Sunday, September 01, 2013

The “Other” Italian Wine Guy

Joe Piccola just landed in Rome. This will be the first of two trips in the same month to Italy. Joe just became a grandpa, his personal life has gotten reinvigorated, he’s lost 50 pounds and he’s spending more time in the vineyards of Italy. And those of us at home couldn’t be any happier for him.

Me (L) Adelmo Banchetti with sausage in his mouth (C) and Joe (R) circa 1989
I’ve known Joe since 1980 when I had a wine bar and he came in to sell me wine. Joe is “old school”. He invests more in relationships and his word than he does in technology. He was taught by his uncle Tony, a legend in wine circles, to keep the customer happy. Joe is the quintessential people-pleaser. His customers love him.

Joe started in the wine trade straight out of college in 1972. He has never changed jobs since then. He technically hasn’t changed companies either, although the one he originally started with (his Uncle Tony’s) was sold to another company in 1992. He has, more or less, many of the same clients he has had for decades.

Tonight he will dine in Rome before heading with his colleagues to Tuscany and to Lombardy. He will visit new wineries he has never seen. But wines he has sold religiously for years. You name it; Joe has probably sold it over the years. Gaja, Regaleali, Riunite, Banfi, Bolla, Biondi-Santi, Bellavista, Petra, Capezzana, Querciavalle, Querceto, Querciabella, Borgo Scopeto, Caparzo, Ecco Domani, Felsina, Fontodi, Montevertine, Pio Cesare, dal Forno, Nino Franco, large and small, if it is ‘made in Italy” Joe has probably written an order or two for it.

But it’s only been since around 2006 that Joe started going to Italy on a regular basis. The nest was empty, he had a little more time (and a lot of vacation) and I took him on a Tuscan trip. Maybe I helped to light a fire, although if you know Joe, he’s pretty independent. He follows a course set by his own inner compass.

I think the world of the guy. I give him a hard time; constantly calling him up to follow up on something that I think is important to his clients. In reality it’s always more important to me, but Joe quietly listens to me and then he does whatever is best for the customer. I win sometimes; other times I don’t. That’s sales. And Joe intuitively knows just how much he can load in the wagon and take up the hill.

Don’t look for him on a Thursday night or a Friday – you won’t find him. His customers have him running around all over town getting wine for their last minute needs. Business is good – Joe’s going to Italy twice in September. All that hauling and loading is paying off.

Joe (C) with John (L) and Pam (R) Mariani at Castello Banfi
He knows everybody in the wine business in Italy. I’ve taken him to Vinitaly a time or two and when he walks the aisles, he gets stopped countless times. Joe is one of the great ambassadors of Italian wine in America, something the Italian Trade Commission noted several years ago when they gave him an award for his years of service. By my reckoning, and this is a conservative estimate, Joe has sold in upwards of 250,000 cases of Italian wine – 3,000,000 bottles. And many of those he has touched. Like I said, he’s old school about things. Likes to make sure they get there. Likes the re-orders.

Fabrizio Bianchi (L) of Monsanto winery with Joe (R)
Tonight he’ll dine in Rome, hopefully at the place I made the reservations, Cesare al Casaletto (he did). Tomorrow morning he’ll catch a van to the Maremma, where he’ll sleep on linen sheets in a hotel where the rooms start at € 400.00, eating food refined by the sensibilities of Alain Ducasse. This might sound a little highfalutin to the casual visitor to this blog. But Joe is far from being a cultural elitist. He earned it, the old fashioned way, going door-to-door, proposing, tasting, delivering, training, and over and over again. Yep, he deserves it. And then some.
Joe at Losi Querciavalle with Zio Emilio
At the end of the month he’ll go back. Starting in Sicily and then heading back to Tuscany.

He’s a good guy; he’s worked his tail off. He’s toiled in the fields and tonight he’ll sleep in 1000 thread count bed linens. Go ahead; pamper yourself, all you can, Joe. We’ve got your back here at home; we’ll keep an eye on your customers and your accounts. You go enjoy yourself in Italy, Mr. “Other” Italian Wine Guy. Sweet dreams and happy trails, amico.

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