Sunday, December 22, 2013

Italian Wine in 2014 - Personal Strategies for Collecting - Part I

Im very worried. The world is getting flatter. And with that folks, in every corner are finding out about wine. And they are collecting it. Until now, many of the collectors have been collecting classified growth Bordeaux, grand marque Champagne, small production Burgundy and thoroughbred Napa Valley reds. But pricing and availability of those wines have headed into the stratosphere. They have become wine for the 1%.

This isn’t news. I remember a mentor who once lamented that he when he got into the business he could get a bottle of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild for $4.00. A few days after he told me, I spied a half bottle of 1982 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild for $25.00 and thought “my how times have changed.” Yeah, and how they keep changing.

I’ve had my share of 1% moments. You won’t find me crying in my beer. Over the years I have sold, collected and tasted the wines of Gaja, Giacosa, Conterno's Monfortino, Sassicaia, Solaia, Biondi-Santi, Case Basse di Soldera, Dal Forno and Quintarelli. These are the some of the wines several friends have told me are starting to surface in the auction houses, some with possible questionable provenance. One friend went so far as to tell me that there is a place deep inside China where these labels are being reproduced at an alarming pace. I shudder to think, but I am not surprised. Reports say the recent trial and conviction of Indonesian wine dealer Rudy Kurniawan is just the “tip of the iceberg.” And while much of the report centers on wine other than Italian, the day will come when we hear more Italian wines surfacing from God knows where.

I know one dealer who has been scouring Italian cellars. He lives in Italy, speaks the language, is a merchant, and knows the greater world 's demand and lust for rare things. And he is sending most of what he finds to Asia (China, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia). Those wines aren’t going there simply to sit in quiet, dark little cellars.

But the real problem, for folks who love Italian wine and have been drinking them, collecting them and enjoying them for the last 25 years, is that the new wave collectors of French and cult California wine might be shifting their sights towards Italy. In a big way. And that is what has me concerned.

I no longer allocate money to buy the wines of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Gaja, Giacosa, Conterno's Monfortino, Sassicaia, Solaia, Biondi-Santi, Case Basse di Soldera, Dal Forno and Quintarelli. That is probably a bad call on my part, as these wines will likely always be in high demand. Let me give an example.

Moon and Half Dome by Ansel Adams

About 40 years ago I was at Yosemite National Park. I was in the gift store and bought the photograph above, printed and signed by Ansel Adams. It was $10. Recently a gallery dealer told me that photograph could be worth up to $19,000. I thought what a fool I was not to have bought three (for a total of $30.00). If I had I probably wouldn’t have had enough money for gas (at 35 cents a gallon) to get home. But Ansel is gone. Prints made by him are limited, and even if one pays $6,000 for the same print, it’s still probably a good investment.

The thing is, I never bought the photograph because I was looking to make an investment. I was 18. My Vietnam era draft lottery number was 90. I was living in the moment. But I really loved (and still love) that photograph. Someone else is going to have to sell it, when I’m gone.

I’m like that with wine, too. I buy wine that I love. I save it, I don’t collect it. I drink it. But the wines I have been drinking in my adult life are changing. For two reasons. One is that my tastes have changed and I am looking more for wines to go with my lifestyle. We eat less meat and grow many of our own vegetables. I like white wine. I love Riesling. But I also love red wines from Italy. California and France as well.

Second reason is I am not going to fill up my closet with cult-priced wines. I don’t need the kick. While I’d love to taste a Gaja wine again, someday, the reality is those wines have moved into a more rarified atmosphere. I travel rarely inside those elite wine circles. By chance and by choice. Nothing against those wines. But I do find sometimes the conversation inside those circles centers more on acquisitional pride than true love for the craft of the winemaker. Bragging rights aren’t sexy to me. Sitting inside a room with a fire and talking with a winemaker, that’s where I get my kicks. Eating a chunk of bread, a knob of grana and taking one too many slices of salumi, now we’re talking.

I have probably already answered my own question (which I have yet to pose). “What will I collect and drink, for the rest of my life, when the elite collectors start sucking up all the great wines of Italy?" Well, they already have sucked up most of the wines from the aforementioned producers. So where do I look?

