Sunday, January 03, 2016

What Will the Next Ten Years Hold for Italian Wine in America?

Looking back is so much easier than this. But the past is dust. So where are we going? All I have are some educated guesses. Maybe not predictions, but inklings from the tea leaves.

The rise (and fall) of peer group sites.
Seven Fifty as a vehicle for education and sales. I’m putting my money on this baby. It’s smart, fast and can be as little or as much as you want it to be. The way it bridges the gap between the traditional three-tier system and the newer ways of communication is brilliant. I’m all in. I love the edgy competitive aspect of it and I really love how people coming to this site in the trade cannot help but learn more about wine, Italian or otherwise. I wish we had something like this for consumers (at least they have Darrell Corti, in Sacramento).

Delectable I get no kick from (pics of) Champagne. As of last year I stopped using the bottle posting app; it appeared more and more like a series of narcissistic wine selfies. The kids are nice and all that, but as far as being the game changer everyone (including me) thought it would be, it has been pretty disappointing. In order to provide some return (for the investors, as well as the users) Delectable will morph (or die) into an online selling tool, which is the direction it has been heading.

The Demise of the mid-size Distributor.
Try as they might, they just can’t seem to get the critical mass (and capital) to support themselves against the large companies (and the very small ones). They come and they go. Sometimes they grow larger and sometimes they just fade away. The smaller companies are exciting but they have the lifespan of a tse-tse fly, by my industry timepiece. But the small companies do keep things interesting (the long tail phenom). There just isn’t enough money to sustain distribution at small or medium scales. And then there are the “deals” the big guys make, which sometimes make no sense to an outside observer (but they do if you’re looking down the barrel of double-digit growth goals). Mid-size is where a lot of Italian wine business starts and grows and then to grow further, they must make the leap. Or they can go direct, solo or with a little help from their friends.

A progressive paradigm for importing wine from Italy
In the past, someone, usually a wine distributor in New York, would see the success of the wines they sold in Manhattan and thought, “I could take this to Peoria.” And so, with a little extra markup, to accommodate for the transportation, the staffing, the compliance and all the regulatory issues in the 50 states, the wine would arrive in Peoria, albeit at a slightly higher price. And then the internet was born. Along with that came closer scrutiny to pricing, from retailers, from consumers. And then it wasn’t possible to hide those costs in a mark-up so easily. Around 25 years ago, a wild-eyed child from California, Brian Larky, decided to reset that model. He started slow, but his idea simply was to take the mark-up and lower it, spread out some of the marketing the responsibility to the suppliers in Italy. What he did was simple but revolutionary. He took the energy of importing wine and divvied it up among his suppliers, his bare-bones staff and then went out to find passionate distributors (of all sizes) to grow everyone’s business. Called Dalla Terra Winery Direct®, the model is one in which all players take a smaller margins, intense efforts in the market place and a lot of passion. And it’s working. In fact, I don’t know why more “imports” don’t adapt the model. It makes perfect sense to an industry observer like me.

Private (“captured”) labels
Everywhere you go, someone is doing a private label. From national chains to one-man pizzerias. It’s gotten crazy, so crazy that large distributors now have staff to source those kinds of wines for multi-unit supermarket chains. And it’s big business. There have been private labels for as long as I have been in the business. They oppose the “brand” mentality, which today’s millennial generation doesn’t give a whit about. I know several wineries in Italy who only do this, and they make a ton of money, get paid on time and spend all of August on the beach of their choosing (Panarea being the current darling). There will be more of this, already is. Big huge wave of wine. Like I said, from national chains to one man pizzerias.

Blended wine
It looks like red-blends are here for awhile. In Tuscan terms, that has been de-rigueur for some time anyway. But as a world-wide phenomenon, it is gathering momentum. This gives Italian red blends a new place to camp on wine lists and gives otherwise inclined souls the opportunity to dip their toe into the Italian wine boot. Along with Tuscany, it also gives Sicily, the Marche, Veneto, Umbria and Puglia new forays.
It’s time. I hope they don’t screw it up, fighting among themselves or doing something stupid like making the wine sweeter to compete ala “White Star” or Prosecco. I don’t think they will, but we’ve already seen Prosecco and Moscato being invaded by cynical wine merchants in search of a fast buck. If you see a Franciacorta at Trader Joe’s for $12.99, you might as well head for your back-country compound. Armageddon will be near.

Barolo - trophy pricing uptick
We’re already seeing the Burgundization of prices in the Langhe. We will see more, because there is only so much of this stuff to go around and the very wealthy can’t get enough of anything. So kiss affordable Barolo (and Barbaresco goodbye). In the meantime, look for the wines from the Alta Langa, from Carema, Boca, Ghemme, Gattinara, Sizzano and from the Valtellina.

