Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Loneliest Man in the World

Sixteen years ago I was walking out of the Vinitaly wine fair with a friend and colleague. Crossing the street, we spotted a well known importer looking at the ground. A local fellow had a shell game going on and he had stopped to look at it. My friend touched my arm to get my attention to look in that direction. He pulled me to the side and spoke in a lowered voice. “That man over there, see how unhappy he appears. He looks like the loneliest man in the world.” 

Over the years I observed this man. He had a burgeoning business, a nice family, more money than he could spend in a lifetime, and plenty of power and influence. He also had an edge to him, something that seemed to gnaw at him from inside. His story fascinated me because his was the story of the American dream. But for some reason it appeared happiness had eluded him.

For my part, I thought I just didn't have enough information. Perhaps he was really joyful somewhere else; climbing a mountain, or sailing a ship in the Mediterranean. The few times I talked to him, he never seemed to be satisfied with how far he had come. Something always seemed to be lacking. Over the years, I distanced myself from him because his unease felt toxic. I didn’t want to lose my love for Italian wine or anything to do with Italy.

In doing so, I have had time to encounter many other wonderful people who uplift those around them.Young and old alike, my world is better filled with people who are bright and light. Paolo from Milan, a seasoned veteran, who has seen and done it all. When you see his eyes, they sparkle. His brother is his friend and his partner and their kids work together. They all row in the same direction and it is a pleasure to work with them.

Roberto and his sister Emanuele from Florence. They grew up in a time when I did and we share similar experiences of growing up. And it seems we still share many of those similar values. Whether it is conversation about how the stone Tuscan structures were once covered in plaster (fascinating) or the artwork installations in a West Texas town, these relationships make their wine and their stories so much more compelling. I am drawn to them because their stories humanize their wines and the relationships we share. This is such a better way to grow their business.

Joe Sr.. I had never met him. But he is a legend in the wine business. He didn’t know me from Adam, but there he was, interviewing me about his new Italian brand, writing down the answers. And at the end of the evening, he walked in my direction, shook my hand, and thanked me.

Another Paolo from Valdobbiadene, we don’t even do a lick of business. Not that we haven’t tried. But we met up in one of the pavilions for a few minutes over a glass of Col Fondo, and all of a sudden folks started appearing. Matt from Australia, Walter from Holland, engaged folks. Light, bright, happy. Sure we all have problems, who doesn’t? But this is the wine business, not cleaning up a nuclear reactor that has melted down. It’s joyous work.

I could go on and on. At Vinitaly there are loads of folks I am happy to call friend and colleague, my extended Italian wine family. My Italian wine daughters, Sara and Valeria, to name just two. When I mentioned today to Valeria that I have been thinking of life after work, she stopped me. “Not you. You cannot be happy to stay at home and work in your garden and walk your dog. That would be the end of you.”

This week several of us Americans participated in a seminar broadly covering the subject of bringing Italian wine to America. I don’t know how many times I have blogged about it (a lot) but this past day or two I have something to add, something that might even be good advice for the loneliest man in the world. One word: gratitude. Give thanks occasionally for the folks that have lifted you on their shoulders so you could see far. Feel grateful for all the years the people around you helped get closer to your goal, even if you are not happy that you haven’t gotten as far as you’d like. Show gratitude to the folks around you who are working hard to make you rich, famous and powerful. If you do, you will become wealthier than money can make you. Fame and power will cease to be seductive. And you'll never be lonely again.

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