Thursday, December 31, 2009

“Cris” Kringle, Hot Shots, Dream Wines & Mad(e) Men

One more day to go for calendar year 2009. Yesterday Sausage Paul was in the mood to pop a few bottles, starting with some Nicky Feuillatte Rose’ Palmes d’or. I dropped by his place in the morning with a little "bling" for his New Year stocking. I know Luca Zaia is trying to get everyone in Italy to drink Italian sparklers. But here in Texas we have an affliction to mix it up. And bubbles are part of the reason we liven up after working three months non-stop to try and get as much wine into the hands of deserving folks in these parts. But today was birthday for two gents, Paul and Joe Akers.

We need a name for Joe Akers, something that fits his demeanor. Let’s see, he likes wine, women and money. How about Joey the Whack? Anyway it was Sausage Paul and Joey the Whack’s tandem birthday – imagine born on the same day in the same year – separated at birth and joined together by a love for Amarone.

Joey the Weasel (aka Joe Strange Eye) couldn’t make it. He was busy loading up his vehicle to make hot shot deliveries to restaurants that had last minute “needs.” A coupe of days ago we had five minutes of snow and everybody in town panicked, started canceling New Year’s reservations, And then when the snow melted, 10 minutes later, everyone, and then some, called back, panicking that they wouldn’t get a New Years Eve seat in the restaurant of their choice. Anywho, Joe couldn’t make it.

A couple of veterans and a young lion did show up though. Adelmo was in rare form. Everyone brought a bottle of wine from their stash. Jermann’s "Dreams", the ’05 La Louviere, a tanned and sassy ’97 Solaia, a 2000 Ghiaie della Furba from Capezzana, a 93 Brunello and a bubbly from the Texas, Mexico, New Mexico border town of Canutillo, Texas. Huh? I’d never heard of it either, but there it was from the Zin Valle Vineyards, predictably named “Rising Star.” Well, of course.

Adelmo is my neighbor and man, his trash can fills up with a lot of wine bottles during the holidays. Today we had a beautiful lineup for the recycle tub. And we got to try wines from France, Italy and Texas before the year expires.

After the Rose’, Adelmo poured me a glass of deep yellow wine. I didn’t look at the label but when I tasted it I thought I was drinking a passito chardonnay. I didn’t recoil from it, but it caught me off guard. “I love this wine,” Adelmo proclaimed. “I don’t know what it is about it, but everything is in place with this wine for me.” I could see that. It was spoofulated and statuesque, but not grotesque. It went well with the ceviche. Ok, I’d go along for the ride.

A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams."

The last time I had the 2005 La Louviere was in Bordeaux out of the barrel. This time it was showing “advanced tendencies”. The wine seemed super-ripe, California-like. Odd. Again, Adelmo’s is a vortex and funny things happen in his place. We were sitting there making fun of each other; he likes to claim that Sicily is the only Arab country that has never invaded Israel. I countered that one cannot really allege to be Tuscan when their claim to fame is as one of the bastards of Napoleon when he was marooned on Elba. A couple in the corner heard our banter and the young lass let out a whoop. I think she wanted to join the drinking party (and she eventually did). But that is the way we rolled that day.

Adelmo’s friend, Danny, who got out of the retail wine and sprits biz (but not out of real estate), brought a bottle of ’97 Solaia. Danny and Joey the Whack and Adelmo are travel buddies who go to Italy from time to time. They leave a trail of broken “Dream” bottles wherever they go.

All of us are tied to one or the other in the wine biz. Beat, "The Swiss Missile" we all have known for so long, is a passionate guy about any kind of wine. And he is fiercely competitive. David is the other “money” guy in the group; he loves to eat and travel and drink wine and make money, so now he’s part of the tribe of characters. The Young Lion, Ben, has these wild looking eyes – if you didn’t know him you might think he’s getting ready to cloud up and rain on you. But he’s good. He loves wine and selling for his small company and he was so proud of loading up his car with the Texas Bubbly and going out with hand invoices to deliver the wine on the spot. I remember doing that a generation ago with an Italian Novello. It’s front line excitement, making things happen, right here, right now. Feels good.
A pasta dish with clams (why do those waiters bring the cheese around to ask us if we want any?) followed by a lamb chop (with more pasta, this time gnocchi) and then a small plate of veal. My regimen is getting close to being shot this day. We open the Super (reductive) Tuscan from Capezzana. These guys loved it – but they also love big red wine from the Veneto and Napa. I get it; I was on that bus once upon a time.

A mystery carafe appears – a 93 Brunello – from Banfi – maybe the Poggio all’Oro? It was pretty calm compared to the previous wines (that’s right) and it was almost in a hibernative-stage. We were moving through wine pretty fast now.

Slabs of bread pudding appeared on a small plate along with another wine, Feudi di San Gregorio "Privilegio", a botrytis passito of Fiano from Cotarella. I had a slight epiphany here. Cotarella knows how to do ripe, fruity, rich. I wonder what he could do with a Sagrantino in the “old style”. He does an Aleatico that’s a jam-fest. The Privilegio was a little over the top, but it was in keeping with the general theme of the day.

To come (full?) circle, we ended with the Texas Brut, which was fruity. “Rising Star” from Canutillo, Texas. A stone’s throw from Juarez.

