Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Joy of Selling

From the archives October 15, 2008

Last month at the Illuminati estate in Abruzzo, I had lunch with my people. No, they weren’t Sicilian or Calabrese cousins. They weren’t my co-workers or clients meeting me in Italy. It was much more visceral than that, almost tribal in the connection. I was invited to have lunch with a wine sales team, guys who sell to wine shops and restaurants in Rome.

Over the years I've had many meals at Illuminati. In the early days we had meals on the second floor of the old house, sometimes outside. If it was cold we’d invade the dining room. As the winery grew and the Illuminati family redesigned the old stable on the main floor, we settled into the space they called the Luperia, a space with a kitchen and an open hearth. And a larger dining room. Many great memories exist in this room, but I had never sat down to eat with my own regiment. And during those years, friend and cellar master, Agostino, has opened many a bottle for us to enjoy. We’ve grown into the job together.

I was really excited about this meal. I was prepared to pick the brains of rookie and veteran alike. Who would know better the travails of selling wine than a salesman from Rome? What kind of kickbacks did the Roman restaurateur demand? How did one go about getting control of the wine list or selling a wine from Abruzzo to a Sardegnan? I was hoping for all mysteries to be revealed.

Dino Illuminati, the patriarch of the estate, motioned for me to sit next to him. Lunch is serious business for Dino and he didn’t want anyone to get too near him with idle chat. He wants to eat and drink first. I know the drill. When Dino and I sit down we both go after food and wine pretty well much in the same way. Except Dino has a capacity that I will never be able to match.

One of the older veterans sat across from me. He reminded me of one of the salesmen back home. This gent had a peaceful air about him, he was the elder statesman; he grew up in Amatrice in northern Lazio.

I asked him how his route was. Was it competitive? Cutthroat? Was it hard to collect money? Did you get resistance with all the new wines coming out? What about the prejudices of owners from one region against the wines of another region (i.e. Piedmont vs. Tuscan). I was surprised to be reminded that they don’t go around tasting wine, sampling as we call it. Now they just carry their list, with maybe some Gambero Rosso review (very big in Rome) and the price list. Pretty cut and dry. Rome was a city that was prepared for all comers, and has been this way for hundreds if not thousands of years. Anything goes.

I was looking for their “hook”. How did they catch the big fish? Figuring Rome would be like NY or LA or Houston, there was always the particular technique that worked for the peculiarity of the particular city.

He was a thoughtful guy. And we were starting to drink pretty well by then. The big slurpy purple stuff they make in Abruzzo that they call “Montepulciano in purezza.” All the while the young salesmen would come over to him and bear hug him or jostle him around. You could tell these guys liked working with each other; there was camaraderie among them.

“Alfonso, what really works best is the rapport we build with our customers. Trust, time and relationship.” Ah, the “R” word. So the secret was, there is no secret; daily treading, pressing the flesh, and being reliable. Showing up. Building trust. Just like almost everywhere else.

Look at these people. They’re having fun. They’re enjoying their lives. They’re enjoying each other.

I told some stupid story, trying to be funny, about a sales experience here in The States, but I don’t think the experience translated so well to their frame of reference. No matter, platters of grilled lamb, sausage and pork were pulling up to the table and we soon were diverted to the main course.

Dino, me and Spinelli, back in 1985

The Luperia is a wellspring for me. I come back here to re-connect with those souls who are manifestations of the timeless energy that travels through the vine. Daniele Spinelli was one of the early winemakers I came to admire. I loved hanging out with him. When we would sit down to eat, as the night progressed, and as we went into red wine, the stuff he made, his head, shaped appropriately like a grape, would turn redder and redder. My Italian would get better and he would bestow his bodhisattva-blessing on me as a way to replenish me for another year. And send me back out to the outer regions to spread the word. It worked. And we came back every year or so, like pilgrims.

