. A Chianti Classico Riserva selling for $7 when a 3rd growth was going for $12. And the Italian was contrite, ashamed, sorry. So the wine got discounted down to $3 and all of a sudden lots of buzz from a restaurant here, a wine shop there. It was rampant in the 1980’s with Rosso di Montalcino, the “throw away” wine. The distribs had to buy the Rosso to get the Brunello and when it didn’t sell they’d schlep a bottle to Don Cazzu and make him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Great stuff, from Costanti to Il Poggione to San Restituta. I am not kidding. How many times I sat there with my bag of wine while Don Cazzu tells me what a great deal he got for the ‘74 RdM for only $2 a bottle. And he was right! But it perpetuated the image of Italian wine value. A Rosso di Montalcino was only worth $2-3 a bottle because it wasn’t bought right in the first place and it surely was never sold right. And so the true value of the wine never made it into the hearts and minds of the wine buyers.

And now we stand here, once again, at the corner of Downturn and Summertime with Dolcetto and Barbera and 2003 Brunello and when will we ever get to the place where we can really rev it up on the Montalcino autostrada of life? I think our little vehicle needs some work on the engine, the little one that takes us up the hill, yes we can, I think we can, will we ever? Can we?

Deep breath. Close eyes. Relax. Maintenance light is flashing. Must consult the manual. Ad Occhi Chiusi.


Tony McClung said...

Ac, you have been doing more than "carrying this donkey up the hill", I think you have been carrying the hill as well.

As usual, great post.

BK said...

AC... Please help me here. For a while now, you have waxed eloquently about wine being marked up too much at restaurants. Now, the same places are moving that wine -- and they are getting it at a discount?

If the producers can't move the wine, don't they have to discount it? There's only so much shelf space anywhere. There's only so much money anywhere, too. Both right now, and going forward.

Le Cirque and Sirio and NYC (and Big D) may have had a little place in Heaven in 2008, but not now... and I doubt for a long, long time to come.

So, what am I missing here?

Alfonso Cevola said...

The idea is to pass the deal on. Not to pretend they paid the original price for it and then make a killing by taking a 4x,5x,11x markup. Hope that clears things up for you.

Do Bianchi said...

This is a great time for restaurateurs to pass on the deals they got on 03 Brunello even before the crises hit.

We should heart Brunello (with a capital B) more than ever...

Alessandro Bindocci said...

Thanks you for mentioning Tenuta il Poggione, Alfonso.

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