The young lass who was admiring our tall tales and all the wine finally came over to see what the stir was all about. Her lunch companion had to get back to work. Some people do have to stoke the fires of the American economy, after all. So we toasted him and he set sail, while she looked at the lineup in amazement. For all I know, they might all still be there drinking in the New Years. As for me and Adelmo, she shot us in our Spy vs. Spy coats. Mine was a gift from a friend whose husband (who was a real Mad Man on NY in the 1950’s and ‘60’s) had passed away. It was a great gift to go into the next year, with a vintage Burberry Spy coat, with hidden pockets. Big enough to hide a bottle of Cristal. Or Jacques Selosse? Like I said, we like to mix it up in flyover country.

See you in 2010!

Monday, December 28, 2009

4 Years & 535 Blog Posts Ago...

…I started On The Wine Trail in Italy on December 28, 2005. My first post was pretty basic, a picture of Monte Vulture with a cluster of Aglianico grapes in the foreground. The impetus was from a friend, David Anderson, whose blog, Italian's Insight to Travel Italy, was this constant force of nature that compelled me to stay up with. David has stopped blogging for now, gone on to other things. But he was my guide and I thank him for starting me down the road of the bloggy-blog world.

My first commenter was My Life Italian blogger, Tracie Branch. We became pen pals and when she moved back to Texas, I adopted her as my Italian Wine Daughter. She is marrying another blogger, whom I met in NY (in his soul-patch days) via reading about him on blog-colleague Eric Asimov's The Pour. One day I suggested they "friend" each other on Facebook. The rest is history.

This is my 536th (and not last) post. I have been asking bloggers "if circumstances were presented to you that you were compelled to stop blogging, would you stop blogging?" Feel free to chime in here; I will compile the answers in another post down the road.

In the meantime, we have until the 37th of December (this year) to make homes for all the Italian wine in this O-N-D period. And Sausage Paul and Joey the Weasel (aka Joe Strange Eye) and the cast of characters and I are going to be busy right up until then. I havent talked to Beatrice or Arthur lately - I hope they're doing OK and will contribute to these pages soon.

Four years, 500+ posts, and that is just this blog, not too shabby. All done after hours, while holding down a pretty cool job. Life ain’t so bad for this wine-blogger.

Now, if I could just get someone in my family to answer their damn phone.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

All in the (Italian Wine) Family

The temperature was barely above freezing when I took a longer than intended run today. When I got back home, there was a message on my voice mail, from my friend Cassandra in Italy. “Alfonso, where are you? I need to talk to someone who I am so close to but not related by blood.” I could tell by the tone of her voice that this would be a long talk. So I poured myself some tea and called her.

Cassandra (not real name) and I met in Italy when we were in our 20’s. Her family is in the wine business (among others) and whenever there is some little piece of information I must know (or verify) Cassandra is usually the one I call. She is a no B.S. person, very passionate and loved by her friends, whom she is fiercely loyal to. In my view, I would punctuate that with a “to a fault.” She and I never were romantic; we both saw that we were much too alike and that it would be best if we didn’t go down that road. Thankfully that short and wise moment of otherwise testosterone-laden youth has served us well. We have remained close friends for many years.

Her family has holdings in the Central part of Italy (where she lives) as well as in the South and the North along with vineyards in Europe and the New World. They have made some great wines and they have made some terrible wines. Cassandra has been involved in wine over the years. Today she is less engaged in the day-to-day business. She has resources and dreams and she intends to realize some of them. But lately she has seemed to be a little pre-occupied with her family, so it didn’t come as a big surprise that she wanted to talk to me about them, especially during a holiday when so much of what we perceive family to be is put under a big microscope to be fully revealed. I had no idea if she was going to drop a bombshell on me.

I called Cassandra; she had just awakened from an afternoon nap, where she had fallen asleep by a warm fire. It was cold in her part of the world and she was curled up with a book and a hearth and had promptly fallen asleep. But she wanted very much to talk.

“I am reviewing my family life- my parents, my sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, nieces, grandparents, children, all of them- and my relation to them now.” Her father was still very much alive. He was always traveling somewhere for the family. Her sister had married a man who was an outsider but who had done very well for himself and had taken a large part of the family business to international scale. “But Cassandra, tell me, you sounded stressed on your voice message, what is going on?”

She took what sounded like a deep breath and proceeded to tell me all.

“I don’t think my family likes me. I don’t know what I have done to them. I have been a loyal daughter, usually doing what I have been told to do. But I have this independent streak; you know it so well, Alfonso. And because of it, it seems I have never done what my family thought I should do, even when I have been successful. My brothers and sisters and I seldom talk, and when we do it seems like we are playing pretend, like we are being polite because we know we must be. But there is no depth to our talks. I feel as though they have all built a moat around their life and they control who gets in. My nephews are growing up and they seem to be so, what is the word I have heard you say in English, they think they have it coming?”

“Entitled?” I ask.

“Yes.” She continued. “They have these fancy BMVoos and Prada and Dolce & Gabbana and they have so much arrogance for anyone who is older or even thinks different. What has happened to Italy and the family?”

I didn’t know if it was a rhetorical question but I knew Cassandra would continue. I just wanted to focus her a little. “Cassandra, what is going on with your son, is he ok?”

“Alfonso, he is the dear light of my life. When my husband died (tragically, some say perhaps not so accidental) he took it so hard. He became very dark and not willing to share his feelings. But he is a grown up person. What can I do? When my father calls him and he doesn't call him back, I must listen to my father tell me that the young people of today have lost all their respect. But my father was never available, emotionally, for him or for me. And then there is the subtle way my father turns the conversation into a criticism of my parenting. And then I am caught between the two of them, grandson and grandfather, who are both so much alike, but will never look into each other’s eyes. And then it is all my fault.”