Luigi, me, Stefano and Claudio

Now, Dino isn’t so hands on. Spinelli passed away in 1992. But the next generation is upon us and there are more of them. As it is in the streets of Rome, so it is in the vineyards of Abruzzo. This is something that has been happening for hundreds of years and will continue, hopefully, for many hundreds more.

After lunch we went outside for espresso and cigars and fresh air, what a combo, eh? The sales crew had to get back to Rome. It was only three hours we’d had to sit down and break bread, but in that time I felt like a huge gift had been dropped in my lap; An afternoon with my selling tribe; with the young ones, the veterans, the crazy ones, the calm ones. Its not a closed brotherhood but it is a deep connection, to capture what is growing right out there in the land and transform it to wine and take it to Rome and NY and Austin and try and share with all those folks in those places these amazing miracles in bottles. Not just wine, but the lives, of Spinelli and Spinozzi and Illuminati and you and me and anyone that wants in on this.

This is the joy of selling. This is why I am on the wine trail in Italy and anywhere else the road takes me.

Thumbs up from a couple of Romans? I'll take that as a good sign.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Dance of Deliverance

From the archives October 28, 2009

For weeks it seems I have been slumbered over a computer, studying trends, making spread sheets, eating dust. Bound to this place by time of harvest and holiday. Setting the stage for the big show.

Around midnight, outside, a dog howls. He is new to the neighborhood and every little noise spooks him. Last night, a storm cracked the sky wide open and doused the land. A day later everything stunk with the smell of dirt and roots, perfect for the birth of a mushroom, but an olfactory Chernobyl.

In the dusk, bent over, harvesting the last of my crop, I thought about my escape. I am still hobbling from my last one, but the slumbering volcano calls. I need to go to Basilicata and dance.

From early days I remember listening to my grandmother hum soft rhythms in dialect, inherited from the Albanian diaspora that dotted the lands of our ancestors. Tribal dances that dyed our DNA with a dark mysticism, an allure, a danger behind the veil. And now I can neither resist nor ignore the dirge that has been driving the blood through my veins. Aglianico, my mistress, who is caressing you, who is neglecting you? Who will defend you against this molestation by modernity, couched with the mind numbing mantra of the shape shifters who chant “We aren’t hurting anything, we aren’t changing tradition. We are just making the wine better.”

Better? With yeasts developed in Torino, from factories provided by funds that grew from the wealth brigands stole from these very places? Has television and mobile phones done in a few short years what Hannibal and Caesar and Federico II and Napoleon weren’t able to accomplish in all the ages before? Why would you mingle the yeast for panettone with the grano duro of Barile?

Aglianico, don’t go with them. Aglianico, don’t let them carve you smooth and fatten you up. For thousands of years you have been the blood of the volcano, the dance of the harvest moon, the swoop in the cantine where so many marriages were made. How can you give it all up for the sake of a fancy new name and a small toasted barrel? You will sit in lonely places in faraway lands, with a high price tag, only to be forgotten, come una vecchia lampada in soffitta, when the fashion changes.

Look how they have mucked it up in Piemonte, In Toscana and in the Veneto. Fancy new styles, everybody getting a facelift; hiking their skirts up and letting the scores and the stars and the swollen shrimp determine your fate and their future. To be timeless is to take back the power the land bestowed upon you.

I’m coming to Basilicata, as fast as I can, to stop this false dance with i truffatori.

The essentials, in a life not limited by impulse, are bread, love, dance and wine. They are dearer when we answer the call from the Ancients. And cede not to ease or fear or whim or pain.

Padrona, vengo giύ subito.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


From the archives July 29, 2007

The road though the Cilento National Park hooked me. I want to linger. Forests, greenery, cool, peaceful. It is the kind of experience one can only hope to have in Italy, or anywhere. But the coast is calling, as is Calabria. We will have to touch the sand when we get there. The trail goes straight through the Sila.

Calabria is a strange place. I do not advise American tourists to go there on their first trip. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Calabria. But you cannot pack your wash-and-wear assumptions about the way the world is from an American-based set of ideas.

