Sunday, October 17, 2010

The real wine crisis in Tuscany

Is not about Sangiovese on a hilltop town called Montalcino. To face the struggle for Italian wine in Tuscany, one needs to go west and work oneself down the sliver of sea and soil that holds so much hope for those producers who have staked their lives on the promise of a land called Maremma.

Here is where aspiration seethes with allusion, spiked with the absinthe of international grapes, laced with high alcohol and over-the-top fruit, threaded with all too powerful and intense oak and finished with a sticker-shocking price tag.

I was sitting in a cool, dark room near Parma decorated with $3 million worth of some of the finest prosciutto I’d ever had, and a marketing person is talking to me about her favorite wines. The subject comes to Sassicaia. “Sassicaia has only gotten to be recognized as one of the best wines in Italy in the last ten years. It is due to the power of the personality of the owner and their way to promote their wines in the world.” Perhaps that is the perception in Italy. I had never thought of it quite like that. I remember back to the wines of Sassicaia a generation ago and thought that was their golden moment. Now the wines are beyond the grasp of those who first fell for them, and the wines have moved into another reality. They have become celebrities, walking the red carpet, stopping for the paparazzi. But, like a beautiful starlet, does anyone really take them home to meet mamma anymore? E, Piero?

Not meant to indict Sassicaia, are they to blame for reaching for those dollars of the collectors who have been hammered by endless Wine Spectator, Gambero Rosso and Decanter stories about their being the greatest wine from Italy? It’s a problem many in Italy would love to have. No, the issue, as I see it, is the shifting tides of wine tastes in the world, and in Italy, and the interplay of those tastes with the emergence of wine as a status symbol and economic indicator. Peruse Asian wine blogs such as La Grand Rue and it is pretty evident there are those in that world who revere wines like Sassicaia with the same reverence as Latour or Margaux. Those wines convey a different meaning to them than they do to me.

Which brings me back to the cool, dark room filled with prosciutto. Conversation with the owner of the factory ensued, about how one does business with the Asian market. I commented that I could see how a Japanese person might see prosciutto as exotic and thence, desirable. The owner corrected me. “No, it is not like that. It has to do with how we share our idea of cuisine.” (I could see I was in line for a vaccination on how an Italian thinks about food and explains it to an ignorant American).

“It has to do with our process; you see prosciutto is simply the best when it is served by itself, perhaps with a crust of bread. Simple. Not complicated. Perfect. ” Seeing as that was what we were doing, and it was perfect, I had no argument.

No, my idea was that this fabled landscape might appear to be alluring (which it is, through my lens) and there is the point of contact. Prosciutto, on the level that we were experiencing, can take a person wherever it wants to. And if that transports one to something remarkable, so be it.

Likewise, with wine. The weaving of the tale of the Maremma, with the history, the almost forgotten Italian region, the seemingly impossible events that lead to it being an emerging wine region, and the insertion of a style that appeals to a non-Italian taste (and pocketbook) created a perfect storm for Tuscany.

And that is where the vortex of this crisis revolves. Not so much around where or even what, in regards to place or grapes. Or even technique. No the problem is centered in the kernel of the idea of how we promote Italian wine, to the faraway countries and in Italy as well. We have taken it from an everyday beverage and replaced that with coke or kiwi soda. And we have elevated wine to the status of a thoroughbred horse, similar to the ones that graze on the gentle hills of the Maremma. And that creates an artificial reality, one in which we all mimic landed gentry. And, as dear Piero knows all too well, there isn’t room for all of us to live in that manner. Nor do we all aspire to such an elevated status in life.

There remain, for those of us who search on the wine trail in Italy, simpler pleasures, unfettered with desire for more than that which we really need. So we dart into one of the older caverns and hopefully wait for the storm, or another generation, to pass. And hope that Italy will re-embrace what draws so many to her. Simple. Not complicated. Perfect.

Art by Dormice: Heinrich Nicolaus and Sawan Yawnghwe, who live and work in Tuscany


Dwight said...

The solution is to head east to the Marche where we are still making affordable reds and whites, as yet mostly undiscovered in the USA. Montepulciano grapes can make a really interesting, rich wine and the Pecorino grape which is so popular here, there is not much left for exportation is also quite good. Even wines winning the 3 glass award are selling for less than 20 dollars in the wineries.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks Dwight, for stopping by. I love the wines from the Marche, especially when they are staying true to their regionality.

andrea said...

don't forget about Morellino in Maremma, where sangiovese can be earthy and leafy.
People are loving it in NYC

Alfonso Cevola said...

that's a whole 'nother story.

btw- call me I have something to tell you about that...

James Koch said...

"And hope that Italy will re-embrace what draws so many to her. Simple. Not complicated. Perfect."

Right on! I like to refer to these wines as 'humble wines'.

Personally, over the last couple of years I've met a few producers that are in the process of 're-discovering' their own regional wine roots and are no longer interested in cranking out another copy of one of those "important wines". They are (finally) disovering that 'less can be a lot more'. Let's all hope that this trend continues. Cheers!

Unknown said...

"I could see I was in line for a vaccination on how an Italian thinks about food and explains it to an ignorant American)."---
Nice one...loved reading this.
xoxo from Maremma,

dave at wineopeners said...

So many Italian winemakers want to be the new affordable darling of the U.S. wine market, whether they crush grapes in Marche, Montepulciano, Apulia or Sicily.
There really isn't an end to delicious and so very fascinating Italian wine, the only problem being is there room for them in the U.S.
Thanks for your insight, razor-sharp as always.
Cool pix, too.

Alfonso Cevola said...

James: I think this is the direction, especially for younger producers who have a quicker take on how the market has turned.

Jody: Nice to meet you. I wish you a great life in the Maremma

Dave: Thanks, I really appreciate your comments, they all mean a lot to me

Susan said...

I've just returned from Tuscany. We toured some vineyards and wineries on our own, did some wine tasting and ate out quite a bit.

Call me a peasant, but the best wine we had was from IperCoop, costing about 3 or 4 Euros. We did have dinner out one night where they served a great wine. I happened to look at the label (well, more than just happened since I found myself getting into the wines) and saw that it was from the same winery.

We had some expensive wines too, but really, I don't think it's the price that dictates a good wine. Thanks for your interesting post.

Real Time Analytics