“And the wine business, Cassandra, what about it?”

“Alfonso, you know what is going on it Italy right now – you read the reports – do you remember what I told you back when the Brunello scandal was just surfacing, that this was just the edge of a very big knife that would be found sticking through the body of the Italian wine industry? And here we are now, with another large corruption looming. Not good.”

“What about your sister and her husband and the business? Are they affected?” I don’t know why I asked her, I guess I was trying to get her to talk through the whole family thing.

“They are like that little quote from Gattopardo that you love to recite, when the Jesuit tells the Prince, ‘Excellency, the efficacy of confession consists not only in telling our sins but in being sorry for them.’ They are so removed from their sins, by their wealth and their moats, that they feel no compunction to even confess. So it is a big mess. My dear sister is from the old school, she doesn’t like to make any waves and why should she? She can ski in the Alps during the winter holidays and tan all summer on the Costa Smeralda with her grandchildren, playing in the water and eating insalata di polipo with Vermentino from her little vineyard. Why should anything change in her way of doing things?”

“No, really what I see now, is that everyone in my family had gone on to live their lives as if the other members of their family should fit an image they have. And if they don’t fit in that frame, they don’t go on the wall in the gallery. They don’t stay part of their family. Young and old, the Italian family in Italy has disintegrated to a wall of Venetian plaster with pretty little pictures of people as we see them, not always as they are. And in my case, I know I do not exist in their reality. And why should I? I am single without a mate; my children are grown up and flung across the world. Our lives rarely intersect, except at a funeral or when the Cardinal summons us to a Mass or a meal. We say to each other ‘I love you,’ before we close the phone, but we don’t act like we really love each other any more.”

This was getting dark. I know the holidays are a rough time for people, I have had my share of challenges lately, but Cassandra was starting to worry me. Here was an accomplished, loving person who thought that her family neither liked her nor loved her anymore. And I really didn’t know what to tell her. I mean, what can one say, make something up from the Rod McKuen play book? None the less, I took a stab at it.

“Look Cassandra, you are better served by the love you give than by the love you receive. And you are a lover of life. I know this is hard for you, you have lost a lot in your short life, but you have your health and you aren’t worried about having enough wood to make a fire to keep you warm at night. You are in a low period right now, and it seems the world might be in a low period with you. But you will not climb out of this pit with a rope thrown to bring you up. You were never this way, and you will not be this way now. You know what you must do, don’t you?” I was trying a little tough love with a huge dose of giddy-up, gal you can do it.

“Amica, I will be in Italy soon. And I must come to your region; it has been a few years since I laid some tulips on the grave of my dear wife, Liz. When I do, please lets spend a day or two together, talking this over. I want to help you as much as I can.”

Maybe that was all she really needed. Not judgment, not to ignore her completely like it seemed her whole blood-family had during this holiday. But a sincere acceptance of who she was and the promise of another day, soon, when we could talk, maybe over a same fire, for as long as she needed.

“I so would love that, Alfonso. You are a friend who knows what I have gone through. And life doesn’t just let up; it keeps throwing things at you. I know I must be strong and love even when I don’t feel it coming back to me. And I will be patient. And when you come, we will have your favorite polenta in that rustic style like we do in the hills, with the wild salad and that wonderful rough red wine with the color of the martyred saints that we first drank, so many years ago when we first met. I will wait for you until then. Ciao, mitico.”

Cassandra struck a cord - the universal desire to be loved. How extraordinary it is the person who gives and gives and asks for nothing in return. In Italy they are called Saints.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Miracles and Mythical Traditions

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given"

Leo's First Christmas

This little guy, who looks strikingly like his handsome dad, Giulio and beautiful mom, Stacy and sister Gia, is Leonardo Galli. He came into this world not long after Jan 1 of this year, but way before he was “due.” At a little less than 2 pounds, little Leo, the young lion, roared into this world. On Mother’s Day weekend, he finally came home to live with his mom and dad and sister in San Antonio. Merry Christmas, Leo and family. You've come a long way, baby! We are so glad to see you growing up so fast and healthy.

Leo the Warrior with Papa's wedding ring on his arm - long before he came home

This week Sausage Paul invited me and Joey the Weasel (who now wants to be known as Joe Strange Eye, ever since his accident with the shop-vac) along with Adelmo Banchetti, venerable Dallas restaurateur, and an entourage of wealthy financiers and beautiful women, to the Italian Club, for the Feast of the Seven Fishes (festa dei sette pesci). There were hundreds of Italians and Italian Americans assembled for this traditional feast that may or may not really originate in Italy. I have made a little film (here), interviewing people from first generation immigrant Italians to folks who have been here so long they don’t remember where they came from in Italy. I apologize for the length of the clip, as I generally believe any video over two minutes is too long. But if you have the patience, there are some priceless comments, from Adelmo's always entertaining “take” on things to Luigi Mungioli’s insistence that his family did indeed celebrate festa dei sette pesci in his home town in Campania (his wife is not as adamant). Marilisa from Sicily was the star of the show with her on camera presence. I told her she "photographed well" on camera, and she blushed. Marilisa is pregnant and in full female bloom, a beautiful sight.