Calabria is its own reality, and if you don’t mind what happens, then you can become immersed in a world of color and spice, folklore and music. The rest of Italy sometimes makes fun of Calabria, for her poverty and her backward ways. The Calabrese say, that impression, while not correct, serves well, to keep away some of the riff-raff.

The beaches, the water, the sun, the breeze. Elemental ways. If you don’t mind. Paradise for those who can turn the tempting serpent of their inner chatter box off long enough to take in the Now.

After a long and winding drive through the Sila, Cosimo, our host, was waiting for us at his trattoria. A short man with one eyebrow and piercing, beautiful eyes. Like a sunflower stalk, Cosimo stands on this earth anchored, confident. A very happy soul.

Immediately he starts rapid-fire talking to me in Italian, and for some reason, I understand almost every thing he says. Maybe it’s the accent, like my Nonna Lucrezia’s. He excuses himself to talk to his fishermen out in the sea.

Italy has a strange cellular reception configuration. I should ask David about this, he knows more about that than I do. I imagine, for the trade involved, the brokers and restaurant owners on the shore need to be linked up with the fishermen, in order to gauge their commerce in fresh seafood.

A plate of gamberi came out from the kitchen and Cosimo opened a bottle of a white Mantonico.
Crisp, cool, fresh, I knew I had to pace myself. This was just one of probably many courses. Antonio from the winery would be here in 20 minutes, he wanted us to taste his new wines in the ambience of Calabria. It had been a few months since we tasted the wines at Vinitaly, so I was anxious to taste them again and in such a wonderful place.

After a meal that regenerated our road-weary souls, we sat along the shore to the song of the waves lapping by our feet. Peace. We had gone from forest to coast in a few hours. The only hot thing we suffered through was the grappa al peperoncino. This is Shangri-la, sans serpente.

What do I love about Calabria? Well my trips there from the past have great memories.

The figs, the eggplant, the peppers. The farm made cheeses, the exotic honey, the green hills, the innocent rustic character of the region. Even though the trattoria is along a strip of coast, the heart of the place is in the hills, among the wild things. That’s what makes Calabria so alluring.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Festival of Malvasia

From the archives July 27, 2008

This is the ideal time of summer; lying out in the pool, on my isola, thinking about the little sounds and sights and smells that make up the perfect day in July.

As I take a little nap, under the sun, above the body of water that occupies my isola, I have a dream. We are back in Southern Italy, walking. Somewhere off the distance there is a masserie; they are waiting for us, with wine and lunch. We are just a few minutes late, but we parked the car when the road would take us no further. There is music and the sound of drums coming from the distant winery. They are celebrating the Festa della Malvasia.
This is a yearly event, bringing dancers, artists, musicians, actors, clowns and jesters to this one place in the country, to celebrate the casks and the wine and the middle of the summer. Large women are seen carrying these gigantic platters for the fire; today they are feeding the artistic community and we have been invited by the winemaker.

My friend, Carlo the clown, is already there. We have a psychic communication, he is wondering where we are. But he’s fine, he’s playing with the monkey. My musician friend from California has called me; he is bringing a philosopher friend from Paestum, so he is behind us.

The invitation was only sent a few days before. To get all the players together was a major feat, but this is a dream, all things are possible. The invitation went like this:

Please, all who come, bring a little piece of your past to share, and take home a piece of your future. We have cooks from Naples, so no one should go home hungry. The wine is neither the old, dirty wine nor the new, lifeless wine. We are cracking open the barrels of real Italy; please bring a demijohn to take some home with you. Bring your mother, bring your sister, bring your sons and daughters and lovers. Or bring the priest, for we will all need him eventually. Come as you are, not as you wish to be. The party will last three days. We will not sleep, you’ll see. Do not RSVP. Just arrive when you can. Don’t be late.

I thought it a little strange when I got closer and started hearing all kind of animal sounds. A tent by the side of the building was pitched, a circus had stopped by. The smell of fresh seafood and garlic, mixed with the exotic aroma of capers, saffron and rosemary, filled the air.

