Sunday, February 07, 2010

The World’s Authority on Italian Wine

When I first went to Vinitaly in 1984, I arrived with the single-minded energy (and arrogance) that I might just be one of the experts on Italian wine. Upon walking into a guided tasting by the Italian Sommelier Association, I quickly realized that I was nowhere near having any kind of voice of authority. All around me were people who had spent a lifetime in the ranks, learning, honing and refining their knowledge of a very complicated subject.

And so it goes, every time I walk into one of the pavilions at Vinitaly or attend a Gambero Rosso tasting. There are hundreds of folks who know the difference between Cappuccio and Mascalese, or Nebbiolo and Chiavennasca and surely, Prugnolo from Morellino.

This week in NY at the Vino2010 event was also one of those moments. This time, however, there were young and old alike, vying for their place on the ladder of preeminence. Is it any surprise in today’s emotional climate that there are so many people who do believe they are the world expert regarding Italian wine?

Chatting with a couple of wine guys who have achieved mastery (MS & MW), we kicked around the question of who might actually be the world’s authority on Italian wine. What would their qualifications be? How old might they be? Male or female? Native speaker or interloper?

There emerged several archetypal candidates. One is my memory of an older gentleman, Franco Tommaso Marchi, the sommelier who led that first tasting at Vinitaly a generation ago. I would read about him in the Civilta del Bere, really the only magazine at the time about Italian wine in English. He had many students and followers and seemed to be highly respected for his working knowledge of Italian wine from a sommelier’s perspective.

Another candidate might be an educator/consulting winemaker. There are quite a few of them around these days. Someone like an Attilio Scienza might fit that category – published, with a very nice way of understanding the layers of wine from the roots to the finished product. Someone who blends the historical with the practical and provides a path to a finished product. This archetype actually participates in the process and shares in the evolution as well as delving into what came before.

The wine evaluator, someone like a Luca Maroni or an Anthony Galloni, seems to exhibit a route for expertise, based upon tasting, evaluating, and ultimately sharing their knowledge and assessment to a large following. They move wine into the hands of many people, they propel the idea of Italian wine forward rapidly. They are influencers.

And what about the Italian wine blogger, someone like a Ziliani or a Pignataro? Here we have experts with a command of Italian culture and politics, whether in Italy or back and forth between the old country and the new frontier. There is intellectual capacity and understanding of the scene from the ground up, with the ability to disseminate their passion and their knowledge to a new audience and in a rapidly moving medium.

How about the wine geek? You know the type. This is the person who goes to a tasting and tries all the wines in the room, makes notes about all of them, keeps copious notes, categorizes them and has a photographic memory, able to remember every wine, every perceived nuance and has the ability to pull this up on a moment’s notice, from memory.

Maybe it is a merchant, drawing from the importing side all the way to the wine shop? I have often been dazzled by the bright people with their working knowledge. To be able to know the difference between a southeast vineyard in La Morra and a rough-and-tumble plot in Serralunga, and be able to clearly evoke the difference and the reasons for those difference, isn’t that in some way a highly evolved form of expertise? I remember meeting someone like that in a little coastal town on the Adriatic. Might this perhaps be the kind of person to lead us all?

What if the person who is really the world’s authority on Italian wine wasn’t any of this? What if instead it were a cellar master who toiled below ground for years like a monk? Maybe he (or she) wouldn’t know all of the DOC or DOCG’s (does it really matter?) but had an intuitive, visceral connection to the root of all Italian wine inspiration? Someone with a direct line to Bacchus?

I don’t think I have ever met the world’s authority on Italian wine, although I have met many people who have thought they were. And I’m not even sure if such a person could exist, the subject being so complex and dynamic. But it is a matter for reflection, in that where we do gather our information and inspiration is an important thing. Whenever I'm at a seminar or a tasting and, as it is often clear, I am not the smartest guy in the room, I look to the one who is and mine a little nugget, to put in my vault. And while I am long beyond wishing to be what I am not, all of these kinds of people have been an enormous help in my continuing education along the wine trail in Italy. So for me the world’s authority on Italian wine is perched safely inside my mind, like the conglomerate wizard, constantly changing, morphing evolving, dying and being born. And that will have to suffice, until the next best thing comes along.

Photos scanned from ancient issues of Civilta del Bere


Debra Morgan said...

Hi ACe-
This is one of my favorite posts on IWT. You have asked and answered a difficult question several ways. Makes me want to open a bottle and think it over.

Jeff Siegel said...

You'll always be my Italian wine expert...

Seriously. That's what happens when someone asks me an Italian wine question. I say, "Hold on, let me call Alfonso."

tom hyland said...


No mention of my name? How about a little love here?

Seriously, your thoughts on this subject are the same as mine- we all contribute to the greater good when it comes to education and none of us is smarter than all of us.

Alain said...

Great post Alfonso.

Also lots of info for me to research now (especially people you've mentioned and grape varieties).

And perfect timing again, considering Vino2010.

Wish you all the best.



Anonymous said...

I think to be an Italian wine expert it takes a little bit of ignorance, as you suggest, but a big heart that can openly accept the myriad of differences that are dictated more from cultural differences than from soil composition and exposure.

Alfonso Cevola said...

over on Intravino they have their ideas about this subject too!
Who's the Guru?

Khelsy said...

Thanks for sharing these wonderful article. very informative and big help to me .

Michele Connors said...

Great post. Considering so many people want to seem sooooo knowledgable, this is an intriguing topic. I don't think there is an "expert" in any specific wine. If someone is trying to become a be-all end-all expert, I think that wine is the wrong game for them. Everyone is constantly learning, palates always developing, and autoctonous grapes are being brought back to life all the time in Italy. That is what I love about living here and meeting winemakers and wine lovers, you always learn something new.

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