The fetishization of Etna
Good lord, we’re going to beat this one with a stick. But we won’t kill it. Namely, because the region is so hard to get to (It’s not a neat little train ride from Paris, or a leisurely drive from Florence or a limo ride from San Francisco). Sicily is still rustic and getting there and getting around (and finding enough folks who speak English) is still many years off. Tie that in with a limited amount of space in which to make Etna wines and the trend followers will gravitate to other places, leaving these wines to the Sicilians the Italians, and to those of us who love the stuff, long before fashion dictated that we should.

Sommeliers and their new-found love affair with Italian wine
After enduring many years of abuse from tastevin-wielding wine stewards regarding the superiority of French over Italian wine, we now have a bevy of young lions ready to go into battle for Italian wine. Hurray! But wait, you haven’t won the war yet - your battles have just begun. For the forces in the market place want people to drink any number of wines, cheap and expensive, from anywhere but Italy. California looms large, as does everything in the southern Hemisphere. Not to mention “local” wine, natural wine, hard to get wine, batch wine, craft wine, and yes, even French wine. So when you are finished with your “high-fiving” and posting all your incredible pictures of 1965 Cappellano Barolo to your Instagram account, let’s try and figure out how to get normal people to drink something Italian beyond the Big Four (Chianti, Pinot Grigio, Prosecco and Moscato).

The long tail
“The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of "hits" (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-targeted goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare.” – Chris Anderson, who sighted the long tail and has written extensively about it.

What that means for us in the wine business is those niche items are getting more play. Often from small or mid-sized distributors. Sometimes from the new paradigm merchants bringing such products into America. Bloggers, Tweeters, Instagrammers, Delectable and Vivino’ers, and the sommelier community contribute to the long tail. There is no one messiah for this; the long tail gets its life from the shifting away from any one source (such as the mainstream). This is an exciting time, for we know not where the “next big thing” will come from. Or if there will be a next big thing. Who cares? We’re moving fast and we're moving forward. Not looking back. In the here and now. Pretty exciting time to be a young person (or young at heart).

Wine blogging
We all know that we’re in the post-mortem wine blogging era. But like a chicken running around after its head is cut off, it ain’t over until the poor thing stops moving. The hard core web-loggers will still post, if only for themselves (which is really all it has ever been for) and they will spread out into other media. Has there really been any new life in the last few years save for Madeline Puckette’s Wine Folly? And even she has a book out. It’s like we’re driving around in a Model T, waiting for the next model. It isn’t Instagram (that’s a whole ‘nother medium). Who knows? Maybe it’s just what it is – a period of time when people did this for ten years or so and then went on to another iteration. The folks who invented blogging sure have moved on, with all their millions. They’re raising kids and cauliflower in Vermont.

Me? I’m just trying to make sure the squirrels don’t eat all my eggplants and keep my vigil for the success of Italian wine in America.

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


  1. Alfonso,
    Preaching to the choir here on DarrellCorti in Sacramento. Even though I live far from Sacramento (LosAlamos/NM), the amount I've learned about Italian wine from Darrell boggles the mind. His knowledge is so vast (on any subject you name...not just Italian wine) and he's more than willing to share that knowledge w/ people. He's one of the World's treasures.

  2. Well, I still use Delectable, but have removed all the posters including some famous wine people who just post wine porn, meaning very rare and expensive bottles constantly without any notes, just projecting status.
    Those who do, like me post notes are great and I love reading and getting ideas from those who's palates I have learned to trust.
    Jason Carey, DWS

  3. good to know, Jason. Yeah, the "famous" wine-porn poster. Kinda makes you feel sorry for someone who cannot share one informative word to say about the wine. oh well...Happy new year!

  4. Spot on, Alfonso. The growth in private-label wine is mind boggling, and makes trying to keep up with the flood of wine generally all that more difficult. I, too, dropped out of Delectable; it just wasn't providing the information I anticipated when I signed on. Happy New Year!

  5. Bravo Alfonso, but what took you so long this year to get to these important ideas..? You're on it and few have as conductive a feel for the market as you. Goes back to us having grown up in this industry while it was still growing up, though of course, Darrell laid the groundwork decades earlier. The market is a changin' along with the climate. Things that weren't imaginable a decade ago are front and center today. But what about 2026? Distribution changes, long tails, distributor consolidation, consumer tastes. Two things that I believe will always be front and center are brands and value. Wines that come from someone, somewhere, that only they can make & bringing this identifiable quality to the American table with value pricing is what we're all about and will stand the test of time. That plus we freakin' love what we do.
    Coolest pic however was of your melanzane, mighty fine.
    Un abbraccio, Brian Larky

  6. Alfonso - Would like to know more about the workings of Dalla Terra? Is this available to the general public?

  7. Thanks for sharing about Next Ten Years Hold for Italian Wine in America. I think Italian wine is the best selling wine in my area.And easily available in most bar because of its fans.


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