There is an entertaining explanation from a family who came from Cefalu and settled on the Texas-Louisiana border (known in these parts as Laplanders). The outgoing Italian Club president, Dominic, who grew up in the Northeast of America and whose mother came from Sicily, gave a presentation whereby he explained that the custom most likely originated in America, most likely by Sicilian Americans on the East Coast. Growing up on the West Coast, I have no recollection of my Sicilian family ever celebrating the festa dei sette pesci, other than vague remembrances of eating fish on Christmas Eve. Interestingly in the crowd, when Dominic was presenting his paper, there were utterances of disbelief by Italian Americans who swore the custom originated in Italy. I think it most likely an American tradition, and so be it. After all, we are living in America.

Saw this church between stopping at the tamale shop
and the cheese shop - sanctuary for wayward sheep

Speaking of living in America, I have posted my polemic on Palate Press, on the desideratum for the three-tier system of wine disbursement. Suffice to say, there are heated arguments on both sides, already in the comment sections folks are queuing up to take their shots. Hey it’s a free country. Like a friend said, "When it comes to wants and needs we Americans often line up in the 'I want the world and I want it now' camp or the 'I want my MTV' camp or the 'Give me my freaking goods, dude' camp, depending on which generation is proclaiming their inalienable rights." Good luck to all – This is one for the lawyers who would have to get the issue in front of the Supreme Court to argue the repeal of the 21st amendment and cause the dismantling of an industry that supports hundred of thousands of families. I don’t know too may politicians who are lining up to put more people out of work these days. Summum Bonum.

And we have one more day to get those little bottles of wine in the hands of folks who just got to have a bottle of wine tonight. Snow is predicted. We’ll be stocking and box cutting and espresso sipping and doing our mano a mano relationship marketing at our favorite Italian wine shop in the world. Come see us!

Buon Natale, tutti!

Class Act - Importer Tom Beckman, stocking wine in his Armani blazer,
wearing Prada frames and sporting his trademark limited edition
TAG Heuer Monaco "Steve McQueen" chronograph

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Mark of Zaia

It has been one busy year for Luca Zaia’s Italy. From his power chair on the deck of the Italian Titanic, he has attempted to banish pineapples and kebabs, sell kiwi’s (who knew they were indigenous to Italy?) back to China from whence they came. He defended the Crucifix, Mozzarella di bufala and Sangiovese. He elevated Prosecco to the heights of Barolo and the once mighty Brunello. He was into everything, even collateralizing bank loans with wine. You name the cause and it seemed Luca Zaia was there to defend the proto-Italian position.

He finally, single-handedly, anointed Amarone, the darling red from his beloved Veneto. I am surprised he didn’t move the minister of agriculture offices to Padova, so he could be closer to his dearly loved Veneto. But it seems that will change soon. Luca Zaia is running for President. Not of the world, not of Italy. But president of the region of the Veneto. Does Luca Zaia have his sights set on a higher role in the destiny of Italy’s future in the 21st century?

And why, you ask, is this of interest to Italian wine lovers? Well, dear listeners, there are a myriad of reasons. Luca said this last summer, “Italian vineyards are under attack.” The political is always involved in the doings of food and wine in Italy. And politicians can be a help or a hindrance to those who toil in the fields. Luca Zaia has been an enormous advocate for his Veneto homeland.

But if he becomes president of the Veneto region (and there are those who say he is a shoo-in for the post) will his Lega Nord secessionist leanings unite the wine world? Or will things become even more fragmented? Will the Veneto morph into a San Marino or an East Timor? Will we find easier parking near the Fiera in Verona or hotels we can walk to from the endless pavilions? Dare we dream a dream so large?

Viewing the movie, Gomorra, I can understand why a productive, ambitious Italian from the North might want to put a little distance between him/herself and the tentacled dealings of the South. Both my grandparents walked away from the region, in fact, the country, 100 years ago. My kind can never go back. I got sick to my stomach looking at that film, even though one can point to a series like “The Wire” or even “Weeds” and ask why America would be the preferred zone for setting up a life. We all have our blinders. But this is about Luca Zaia, so we must get back on our high horse and contemplate the New Italy.

“Solo chi conosce bene la propria identità può costruire un ponte.” (Only he who knows their own identity can build a bridge.) -Luca Zaia

Will the new Italy banish tomatoes? They came from the New World. And chocolate? And potatoes? What about gnocchi? And corn? What will the polenta eaters do? How about Cabernet Sauvignon? Or Primitivo? Are they now indigenous, really? Or eggplant, brought to Sicily by the followers of Mohammed? Or rice, brought by traders through Venice from Asia? What will the Italians eat? Or drink?

Luca Zaia, you will have some explaining to do if you achieve your next ambition, which might be a stepping stone to your ultimate goal? What will you disassemble in the world of food and wine to advance your cause? And what is your cause, really? Are you some kind of Manchurian candidate from the Veneto and the Lega Nord, hell bent on taking apart this young unified country we know as Italy? Do you aim to be Savior? Or Sultan?

Is this good for Italy and the food and wine business? Is having a Prosecco Godfather such a bad thing? After all so many things from Italy have been stolen and now they come from other places, like Parmigiano, Prosecco and Pomodoro di Pachino. The nerve to take tomatoes from their ancestral home in Sicily to grow them in China? That would be like taking the Kiwi’s away from the Marche, an abomination.

From a younger country (albeit an older democracy) looking towards you from the shores of America, it appears you want to perform some kind of surgery to the body of Italy. Anyone who studies the culture and the language and the food of Italy, know that Italy is far from “unified”. But tread carefully, lest you take her back to a new renaissance of darkness in your desire to have your prowess magnified.