Once inside the building we were greeted by an older woman with grayish to white hair, long and gathered in the back. She had a handful of young children surrounding her and her eyes where bright green. She handed us goblets. One of the young children took us to a room where there were pitchers. We were poured some cool, white wine.

Across the hall was a large open room, with tables and music and tiellas of rice and mussels, steaming and aromatic. Jugglers were practicing with tomatoes and squash, packs of trained dogs followed their every move. There seemed to be an order to all of this, although it didn’t seem to make any sense, nor like this could ever happen in real life. And then we sipped the wine.

This was the wine we had been searching for. It wasn’t some baked, tired, brown mass of lifeless juice with an alcohol base. And it wasn’t a mass of vanilla and butter, seamless and uniform, as if it could have come from anywhere in the New World Order of Winemaking. It was perfect. Crisp and juicy, an acidic marmelata to relieve the rice and the mussels of their responsibility to be the sole nurturing force. It was golden, it was sunshine, the tan on the arms of a young woman working in the fields, the little hairs on the small of the back of the newborn baby, the strength of the pizzaiolo, gathered after all those years in front of a hot oven, working his life away for his art.

The food, the circus performers, the exotic animals, they all retreated to the edges of the dream. All that was left was a pitcher in the late afternoon sun by the edge of the water and the sublime silence of a hot summer day; the synchronization of a life searching for that perfect moment, found by accident, over a festival for an ancient grape.

Punchinello Drawings by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Out On a Limb for an Etna

From the archives August 15, 2008

Some time back, when I was invited to Sicily to evaluate several vineyard projects, a few of us were sitting around the midnight table with passito and amaro. Next thing you know, we grabbed a few hours of sleep and then piled in a large van and headed towards the volcano. It was our homage to Burning Man, and what was waiting for us wasn’t what we had expected.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Endless Italian Summer

From the archives July 22, 2007

Fragments of a dream. All the Italians lying by a body of water, clutching onto a little piece of coastline, in the summertime. Their thoughts floating out into space, like smoke rings from Mt. Etna.

In southern Italy, with a room by the beach, and a fan. Looking from the window at this yearly ritual of recharge and rest. Only a distant memory now, while the Italians listen to the waves lap the shoreline, talk about what they will have for dinner, think about their fantasy lovers. Another endless Italian summer.

For the next six weeks or so, the Italians have put all manner of tasks on hold. Along the way, the grapes are calling, this time it's an early harvest from prolonged early heat and sun. Grape pickers, some who are scheduled to work a rice or a peach harvest, might be hard to obtain for the delicate work of bringing in the grapes. That isn’t part of the dream. Not in the plans for the Italian’s summer. Winemakers will have already planned to stay home, or at least delegate to their vineyard managers: find some bodies and keep the cell phones on in the fields.

As the car leaves Potenza we have to decide if we head towards Salerno in Campania, or make the longer trek south into Calabria. There are several winemaker friends to visit in Campania and the thinking is to get there before they disappear for a few weeks. In Calabria, they are already gearing up for the grapes, coming on the heels of their other crops. They will vacation in October, when it is still warm.

Funny how a trip to Italy, while one is drawn to the water, always leads back to the interior. So while the Italian is dreaming of their time on the beach, others drill deep into the heart of other matters.

On the phone with a winemaker in Trentino, who is not happy. He hasn’t raised his prices in three years and this time he want to go up 20%. Combine that with a weak dollar and sluggish consumer pull (read: buying cheaper wine), and he is in for a very rude awakening. I wish him luck and say good-bye, probably forever. How do you tell someone, making a Sauvignon Blanc in northern Italy, that the New Zealanders have just handed you your head on a plate? Folks might be buying Classic 7 apartments in NY for $2.5 million, but they aren’t springing for $30 Italian Sauvignon Blanc for housewarming gifts. Next.

Gravina, Falanghina, Greco, Mantonico, Grillo, Inzolia. We will make it up in The South.

