Sunday, January 01, 2012

Can Italy be Roused in 2012?

Posted from a sunny perch in America ~ Somewhere between a "cloud of unknowing" and "unknown knowns"

2011, that was the year that was. The numbers aren’t all in yet, but for the world I chart, which is the mid-section of America, Italian imports are up 8% for the year. Maybe we should have started an Italian wine import index fund; it surely would have performed better than most investments in 2011. But that is looking backwards, and today is a day to look the future straight in the eyes and move forward.

That said, I will channel my inner Don Draper and attempt to offer any Italian who would care to know, how to succeed in business in America in 2012.

1) What you smell is success. But it is the success of four grapes – Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio, Moscato and Prosecco (or Glera as we now have to call it). All other grapes are still battling against Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet. The problem is that we don’t need any more crappy Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio, Moscato and Prosecco. And under no circumstances do we need any more Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet, especially from Italy.

2) I have said this more than once, but it bears repeating: Do not think this is the time to raise prices. If you want to lose market share, go right ahead – Argentina, Portugal, South Africa, Australia and California will be more than glad to take your customers. Revise your expectations or lower your margins. And don’t think you can do it by firing your importer and eliminating them unless you are willing to sacrifice one of your own to move to America and travel 12 months a year.

3) The large markets, the ones everyone wants to visit - New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago, Vegas - forget about them. If you want to make strides in 2012, try hitting it out of the park in Birmingham or Indianapolis, Cleveland or Fort Worth. If you can figure out how to sell Italian wine in those places, the big cities will be like sitting ducks for you.

4) Try being known for doing one thing well. If you are pushing Prosecco, make it the best flavor, the best value, the best package, the best price – don’t try and mess it up by bringing out a rosĂ© or worse, a nameless “sparkling Brut” from the Veneto. It just won’t fly. Or try and make a Sangiovese that is really delicious. Not one that tastes like a Cabernet or a Merlot or a Super Tuscan. But a simple, delicious, mouthwatering Sangiovese, something like a Poggio di Sotto Rosso di Montalcino. Is that too much to ask for?

5) Once again, Italy in crisis and everyone is gone for two weeks between Christmas and New Year’s? All work stops in Italy. Even when Rome is burning. Really, do you think we have stopped eating or drinking or buying wine in your largest market, America? But we cannot even get most folks to answer their phones. Fine. Do it your way. But in Jan after the Epiphany, please don’t cry like a baby.

6) I will invoke the character of Don Draper again: “People tell you who they are, but we ignore it - because we want them to be who we want them to be.” That typifies the Italian (and the human) problem. Italy wants to see it the way they want to and expects the world to fall into step with their vision. All good when the final result offers something of value to the buyer as well as the seller. If all of this is to merely pay obeisance to a wealthy industrialist who “has a dream,” don’t come knocking on America’s door. We already are genuflecting to our own wealthy 1%, and it has pushed our country into a philosophical civil war between the haves and the have-nots. Bring us something of value, something the 99% can afford.

7) We do not need any more wines from rock stars, movie stars or baseball managers. We do not need any wines for folks who collect Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Ferrari or Lamborghini souvenirs. Wine is not a knick-knack. Wine is a living creation that is part of everyday life and does not need to be put on a shelf to gather dust. When will these ridiculous wines stop being made? We want something real.

8) Speaking of real, if you use sustainable or organic or even biodynamic methods, that is great. But if the wine sucks, who cares? So I would suggest if you do have a tasty wine that is pleasant and enjoyable, and maybe even a good value, and it just happens to be “green,” you don’t have to make that the dominant message. Green is my favorite color but as causes go, it’s been worn hard and put up wet one time too many. Let it go, it isn’t cute. Just do the work, put something on the back label and let those folks who care find it. But for the rest, it is not a selling point; in fact, it is an anti-selling point to those who actually care about those things. In other words, it isn’t something you can “sell.” It is a process, not the product. And we’re being worn out by Madison Avenue over green these days.

9) Just because you got 90 points from Galloni or Suckling or The Wine Spectator or the Wine Enthusiast or you got three glasses from Gambero Rosso, doesn’t mean you will instantly sell the wine out. Or that you can raise the prices. Admit it: a good score is a crap shoot. Some years you get lucky. Some years you don’t. Or in the case of Gambero Rosso, if you have gotten Tre Bicchieri every year for the last 10 years and you still aren’t selling your wine out, maybe there is a reason. Maybe Gambero Rosso hasn’t a clue about what the export market wants, or maybe you are asking too much. Again, make a nice wine; make it real, keep it simple and cheerful and a good value, and you will sell it out.Year after year.

10) And lastly, if for some reason last year your winery to market strategy didn't go quite as well as you had expected, allow me to give you $10,000 worth of advice for free. First, don’t blame the economy. Second, don’t blame the importer. Third, don’t blame America. Now, go to a mirror and look at it and repeat: My wine failed in America last year because I didn’t care enough. I didn’t work hard enough.I have no one to blame but myself.

Like I said, with the Italian wine import market indexing at +8% in my world, some folks did not fail. Now they might not have made the wines you make – but there is change in the air, and you can either be a part of it or you can continue to take your month off in August, your two weeks in December and your week at Easter and continue to live your life as long as you and your country can sustain it. Or, in the words of  Mr.Draper, “Change is neither good nor bad, it simply is. It can be greeted with terror or joy, a tantrum that says ‘I want it the way it was’, or a dance that says, ‘Look, something new!’”

Oh, and Happy New Year. Look, something new!

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