In reality there are places where things have their origins. Yes, tomatoes, potatoes, even pasta didn’t originate in Italy. But Italy did their best to make the experience of eating those foods something uniquely Italian. And yes I do not like to see wine producers ripping off the popularity of Prosecco by bringing it out from places like Australia. But what is the real motivation for Supernova Zaia? What is behind the mask?

“Let them eat Panettone.” might be the apothegm, as long as you freely pour Prosecco to your legions of admirers (soon to be sans polenta?). Will you wage a larger Holy War to make sure there will be no citron or rum in any of the cakes in the land? Denounce the infidel eggplant and the pagan potato to your legions of followers as you march from Pordenone to Predappio in search of a purer and nobler expression of Italianism? Search for a new name, as the word Italy has no root in the land, it is merely a word invented by the Greeks during their hostile takeover of the Southern lands, those same lands that some wish to someday break away from? Will you break clean and soon? And retire to your eagles nest in contemplation of a new order in which your vision will someday be a reality?

I will leave you dear listeners, and Zaia, with this last thought. If you truly want your destiny to rise up listen to the words of Don Alejandro, advising his son Don Diego on his future:

"Get life into you! I would you had half the courage and spirit this Señor Zorro, this highwayman, has! He has principles and he fights for them. He aids the helpless and avenges the oppressed. I salute him! I would rather have you, my son, in his place, running the risk of death or imprisonment, than to have you a lifeless dreamer of dreams that amount to nought!"

Give it a stab, Zaia - make your mark!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Bottle Handler, the Broker & the Bureaucrat

There are few characters in the Italian wine business that merit this trilogism. Sure enough there will be those folks who think this is about someone they know or even themselves. I will only say this, one more time, it isn’t always about you. For sure, this time it isn’t. It is about someone, but please dear listeners, all in due time. All in due time.

Over the course of my lifetime on the wine trail I have noted certain archetypes in the business. For today’s journey we are uncovering three of them, the bottle handler, the broker and the bureaucrat. Their stories are interwoven in time and happenstance.

The Bottle Handler
When he was young, the bottle handler fancied himself quite the sommelier. He would put on his brown suit and tie and take the elevator up to the top floor of the lofty dining room, filled with the most exotic bottles and people. He saw this little place as his own personal theatre in the round, where he would dazzle the dining masses. Rare wines from France and Italy, and massive wines from the West Coast, all were colors in his palate of flavors and amazement. A couple orders steak and sole; no problem, there would be a match. A party of four orders shrimp, prime rib, chicken and pasta; easily solved. A party of sixteen was ordering everything under the sun but wanted a wine to go with it; can do. And for a time the bottle handler reveled in his power and his prowess. And then he grew tired of the heights he had achieved and sought a more down to earth place in which he could ply his trade. He was after all, an artiste and his talent was being wasted on the tourists that flocked to the top of the little tower that rotated. He wanted “the” dining room that “the” players were dining in.

And so he found such a place. Rare Venetian glass and soft muted light. Plush carpeting and gueridons for classic table side presentation. Rolling carts with decanters and candles and all the accoutrements of the art of wine service. He had arrived. Bin after bin of ancient vintages; 1st growth Bordeaux, famous Barolos, Hocks and Mosels, Grand Cru Burgundies and vintage Port. He was in sommelier Paradise.

And then as it often happens in Paradise, he grew tired. Tired of Pommard and Pouilly Fuisse and Piesporter. Tired of Barolo and Burgundy and Brunello. And tired of the people who came in looking for the new California reds, as young and vigorous as their escorts. But serving the Old Money was wearing. And so the bottle handler cast himself out of Paradise.

The Broker
Our next phase of the story takes us to an intermediary archetype, the broker. Really a merchant without a shop or inventory, the broker works for a supplier of product and is a factor between a producer and a storefront. Often a broker is seen as a idle person who leeches of the work of others, dawdling away countless hours over three hour lunches and innumerable bottles of wine. A percentage of everything that goes through the broker is kept and in return there is the promise that the broker will build the business and bring satisfaction to both sides that are separated by the broker. Our broker was fairly motivated. His beat was Italy and he lived in Italy in his mind. But his battle ground was the under developed American market. The broker had a chip on his shoulder. He thought he knew wine about as good as anyone could. He lived in a fishbowl of his own making. Whenever he would venture out into America he felt the untapped potential of the American wine market tangoing with his unflappable aptitude of domination. He had a very good opinion of himself. As a self-appointed show horse of the wine business he snorted and bucked to show his competitors that he was a leading man.

But he was troubled. He didn’t really believe it when he was away from the limelight. He had doubts. He wasn’t quite sure all the people liked him. His wines didn’t always get good reviews, if they even got reviewed. He lost sight of their provenance and began to lose confidence.

It took many nights on the road, talking to many different kinds of people. It took trip after trip to Italy. To France. To California. To New York. And then a light went off in his head. These wines were ahead of their time. They weren’t reviewable because they weren’t yet fashionable or desirable in a way that someday they might become. And so the broker opened the gate and walked out of his garden, in search of that day in the future.

