Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Problem of the South

Back around 1984 I was talking with an Italian wine importer, at Vinitaly. I worked for a small company that brought his wines into the Southwest. We sold a lot of Tocai and Verduzzo, Barolo, Barbaresco, Vermentino, Pigato, Chambave Rouge, Passito di Chambave, Elba Rosso, all the kinds of Chianti, Brunello, Morellino. The economy was very strong. And then something happened.

Just like that, poof, it was over. The oil market tanked. And then we went back to selling Pinot Grigio and oaky California Chardonnay and Merlot. And shiny little Shiraz from Australia.

Back to Vinitaly. We were talking, me and the importer, the Barone. He was pitching one of his Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo offerings, a nice one from the area of Controguerra. Not Illuminati. Another Barone’s estate. Nice guy. Barone #1 was trying to get me interested in Barone #2’s wine, and I had already been working with one of Barone #2’s neighbors. Illuminati. I told Barone #1 that I didn’t think I could do justice, in those times, to two Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo wines. Around that time, he said to me, “You Southerners all stick together.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant. Was he pulling the terrone card on me? I was born in Southern California from 1st generation Italians, Southern Italians, and was living in the South of the United States. “Which South”, I asked him.

“It doesn’t matter.” he replied. “It’s the problem of the South.”

I was offended. Hurt. I wear my feelings on my sleeve, at 22, 33 and 59. That’s one of the problems of being a consummate Southerner. Or is it?

This week, I was visiting a wine buyer in a steak house. He was charged with writing a wine list for one of their new restaurants, an Italian “concept” with a heavy red sauce and steak influence. He wanted to pepper the mostly American list with a smattering of Italian wines. Big wines. Brunello, Amarone, the usual suspects. The place was packed, on a weekday, at 1:30. There was no sales job to be done, these folks were successful and they weren’t going to leave the door open for me to muck it up with all my flowery talk about Valpolicella and Rosso Piceno. Nope, they were going to give the clientele what they wanted.

Two hours later, on the other side of town, I stood in front of a group of servers, talking to them about several Tuscan wines on their list. One of them I had never sold, but they thought I did. I knew the winemaker, so I offered it up to the Italian wine god. There was a favorite Chianti of mine from dear friends and a famous and popular Brunello from one of the category leaders. I waxed on about Sangiovese, the dark brooding type, a traditional, lighter style and an upstart, the Montalcino version. The chefs were presenting new kinds of pizza. They looked OK, not bad. Not sure one would ever find them in Italy. Sure one would, in Rome, one finds everything in Rome. That’s one of the problems of the South.

Where am I going with this? Where I have gone for years and years. In circles. The seminar I did was for a restaurant that was changing their concept; they were becoming an Italian Steak house. Once again, Italy is co-opted with steak in these parts. We just keep going around in this cycle of drilling for oil, finding oil, boom, steak, bust, economy goes sour, we go back to simple, to value, to local, maybe even natural. And then the economy starts to ratchet upward and folks get a hankering for steak. Now it is fashionable to call it a Tuscan Steak house. I get it. And put some Argentine Malbecs on the list too, while we’re at it, so the folks can have something full and rich and familiar. That’s one of the problems of the South.

Does it make you wonder then, why some wine producers in Italy adopt a California style because their main market is the United States? They’re not dumb. They know their markets. Not like me, trying to sell Tocai in San Antonio in 1987 or Morellino in Ft. Worth in 1986. Mr. Smarty-pants. Mr. Italian wine director. Mr. Fool.

I have tilted at windmills in these parts for so many years. People in these parts want giant steaks. They want big, juicy, fruity, oaky red wine pretending to be Italian. They want large scores from Parker and the Spectator. Those are my windmills masquerading as giants.

That, too, is the problem of the South.

The Barone was right.


Unknown said...

As usual, the real problem is OUR South.

As Ethel Mertz used to say, "You pore little thing."

Wine Curmudgeon said...

It's not a Southern thing, my friend, but an American thing. I was doing research for a piece, and I discovered that we drink about as much wine, per capita, as the Macedonians. And we have 10 times their income.

So keep tilting at windmills. It's an honorable profession.

Marco Bovalino said...

Maybe I'm a little prejudiced, but I say when in Roma go south, go south!

Alfonso Cevola said...

thanks all...

Jeremy, it was an image from Venice. Reminded me of the Pinot Grigio ( and Montepulciano) I recently saw in a store with a label that had a picture of the Pisa tower on it.

Remember "adopting a California style because the main market is the United States."

Thomas said...

Well, I guess you can say that New York City is in the southern part of the state and so it, too, has "that problem of the South," but to a lesser degree.

How must I explain the problem of the South here in upper and Western, New York???

tom hyland said...

Tilting at windmills is a perfect analogy.

I feel the same way sometimes in my quest to educate people about Italian wines. Everyone wants to drink the same thing. I guess that means more of the real Italian wine for us!

VintageTexas said...

Alfonzo...Alfonzo lament all you want.

You could wake up and have a portfolio of Texas wines to sell. Now, there is job on both ends. Customes that don't know what they are supposed to be and winemakers that are still learning all what their wines can be.....

Great post my man,


tasteofbeirut said...

I would have investigated further what he really meant; I mean you are 50% italian, right? did he mean to hurt your feeling or to place a guilt trip on you?
Love these photos by the way!

Marco Mezzogiorno said...

Italia sud has much much better food than the Northern industrial provinces. I can't take anything away from Emilia Romagna, Genoa, Milano et al, but I have proffer my unbiased opinion. It's also happens to be the truth.

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