Thursday, February 02, 2012

Italian wine in an age of self-consciousness

Traveling through Piemonte and Lombardia this past week, soul-searching is on the rise. While there is always a certain amount of healthy ego involved in the making of a product like fine wine, what I sensed on this latest trip is that the Italians are vigorously peering inside as to the nature of Italian wine. Winemakers and marketers alike seem to be probing for the next step in the evolution of Italian wine in the 21st century.

William Gibson remarked that in these times Future Shock in no longer an oddity. It is a common state of being among people who travel, read and reach out to the world beyond their village. So in this age of change we have either adjusted to it or we have numbed and climbed into a virtual isolation tank, letting in only that which doesn’t confound.

The Italians enviously and deliciously do outreach so well. Maybe it has to do with the propensity for many Italians to channel their extroversion into something dramatic and interesting to the rest of the planet. I saw it in my dad’s mom, who just loved being the storyteller. Common activities take on uber-heraldic meaning. Is it hype? Or artistic interpretation?

When you strip it down to an uncluttered core, the reality that wine from anywhere is doing well is a surprise. If one would believe the bankers and the lawyers, their town criers wail that the world is teetering on the brink of economic collapse unparalleled in mankind’s history. It could very well be.Now where did I put the wine opener?

Somewhere among the shards of tragedy and schadenfreude there is fire and hope. Or maybe just blind ambition, looking for a way to get their crushed grapes to a market. Maybe it is as simple as that. Actually it is. Grow grapes, crush them, wait for them to become wine, age them, bottle them, move them to another market and sell them. And start all over again the next year.

It’s more complex than that, but how the Italians, or any country of people, craft their message to convey and connect is an unending source of fascination for this market watcher.

Is oak dead? Is organic the rising star? Are high alcohol wines, in our age of global temperature change, on the rise? Or are the styles creating demand for lower octane wines?

Is the 100 point wine no longer the object of desire? Who moves the market, from a critical review perspective? Is Galloni God? Is Suckling Satan? Does Gambero Rosso matter anymore? Is Luca Maroni the new Veronelli? Does anyone care? What does Cernilli, Ziliani and any number of wine bloggers, both in Italy and abroad, contribute to the upward evolution of Italian wine in the world?

I really don’t know. Who really moves the market? Is it the individual wine company? Importers? Writers? Sommeliers? Bloggers? Consumers?

It might all be chaos, some loosely woven string theory of Italian wine marketing that advances the cause. I do know this: Quality Italian wines are doing great, better than any time since the end of WWII. The markets are more varied, the individual producers are more world savvy; there is a diversity of styles and techniques. Gravner stands on the deck of the ship with Corvo, looking at the new dawn.

We are in a Golden Age for Italian wine the likes of which I have never seen. Mark my words, these are the good times. Let’s hope we can stay here for a while.

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