The Bureaucrat
Our final segment of this triptych revolves around the model of the bureaucrat, the pen pusher, the strategist, the corporate man. The lifer. This one is the most frightening, because there is little room for idealism. Time is limited. Pragmatism directed at self-serving survival rules the roost on this vessel. It isn’t always about the best for the most. This is where the challenge to one’s integrity is most subtly tested. Daily. Minutely. Our man here wrestles between personal comfort and the faint promise of a legacy. But who cares? The up and coming young generation knows nothing of history, cares not about the stories. “Get out of the way old man,” is the mantra. And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Is there a way to mend the tired and broken bureaucrat? Can an old dog be taught new tricks? Possibly, if the bureaucrat hasn’t bought in too deeply of his own persuasive argument. The one he gives to everyone around him to convince them of his infallible ways.

This is where the mirror of reflection, if it isn’t too tarnished, can come in handy. That, and a willing heart that hasn’t forgotten one’s inner child. And if that doesn’t work, there are examples that might jolt one out of stasis and complacency. Not to mention to remember the young thundering herd at one’s back, advancing, rapidly, daily.

Yes, the bureaucrat must battle hubris, developed by becoming proficient in his field. But the future is a moving target and the times are relentless about spitting out obsolete overseers. Crops are rotated, fashions change. Early adaptors evolve. Or so we would like to think. Or to hope for.

These three pieces of the wine trade are necessary. But they must run efficiently or perish. Such is the law of the competitive jungle. I have studied these three characters my whole career from near and from far. I have had a macro and a micro view of them. I think I know then well, as I have been in such close proximity to all of them over the years. But for all I know I might have been too close to really know them. In any event, we are all here, now, at this juncture. The wine business is shaking and moving and changing like the earth above a fault line as it quakes. There is danger and excitement and uncertainty. And these three stagemen have arrived at this confluence together. No kiss and tell this time, except from that solitary someone who shrouds this trio of players on the stage recognized by him as the unwavering wine trail in Italy.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Epiphany before Christmas

Or, It's going to take more than a traffic cone to sort this mess out

Last night we opened up a bunch of wine. Some of it good, some that had seen better days. Some wines aged well, some didn’t. I’m sure somewhere else this will be talked about, so you can go there and read all about that.

What got me to thinking, though, was this current mess in Italian wine. People, usually in Italy, just can’t help but screw up in what seems to be a more than occasional thing. I go back to the mid 1980’s and remember just how devastated me and my colleagues were when we had to help rebuild the image of Italian wines after the scandals in Emilia-Romagna and Piedmont. It took years to get folks over that. And it really wasn’t until Morley Safer came out on 60 minutes with his French Paradox that folks came back to Italian wine (and all wine) in droves. That was in the beginning of the 1990’s. We were also embarking on the 1st War in the Desert and people drink more during wartime.

So we get through a war, and things start rolling along quite nicely in the wine world. Prices rise; people are making a lot of money. People who make a lot of money start investing in wineries, in France, in California, in Italy. And prices rise. Barolos for $200 start popping up. Amarones for $100 seem normal. And Brunellos for $150 aren’t all that uncommon. Farmers, with dirt still under their nails, start flashing gold jewelry on those earth-crusted hands. It was all part of the new trafficking of the Italian wine as a luxury item. And then (and not the first time this happened) someone got the idea that people in America (and elsewhere) were stupid and wouldn’t know the difference if the wine became a little darker, a little deeper, a little stronger. Wine writers started praising the wines. Scores rose with the prices, even as towers fell in America. It had the aura of an unreal scenario being played out.

Maybe America was distracted with their 2nd War in the Desert and Beyond. Maybe the political shift caused folks to look away. And while this was happening, the marketers and con-men of Italy were out hawking their fake Rolex watches and fake Tuscan wines. It was like the first time I took a boat from Naples to Palermo and all these little kids came up to me trying to sell me all kinds of fake useless crap. Well, those kids grew up and it seems some of them went into the wine business in Tuscany.

I’ve had this feeling in the wine business, that as goes Bordeaux, so goes Tuscany. They have parallels in their history. The wines, the wealth, the marketing. Well, Bordeaux is in the crapper right now and it is going to take one hell of a miracle (or tsunami) to rehabilitate its image. History is on their side, they’ve done it before. Even when they have a scandal they find a way to make it go away. But the Italians, they're another story. They love to roll around in the stuff, get it under their nails, and shove it under everyone else’s nose too. This time I think they might have gone too far.

Some years ago I was sitting at a dinner table near Lake Garda enjoying a meal of roasted meats with a group of winemakers from Abruzzo. It was the time of Vinitaly and everyone was glad to be sitting down and getting off their feet. As the night progressed, some of the winemakers started ordering bottles of local wine. The first round of wine, from Quintarelli, these guys examined it, liked it OK, but thought it was light for their tastes. I thought it was a good example of what Valpolicella should be. Light, but correct. Then they ordered another wine, a Ripasso, known for being stronger. And we set about to drinking it. After a while, one of the winemakers at the end was beaming. I looked over at this normally really quiet guy and asked a friend of mine why he looked that way. My friend said, “He is looking that way because that bottle of Ripasso we are drinking from Valpolicella has so much of his wine in it, it is like we are drinking his Montepulciano. It makes him feel at home.” So here we were drinking “Valpolicella Ripasso” and the winemakers liked it better than the earlier Valpolicella we were drinking (from Quintarelli) because it tasted more like they were used to.