A pack of wild dogs cross the Super Strada, stirring the dreamer. The car comes to a halt. They stare at us, we stare back. What? Four, maybe five seconds of that and it’s time to pull the car over and take a break. As that happens, the animals continue on their path. Wild rabbits have been seen in great numbers causing the dogs to move into the area, to feed on the bounty. A few small children have been reported missing, and occasionally, one comes across one of the dogs, shot, dead, hanging from a fence. A talisman for the pack to change direction. A middle aged man was found nearly dead, slumped in a field, with a bullhorn and an empty canteen of water. It was said he had gone looking for his young son and now the wife has nearly two members of her family gone. Barely two miles away other families play on the beach and plan their meals. The dream, intersecting with the unthinkable.

All the while the waxing moon heads towards fullness. And Mt Etna waits patiently, stirring slightly in her slumber, sending signs that have yet to be understood.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Appointment with the Muse

Several months ago I was walking down a little vicolo in the old center of Palermo. As I went from one narrow street to another I heard a voice. “We want you back. We need to talk to you.” I thought I was hearing things. And indeed I was. So I made a note to myself and moved on.

As if the little voice thought I hadn’t heard, it kept repeating, over and over, “Come back, we’re not finished. Everyone else has gone. We are so glad we found you. Please won’t you come back?”

100 years ago my grandfather left Sicily. I don’t know why, but it is my belief that he didn’t have to leave. His was a family that was prosperous. All these years has there been a part of him that has been trying to get back home?

I see it with modern day immigrants. The man who cuts my hair or the gent who alters my clothes, both came to America for a better life. And both seem to have little need to go home. Maybe that is the simple answer of my grandfather, he got used to this life.

But that isn’t the plea from these voices, my little muse near the Quadro Canti. I imagine the Prince of Lampedusa had his muse, a sorrowful one, filled with stories of loss and times never to be regained or reconciled.

No, this muse is a little lustrous. Or maybe a little trickier. In any case, one must take those plunges and follow the call, Sirenesque though they may be. Better to burn in a hell that is certain than to freeze in a cave, never to feel the warmth of the fire.

Alongside that, there is an urge to ditch the digital leash that ties us all to these machines. Restraint, less dependence on the immediate and more compliance with the ways of the Ancients. Just for a little bit. Let’s see what those voices are saying. Let’s walk along the Via Roma, go into the old bars where barrels of Marsala await, climb Mt Etna, swim in a cool sea, deep and blue and sweet.

To climb the fig tree and take the fruit at the top, where it is ripe and sunny. To dig along the ancient sites for a shard, a message, a rune. To race alongside the dolphins. To eat really fresh food and drink pure but simple wine. To really crave a plate of pasta and to eat it as if it were your last meal.

Hold on, I’m coming.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Ink that doesn't fade

“Can you help us out?” The call from Dallas sounded urgent, most likely due to the fact that it was June, we were facing two major fiscal year ends and we were also in the middle of a hellacious heat wave. “What do you need?”, my usual response. “We have a Count, Giovanni Bonmartini-Fini, we need you to take him around – go out with him and help sell his wine.”

Simple enough. Two wines – Pinot Grigio and Merlot. I stopped. Pinot Grigio and Merlot? Two wines, popular enough, but wines I don’t normally think of as much in this day of Falanghina and Teroldego. But what the heck, I thought, why not? Everybody says Giovanni is a super nice guy. Let’s go!

Giovanni’s story is that his larger business is in Italy selling printer ink. “Nothing is as boring as ink,” he would tell me. “Nobody thinks they need it until they need it. People don’t want to talk about it, it’s way down their list of things they want to buy or talk about. There is no glamour, and it’s usually all about price. And it is competitive – stiffly competitive.”

"Selling Pinot Grigio and Merlot is way sexier than selling ink or roofs."

