Thursday, June 19, 2014

Do Americans love and drink Italian wines more than Italians?

There is a pattern I have noticed lately when talking to Italian winemakers about their production and where they send their wine. That is, the domestic market for selling Italian wine (in Italy) is a mangled mess.

Part of this is good news in that the overall quality of Italian wine has risen in the last generation. Where Chianti (or rather, wine labeled as Chianti) represented a perceived standard of quality that other regions, say Abruzzo or Apulia or Sicily, had not risen to, now that is not the case. Add to that the Italian predilection and pride for their regional products (food, wine, etc) and one gets a sense from, let’s say, talking to a winemaker from Tuscany, that the potential for the growth of their products in Italy is not so rosy.

Other factors play into the winemaker’s collective predicament. One is that Italians are drinking less wine. Another is that the Italian middle class is economically challenged. Inotherwords, their spendable Euros have diminished for items like wine. Historically, wine served as a nutritional supplement to the Italian diet. That is no longer the case. Wine is no longer essential. Inexpensive wine, however, still has a place. But countries like Spain have dug into the market and replaced a good amount of Italian wine on the dining tables of Italians.

Another huge factor is getting independent wine shops and restaurants to pay their bills on time, or at all. I have sat with Italian salespeople and winery representatives who have told me horror stories about not getting paid. In some cities, like Rome, I have been told, restaurants routinely cycle through winery inventory, electing to not pay their invoices. When the winery stops shipments, they cycle to another winery or region. What about consistency? In some cases, like house wine, what does it matter? They are only serving it for tourists who don’t know any better. This I have been told, point blank.

This is a bit of a national disgrace, a perfect storm. Italian wineries are making better wine, at all levels, and they cannot get the love and attention in their own country? The early adopters figured this out some time ago and headed to Germany, England and the USA, before heading to Northern Europe, Russia and Asia. But now, even small boutique wineries are casting their net, not just outside their region, but outside their country. I see this as a parallel tragedy to the reality that Italy is experiencing in the outsourcing of their manufacturing and artistic legacy. Where once every little village in Italy had a high number of craftsmen and artists, nowadays fewer and fewer Italians are learning those crafts, studying music, art, film. Italian wine (and winemaking) has never been better but who in Italy cares?

Why America? (We could also ask why Germany, why England?)

For one, America is 6+ times larger in population than Italy. It is potentially a larger target market) as is China with a 21+ times larger population). And they are younger markets, with a chance for good growth over the next 25 years. Meanwhile in Italy, the birthrate is declining, even as the immigration rate is rising dramatically. But Italy is (was?) embedded with wine culture. Some of the “new Italians” need to learn to drink wine, much as the Americans and Chinese. The economical momentum doesn’t favor Italy, though. The smart money is still looking outside of Italy.

But how smart is it? A motif that keeps surfacing in my life is the idea of justice. Justice in work, in esthetic matters, in life. How just is it that Italian winemakers are making the best wine they have ever made in the history of winemaking and their neighbors and citizens cannot even see that? That thousands of miles away, in places like Chengdu, China and Marfa, Texas there is more interest, more energy, for the pleasure of wines from Italy? I’m stumbling a little here, as if I was just cold-cocked. How can a winery that has been around for a thousand years not be able to have their lovingly crafted wines appreciated in Naples, in Venice, in Rome? Something is very wrong with this. Is the Italian wine industry in danger of going the same way the Italian silk industry went? You may think this is sounding a rather too loud alarm, but think about it. There are places in Italy that never dreamed their music would be more beautifully interpreted on the other side of the earth. There are places in Italy who never imagined their lace crafts disappearing into the dustbin of history. Is wine, made in Italy, capable of going in that direction?

That's the million dollar question.

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