Back to the future-now. So the fault lies not with Tuscany, but with the changing tastes of the Americans? I call that B.S. and find that kind of rational to be the worst kind of traffic cone porn I have ever heard from Italian bureaucrats. You guys are losing me. And while I may be a small stone dropped in the middle of a large sea, I am angry. I am pissed. I have spent my whole adult life working in the hinterlands of America, in flyover country, where it is not easy to find converts to these wines in the first place. But I have been in the army and have gone about my business, day in day out like a good soldier. I didn’t take a month vacation this year; in fact I am leaving two weeks of vacation on the table to be lost on Dec 31st. Why? Because this has been a tough year and I felt I should stay on the home front and work. So we did. On Saturdays. Sometimes on Sundays. Trying to keep the fires burning bright for the winemakers back in Italy. And then unscrupulous hooligans go and pull this crap again in Italy? Wasn’t the Brunello scandal enough of a wakeup call? Haven’t you all hurt the image of Italian wine enough? Are you folks in Italy in the wine business not angry enough about having to rebuild your trade? Or are you just thinking about the two weeks you will be taking off for Christmas, New Years and the Epiphany?

I am admonishing you in Italy and specifically in Tuscany. You all better start having your epiphany now and get your act together. Argentina is clamoring for your business, Australia will take away your boxes and France will come for your money, too. Luca Zaia (maybe you should put down that glass of Prosecco and postpone your victorious brindisi), the administrators of the Chianti Classico consortium, the Brunello consortium, wine producers, grape brokers, journalists writing about these wines and influential groups such as the Unione Italiana Vini - someone needs to do something more than just putting traffic cones around Castellina. Or you will lose in America. Big Time.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

On a Hot Streak During a Cold Snap

I must be crazy.

Wednesday morning I awoke to sub-freezing temperatures. My Hoja Santa long past giving up the ghost, I set out to check on my arugula and radicchio plantation. The radicchio had relocated to one of Dante’s hells but the arugula was fighting to stay alive. I covered it and under the cover of a late autumn fog I headed off to catch a plane to Houston.

The night before I had gotten a call from a colleague who had informed me that I had gotten removed as moderator to panelist on a blogger/social network round table that the Italian Trade Commission was doing in NY in Feb. “They bumped you for someone who had more name recognition – Andy Blue.”

I am in the habit of understanding that Italian government employees work in a separate reality, so while I was disappointed I wasn’t surprised. After a round of emails to other folks on the panel and in the bloggy-blog world, I realized there was an opportunity to be on the panel rather than to moderate it..

Last year at the Italian extravaganza in NY, what did they call it - Vino 2009 - where there were all kinds of seminars and dinners and awards and tastings and everyone left NY feeling all warm and fuzzy? Well they will do it again next year in Feb, Vino 2010. And I will trek from La Jolla to Dallas to New York to show up and be a good soldier for the cause of Italian wine and the bloggy-blog world.

Thinking that the social network can hold up just fine without me for a day or two, I ventured into the wine jungle that is Houston. 30 degrees warmer than Dallas, which was a welcome change. But hopefully I would be able to embrace the deeper side of things Italian, especially during this moment when all things sharp turn smooth and all things bitter turn sweet.

A warm porchetta at Giacomo's and the welcome embrace of Lynette with a bottle of Trebbiano was a good start. Beets, cauliflower and a little taste of insalata di mare misto sent my altered regimen of eating into the stratosphere, if just for a day. But here, as I have written before, is a place that gets the sensibilities of things Italian. Thankfully the Houston restaurant reviewer, Alison Cook, totally gets it. Great review, lots of business. Read here.

We slipped over to another friend’s place, this one a bit more of a challenge because the next generation is taking the reins of the business, slowly. Still, this has been a field we have steadily plowed over the years. Houston is just too young of an urban blot to make a deep enough impression on the Italian experience in America, even though the Sicilian heritage is long and deep.

Running over to Tony’s to taste with Jon and his colleague; Rosenthal wine rep was there with a full bevy of great French and Italian wines. The Piedmont wines from De Forville and Brovia were showing gorgeously. Also opened were a Nero d Avila from Las Lumia which was stinky and wild and wonderful and a Primitivo from Pichierri that was equally savage in its unbridled refusal to surrender to the Rollandization of wine. Very happy to taste these wines with the Rosenthal examples. All these years showing these wines to somms and wine stores and not having anything to go on but my story and a hope that folks would connect with these authentic examples of individualism in Italian winemaking. Very happy.

Later in the day the very same colleague who had to break the news that I had been bumped in favor of Andy Blue called again. “You’re Calabrese aren’t you?” I didn’t know if I was in trouble for something, but I said, “Well, yes, my mother’s family came from there.” My friend then asked me to moderate a panel on Calabria wines.”The Italian Trade Commission felt bad about the way they disregarded you and they wanted to ask you if you would help out with the Calabrese panel.” Being a good soldier, I said sure. Look, my life is pretty good; all things are working out just fine. I always remember the energy of this whole thing revolves around the wine gods and sometimes you gotta serve somebody.

And that, dear listeners, is 24 hours in the life of an Italian wine guy, on the wine trail, this time in Houston during a cold snap. Mmm, gotta find me an amaro before I call it a day.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Sombudsman, Wine Cougars & Straddle Baggers

The O-N-D Chronicles

I got an email from my buddy, the Big Guy, early Saturday morning. “Enjoyed our lunch together. I’ve been thinking about the Blue Sky.” I had no recollection of what he was talking about, regarding the blue sky, so I called him. He reminded me of the late 20th century fondness by wine buyers, for having so many wines available. Bernie Madoff & Co put the kibosh on that. Large distribs were looking at their bottom line, trying not to lay off drivers, salespeople, admins. Small distribs were just trying to make payroll. Occasionally some of the great stuff would stick, but the brand names were struggling to stay on the shelves, on the wine lists. Robert Mondavi wines were no longer found in prominence. Meanwhile the young somms, working their way up out of the primal slime to some high and dry land where they wouldn’t get tugged back into the undertow, they were trying out their lines.