It reminded me of those itinerant roofers that roam the neighborhoods after a big storm. Feared, mistrusted, loathed. But 600 printer ink stores later, Giovanni smiles, all the way to the bank. And then there is his Fini family estate making these two wines and Giovanni is so darned charming. Oh, and bonus round, he has a strong work ethic – not afraid to roll up his sleeves (or unbutton his shirt) and get busy. Along with that, his local rep was Gallo trained and doesn’t know the word “no”. His favorite line is “just one more stop.” Music to my ears.

A few weeks ago, during the heat wave, we all piled into my car and hit the road – First appointment 10AM – last call 9:30 – and no 2 hour lunches, not with these guys.

Just one of those days when I am reminded that no matter what my prejudices about Italian wine are, there is always someone who sees it a little differently. People love Pinot Grigio and Merlot. And Giovanni too. Giovanni surely knows how to sell and with joy. “After schlepping toner around Italy, coming to America to sell wine is work, yes, but work with joy. In fact, I have to keep reminding my partners that although it looks like I am having a great time, it is hard work!”

Sure Giovanni, I am here to testify for you, but I reckon I won’t be too successful in pleading your case. But the 9 PM display rebuilding session might.

Wine salespeople, and more importantly, wineries in Italy take notice: Instead of all those emails I get from this or that winery in Italy telling me about their tradition (which I love) and their unusual products (which in these times are not always a plus) come to America roll up your sleeves, work all day on your feet, and before it’s over let’s rebuild a 40 case display. And then tell me how bad you want to be in the American market.

I know one ink salesman from Rome who has already figured it out – you’re gonna have to get on the stick if you want to catch up with this guy. No month-long hanging on the beach in August – git over here and get busy. It sure works for Giovanni and his wine. And it works for me too.

"Catch me if you can."

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Searching for the Perfect Red Wine in Blue Sky Country

If I walked into my little wine closet tonight and wanted to pull any wine, what would it be? I was thinking about that not because I have a lot of wine, I don’t. And most likely what I do have is either too old or too red for the hot summer weather.

So an ala carte fantasy. Anything. The sky’s the limit. Hmm…

I’d like it to be red, white and rose. All of them. So that would be a tall order. And highly improbable. One wine – not three.

I’d like it to go with whatever I am having, although I cannot decided what that will be. I am starting to sound like some of the people I talk to in the wine stores, the shoppers.

I’d like to be able to have something really expensive, rare,, and also something that is a great value – a steal. Again, I am taking the surreal track.

If it were a wine that tasted super-natural but also had a great personality, and a sufficient amount of flavor. Nothing overdone, but if it was, I would expect if I were liking it then would somehow be in balance, at least for me. We have folks on the natural wine trail who are often in big jet planes and they seem to be able to live in both worlds, c'est ne pas?

What else? Sure I would love for it to be Italian, but I would also love to be surprised.

So far all I have done is dance around it. Do I really have a wine in mid? Maybe tonight we could pin point it a little more.

I’d love it to be red with the delicacy of a white, Italian, but nothing international or even highly concocted. And I’d also like it to be able to be enjoyed tonight. No more cellaring.

It’s not as easy as I thought. There are wines we all favor, but that one perfect one, for one moment in time, how important does it need to be? But for the sake of this exercise, perhaps I could suspend judgment, a little?

I know you all are going to think me a little mad, but when I saw the Italian movie, “I Am Love,” and again saw the Ligurian countryside, those hills, even the little town Airole, I thought of traipsing through the hills and chasing the Rossese di Dolceacqua. And for right here and right now, that would be just perfect. I would describe the wine, but I won’t. What it means to me tonight in the context of the evening and the occasion is enough to have come forth. It is an unsung hero of a wine, with little or no possibility of ever becoming a household name in America. Same for Vernaccia di Serrapetrona, but for other reasons.

And just like when I recently let go and just followed my instincts in picking the latest digital camera or notebook, and it all worked out just fine. So with wine, it will work out. There is no testing center telling us we failed when we pick this or that wine.

By the way, if anyone is so inclined to chime in on their perfect wine for the moment, I’d love to hear from you all.

Happy Independence Day!

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