Piedmont – I still can afford the Produttori del Barbaresco wines, and that makes me very happy. Although I am sure Aldo Vacca will reach a point in production and world demand when those wines will go much, much higher (like my Ansel Adam’s photograph). Down the street from Aldo, the Marchesi di Gresy wines are still touchable, and I love them as well. For me that fills the bill for my Barbaresco fix. Which I generally like more often when it comes to Nebbiolo.

Neal Rosenthal is bringing back the wines of Monsecco and anyone who isn’t putting those wines in their closet, I thank them. More for folks like me. Really wonderful wines. Christoph K├╝nzli in Boca is another hidden gem. Wines from Vallana. I've already said too much.

Barolo – I don’t really collect Barolo that much – Some Vietti, because of the fire and the salumi chats. And the long friendship with the family. Bartolo Mascarello wines are still affordable. And worth the price of admission. Rinaldi, Bovia, Burlotto,  also wines I appreciate. There are a few secret ones I don't want to share just yet.

But it's no secret that I don’t have time to put wines away for 30 years, anymore. And I have plenty of older stuff ready to enjoy.

Tuscany – what a mess. I am still a lover of Chianti Classico, Rufina, Vino Nobile and a few other appellations. Felsina, Montevertine, Badia a Coltibuono, Querciavalle, Selvapiana. I think these wines are still safe from the cadres of elites hovering at the border. Brunello is hit and miss. I have a bunch in the cellar. I really don’t know if I will ever drink them. Ones I still like are Il Poggione, Costanti, Lisini, Fattoi, Angelo Sassetti, Poggio di Sotto and Caparzo’s La Casa. I have some older Barbi still lying around, but I’m really not the one to ask. I think the issue here is that Brunello has become a wine that is too big for the lifestyle I live. I like them, occasionally. I’d rather have a good bottle of Selvapiana. That’s a style I seem to crave more often when I am cooking.

Vino Nobile – even though this appellation is a bit disjointed in that the styles of the producers are varied, here is where to find some really good lay-it-down values. And the collectors aren’t getting anywhere near this category, as far as I can tell. Vino Nobile was one of the epiphany wines I had early in the game. Still this category is limited in its exposure to America, the world, and to me. I’d love to taste more Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. One of my favorites.

I will expand on this appellation and other Italian wines in Tuscany along with the Veneto, Umbria, Marche, Apulia, Basilicata, Sicily, Campania and a few other places in the next post, Part II of Italian Wine in 2014 - Personal Strategies for Collecting.

written and photographed (with the exception of the Ansel Adams image) by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Anonymous said...

You are so right- as an Italian wine collector and annual visitor to all Italian regions, it is less about the 'big names' and more about the producers who have shared their philosophies over a glass of wine, taught us more about the land and their winemaking process. When we open their bottles at home, we can tell stories to our friends and the enjoyment factor is multiplied- and we no longer have 15 years to wait..... Looking forward to part 2!

Marco Quintarelli said...

This is most helpful and free information, especially to a neolitephyte. Italian wine has long stymied me and still does. Italy has long been a symbol for chaotic beauty to me. That ole' Teutonic fantasia in an undertow back and fro to the forza di Siciliano-Calabrese. Grazie tante. Forgive my disjointedness, I have been ill.

Gene said...

Insightful as always Alfonso. Piemonte really is a treasure trove even excluding the great wines of Barolo and Barbaresco.

Gabutti, Vajra, Cantalupo and the Produttori di Carema all have been among my favorites this past year and none broke the $30 mark.

I was so impressed by the 2010 Vallana Spanna a few months ago that I did some surfing and found your most excellent post on Brooklynguy's website that made me appreciate the wine even more.

While I wouldn't turn down a case of 89 Cascina Francia if Santa left it under my tree, as you state in your post, there really is no need to chase wines as they become priced out of reach.

My tastes have also changed with age, and with them my desire to cellar a wine for a decade or more before I can approach them has dramatically waned.

With many of the nebbioli from outside B&B, it really seems you have the best of both worlds, approachable at a much younger age but also the capacity to age.

These wines will never reach the heights of their more esteemed brethren, but they don't have to, their quality and the pleasure they give stand on their own.

All that and we didn't even get to the Dolcetto, Barbera and Freisa...

Can't wait for part 2.

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