“You were a little tough on John,” B.G. admonished me. John's a somm who wanted to order some wine. I was all "just the facts ma'am" that day. B.G.’s been a friend going on 30 years now, ever since he pawned those five cases of Rafanelli Gamay off on me when I was a struggling wine bar manager. He had risen in the ranks, the hard way, and had managed to distinguish himself in the wine world. So I reckon he deserved my ear. Plus he had sprung for lunch. “At least you could have thanked him for ordering some wine. But you chumped him off; spit him out faster than a bad Pinot with mercaptan. When are you gonna play nice?” He'd made me feel bad, but that was a good thing. There are very few people who really can talk to me like that and do it with love. That, and I get to call him on his B.S. when he gets uppity. So it got me to thinking. What the wine world needs now is a Sombudsman – someone who can bridge the gap between the real word of economics, finance, supply and demand and the world of the Blue Sky sommeliers. We need both worlds – just gotta find a way to intermesh ‘em. B.G. is a likely candidate – an experimental rolling laboratory to get the needs of the present linked to the dreams of the future. I know this is probably getting a little too esoteric for most folks, plus I’m a little wordy these days, so I will leave it at this and plant the seed. I will be back. Later. For more.

Wine Cougars
Later that day I walked into my favorite Italian wine and food store in the world. I was jonesing for some eggplant. My latest diet was gotten me jazzed about vegetables and I love eggplant. My oldest dish, the one I’d “wine and dine” ‘em with in college, was this ancient recipe that my grandmas, my mom and my aunts taught me. It is my ultimate comfort food. But I was looking to do a few modifications of it, see if I could tweak it a little. Sausage Paul’s older brother, Johnny Cash-not-credit, always had a line of good produce.

It was Saturday and the store was buzzing from the cheesey-meetball-umami vibes from the sandwich counter. People were splayed all over the tables in food comas. Wine bottles were open, the espresso machine was cranking out an aria and all was well in my favorite Italian wine and food store in the world. Along the aisles, near Abruzzo a woman in endangered boots was looking for Montepulciano. Innocently I asked if I could help her. “I just got back from Rome, and we had this fabulous Montepulciano. It started with an “M”. Yes it does.

I could tell she wasn’t about to be allowing me within her force-field – I was a gnat – or worse – a salesman. So I backed off a little – what we call in the trade, creating a vacuum. After all, every known Montepulciano (from Abruzzo) was sitting there on the racks- save the Villa Reale which I had just sold. So I recoiled to let her graze.

She had a vexing allure – I identified her as a probable wine cougar. She liked her wines young. But she had just come back from Italy, so she was “in the know.” And - she still had her deflector shields up. Eventually we got it out of her that she was looking for Vino Nobile (remember egg and eggplant?) so I handed her off to S.P. He’s the guru of Vino Nobile.

She strayed back into the Abruzzo vector – maybe it was the smell and the feel of the Douglas fir racks that moved her out of her “sure-zone” – It seemed she wanted something – So I bit and opened my unfiltered mouth. “Well if you really want to know something about Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, I am really well versed in those wines.” I didn’t want it to sound like a brag; I was trying to be a love cat. And having been there 20+ times I figured I had some expertise in the subject. Maybe a little.

Nah. She wasn’t buying it. She had just been to Rome. She was “in the know.” No sale.

Straddle Baggers
Joey the Weasel calls me when I am there. "Hey have you seen Flip’s wine book?” Flip was a restaurant owner who was jettisoned out as driftwood into the wine world without a job. He took one with a small wholesaler. There are a few of those guys around. They used to be wine buyers with big important positions. People were scared of them, bowed to them, acquiesced to them. They were like gods. And then the business turned or their position changed and they were out beating the street with the rest of the peddlers. But they had been to the mountain top. They were prominent. And old routines are hard to break.

“No, Joe, I haven’t seen Flip’s wine book,” I answered. “Why?” I ventured.

“Well he left it at the store three weeks ago and was looking for it.”

Well maybe it is with that stack of wine he sold them that’s been sitting there for the last two weeks, uncut and unpriced.” Ya think?

Straddle baggers – aging wine geeks who have had to reinvent themselves but for some reason they don’t think the rules apply to them. You know - pay your dues, pay your dues, and pay your dues? Maybe it’s a fire in the belly thing. Maybe it’s languor. I see one of the peddler-gals, Brandy, out there hustling. She gets it. Young, confident, feisty, not afraid to ask for the order or get in someone’s face if they are putting their wine into her slot. I like her – she’s got moxie. The other day a gent walks in and want two cases of wine and he walks out ten minutes later with four. I’m filling up boxes of stuff and Brandy gets my attention – zap – 6 bottle of Rosso di Montalcino from her slot. Now that wasn’t so hard - all she did was make the contact and ask for the order – she got it – she thanked me for it - glad to help her – wish our people could hire folks like her.

As we put the pedal to the metal to thrust our way out of O-N-D, with barely a month to go, the bulls and the bears I find sure do make for some entertaining observations, all along the wine trail in Italy and everywhere you find fermented fruit.

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