Sunday, January 19, 2014

Italy at a Grande and Languorous Impasse

One of the conundrums for Italian wine is that with all of the varieties of grapes and styles of wines, there are essentially four wines that make up the majority of wines exported into America. Coincidentally those wines mesh with four basic types of wine: red, white, sweet and sparkling. Chianti, Pinot Grigio, Prosecco and Moscato. That is the stark reality. And Italian wines have much more diverse exposure than many other countries wishing to see their wines coming to America.

This past week in New York, Italy and her wine was front-row and center during many meetings and discussions, dinners and tastings. From the more obvious wines, like the top four, to more esoteric wines, like Caprettone and Catalanesca from Campania, Nebbiolo and Chiavennasca from Piedmont and Lombardy and Muller-Thurgau and Traminer from Basilicata. We talk about these grapes, drink these wines, push, push, push the limit of what can fit on the big boat sailing to America, but most of the seats are still filled by the top four categories.

One colleague, Susannah Gold, whose blog, Avvinare, often profiles the Italian indigenous grape varieties, lamented that we spend so much time circling around these little grapes, whether they come from Lazio or Lipari. But our impact, as marketers, as bloggers, as journalists, and ardent enthusiasts, to extend the understanding and appreciation of these wines take place in rarified private loges with just a few people.

Eric Asimov attempted to peer into the orchestra seats to determine if Pinot Grigio was capable of greater status. He reports that sommeliers and wine directors shun the popular grape. “‘I want to encourage a sense of discovery in people,’ Joe (Campanale) said. ‘Pinot grigios don’t require a conversation.’ Jeff (Kellogg) said, ‘I have found other wines in other categories for the same prices that are more interesting.’”

I, too, sit in meetings where the fate of Pinot Grigio is played out on a daily basis, with goals and projections, successes and failures. I don’t shun Pinot Grigio - in fact sometimes that is the only drinkable wine on a by the glass list in places - but I surely don’t sock it away for those special meals, or even give it much thought. The man in the seat in front of me, on the plane, just ordered a tiny bottle. Pinot Grigio has become immensely successful, almost like the Beyoncé of Italian wine. But unlike Beyoncé, Pinot Grigio has become invisible, a player behind the scenes. Still a force, but not a headliner.

One could say almost the same thing about the other three marketing stars, Chianti, Prosecco and Moscato. Their rise to fame and power proceeded along different paths and timelines. There they are on the stage, this fab four of Italy. But what have they become? Do they represent all that is best and brightest from Italy? Or do they reflect the Italy we don’t really think about, the workhorse - the not as pretty - but the ever-so-serviceable? Always there? Always ready? Always dependable? In a way, yes they are that. But exciting? They can be, but one has to dig deep.

“What would you drink?” I get asked, when someone pushes me for a recommendation. Of course there are plenty from the fab four I like. Chianti probably fares best, because there are wines that can be put away and brought out a generation later. But they make up 1% of 1% of the category. So, we’re back to the esoteric, the elevated, the rarified. It might move the open-minded 1%, but the mountains of wine sitting in storehouses clamor as they wait to sail to the New World masses.

It really is a challenge. I am interested in Boca, let’s say, but we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface with Langhe Nebbiolo. Instead of moving mountains we’re pushing little hills. But Boca is a mountain of its own, and that is a climb, to get something like that into the hearts and minds of wine lovers in America. How much time is there? How many windmills? Dreams?

I remember another wine, Chambave Rouge, from the Valle d’Aoste. This week it came up in two separate conversations. The last time I had the wine was at least 20 years ago. But we talk about it write about it, deal with this wine more times than the times than I have actually enjoyed it.

Yes, yes, discourse is a fine way to pass an evening with like-minded friends. But still a meal made from the shells of walnuts does not do much to nourish.

What can we do? Give in and drink only Chianti from a fiasco? Truly, this is a first world problem. But Italy’s place in the first world is becoming more tenuous. If we only bring four wines to America, and those four are becoming more uniform in flavor and their source is being channeled though only the super large firms, how will this benefit the farmers, those who work the soil? If fewer merchants get larger and richer, at the cost of diversity and at the expense of others, who will benefit from this in the long run? If we limit the number of wines with appellation, in order to put a stronger message into the force of marketing, how will the artisan and the unique, the crooked little vineyard on the odd slope, find its destiny?

Isn’t this what Italians are asking themselves right now, over a table, over their communal exchanges with food and wine? We see Italians in an endless celebration of life. But they struggle with their future over a plate of seafood pasta and a glass of Soave.

Getting more of their precious commodities on the boat to the land of opportunity, past the “languorous impasse”, Italians and their wines find themselves poised precariously but inescapably towards an uncharted future.

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