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.

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