Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Curative Dose

"There is nothing in the dark that isn't there when the lights are on.”― Rod Serling

Yesterday on NPR’s Marketplace Kai Ryssdal interviewed Marco Bardazzi of the newspaper La Stampa in Turin, Italy. Mr. Bardazzi had some interesting observations. Read for yourself:

Ryssdal: How's the mood in Italy these days with all the turmoil around you in Spain and Greece?

Bardazzi: Well the mood is bad because we see that the situation is not improving and there are a lot of problems all around Europe. We are really looking forward for a European meeting that is scheduled on June 28 in Brussels. We are looking at that as the possible turning point in the crisis, but we are not sure that this will happen.

Ryssdal: Haven't we been at the turning point many times before though?

Bardazzi: Yes, you are right. We have hoped for several other turning points so we don't know if this will be another hope for Europe, but really it comes down to this meeting on June 28 that could decide what will happen to the euro and the European Union.

Ryssdal: Do Italians ever look at the United States and say to themselves, man you guys think you have troubles, but you don't know what you're talking about -- this is really rough over here.

Bardazzi: Yes, there's a strange feeling right now toward the United States. Some people think that the U.S. are those that have put us in trouble right now. At the same time there are many others who think that from the United States we can see some signs of recovery and we don't have those signs here.

The last comment really got my attention. It’s a safe comment, covering all bases, mentioning no one specifically, offering both criticism and hope and putting the blame at the feet of others. What it doesn’t advance is the notion of personal responsibility or community liability for a crisis some in Italy find themselves in.

As I normally focus on Italian wine and seeing as that sector of trade to the United States is huge and growing, my head was spinning when I heard that last statement.

What I thought was this:

How many Italians will forgo their summer holiday, usually the month of August, this year? I predict the seaside and the mountain resorts will be full, as usual. Maybe this year the bronzed bodies sprawled around a beach or a pool might be complaining more than usual about their collective crisis. Meanwhile, most of us who are working here in the U.S. will not be taking four weeks off in August to go to Panarea, Isola da Giglio, Lago di Garda, the Seychelles, Cuba or Mauritius. Those who are not employed aren’t going anywhere, and there are plenty in America who aren’t employed. I don’t think they will be working on their tans this summer. And what about the unemployed in Italy?

If there are those who think the U.S. put Italy in a crisis they’re not saying that to me. For our part in the wine industry, we are pedaling as fast as we can to bring more and more Italian wines to America. This isn’t exactly the best American strategy for the balance of trade. And with the U.S. dollar strengthening against the Euro, it will make American goods even less desirable to the Europeans. Not that there is such a great demand for Russian River Pinot Noir in Italy.

The good news is for those fortunate enough to be able to travel to Italy, they can spread their U.S. dollars around for even more goods and services. Again that won’t help America much, but it definitely won’t put Italy deeper in trouble.

As far as recovery in America, don’t expect to get a straight answer on that until long after the election cycle. On the long drive back from Austin to Dallas, listening to the radio and both sides of the argument, both those on the left and the right are laboriously applying mud to the mosaic, placing the tiles where it suits them best. Everyone thinks they know the truth, but my sense is that the uber-wealthy puppet masters at 40,000 feet are keeping the facts out of the screenplay. Most of us will never know the truth. It doesn’t play into the script for those in power. Recovery? Please Italy, don’t wait on us. Yesterday the U.S. stock market had the best rally all year. Ryssdal reported “investors built the rally on hope today speculating that central bankers in the US and Europe might open the spigot soon on the stimulus app.” Sounds more like emotion than enlivenment. Or day traders getting in for a quick profit and out in time to go out to dinner.

Everything we are doing in the US to strengthen Italian sales could be seen to weaken the American not the Italian economy. Couldn’t we drink Oregon Pinot Gris instead of Pinot Grigio from the Veneto? And Moscato from California to Washington is in full production. Sangiovese? Nebbiolo? Could we do without them? Sure we could. But we probably won’t ever go to that extreme. America is tied to the romance of Italy. But America won’t be able to spend Italy out of their crisis.

The crisis in Italy is personal and collective. There is something in the communal makeup of the Italian temperament that likes to think things are worse than they are. And even when they are pretty bad, Italians are, after all, humans, capable of denying or deceiving themselves as well as any humans on the planet. And so this summer we will still see the multitudes flocking to the beaches and the mountains, crowding restaurants and filling their cars with gas which is even more expensive now than it was a month ago, even though the price of oil is down 15% from this time last year. And there will probably be myriads of well-fed holidaymakers bemoaning their life, a collective Greek Chorus all along the Italian peninsula.

“It’s cheaper to drink wine in a restaurant in Italy than water,” reported a neighbor who just came back from Italy. Oil, even down 15%, is still expensive, by U.S. expectations (Reality on gas prices in America: still cheaper than gas was in Italy in 1987). Water is more expensive than the house wine. Wine is looking like the smart investment, at least in the short term for immediate pleasure. And while that won’t stem a national crisis, it might mitigate a temporary sense of dissatisfaction in regards to one’s place in this swirl of economic turbulence. Wine is the curative dose.

Word to the Italy: invest in your wines, now. Drink what you cannot sell, but don’t give up on America. Better yet, don’t give up on yourself. It’s not quite time to rally in Piazza Loreto. At least not before June 28.

Don't forget the sunblock.

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