Sunday, July 10, 2016

The World Fumes and Spews, but the Wine Business Goes On

Why I got into the wine business

Me during my first visit to Carlo Hauner -
Island of Salina, 1987- A kinder, gentler volcano
Last Friday, while handing out Italian wine maps to salespeople, I got to talking with one of the young ones. She will be turning 30 on the day before me, next week, sharing the same birthday as a friend in New York, arguably the finest wine writer in the country and whom I had the honor of accompanying on a recent journey to Sicily. He just published his first of four articles from the trip, and I was fortunate to have my photographs of Etna published alongside his well chiseled piece, “Etna Fumes and Spews, but the Winemaking Goes On.

Memories have recently been rekindled, one as a result of having that conversation with the young wine salesperson, who is the same age I was when I started in the business. The other, as a result of the recent tragic events in Dallas, which have all of us here stunned and saddened beyond words.

Flashback to 1975, when I moved to New York. January of 1975. I’d lived all my life, up to then, in California, and it was a bitterly cold New York winter. I came to New York, because a Magnum photographer I knew recommended it for my then hopeful photography career. He made a few introductions and I hooked up with a college chum to surf his couch in Chelsea. Anticipation (and anxiety) was high.

As it turned out, I wasn’t suited for an urban lifestyle of that magnitude. New York in 1975 wasn’t nearly as fabulous (or expensive) as it is now. Nonetheless, I went back to California, tail between my legs, and set upon finding my path.

Six years later, I’m living in Dallas, a single father in need of a job where I could work during the day. I’d had years of working in the restaurant business - server, sommelier, wine bar manager - but I needed to get away from the nocturnal lifestyle as the parent of a four year old.

A salesman from the wholesale distribution channel suggested I try working for his company. I knew nothing about wholesale distribution, other than that’s where the wine came from that I bought for the wine bar I managed and restaurants I worked in. It seemed like a safe harbor, especially as my son was nearing school age, and it promised a more normal lifestyle in which to raise a child as a single dad. In those days, there were few of us.
My first end-cap - Illuminati wines - Simon David, Dallas, 1985

I had little understanding of the mechanism of the three-tier system. All I knew was I had a stable job, weekends off, more time with my son, flexible hours, health care and I had wines like Heitz, Gaja, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Schramsberg and Travaglini to sell. Dallas was booming with oil, even though there was still the shadow of the 1963 Kennedy assassination lingering over our town.

But also, something wonderful was set in motion, as a direct result of being in the wine business. After having been in love with photography since 1965, and dreaming of someday getting my photos to a larger audience, it's happened, thanks to Eric and the NY Times.

I recall a moment before I went to New York in 1975 when a mentor told me, “You’ll never make it in the photography world; you don’t have the grit, the hutzpah.” In a way, he was right, but isn’t it funny how the wine business opened up the world of photography to this late bloomer? It’s a bit ironic, but I’ll take it.

Over the years I have worked with large, medium and small-sized distributors. I’ve fought the good fight as a small and struggling distributor more than once. Four times, to be exact. I know their pain, I empathize and sympathize.

Dana Overton and James Gunter - Pogo's, Dallas 1990
I’ve worked with wine-centric medium-sized distributors. It was there, at American Wine and Importing Company with Tony and James LaBarba (and James Gunter) that I learned even more to love selling fine wine. I never felt it to be an evil thing. We didn’t sell war armaments. When wars are over or people win races, or get married, what do they do? They open a bottle of Champagne. I had landed in a celebratory industry. We were making people happy. And I was traveling the world and making life long friendships in those wine regions across the planet. My tribe. Happy ending.

And yes, I’ve worked (and do work) with large companies. There is nothing inherently malicious about large. There are people who work in both large and small companies whose intentions aren’t as pure as snow. But never have I looked into the face of evil during any meeting I have been in. There are good practices and there are shoddy ones.

Andrea Ferretti, cantiniere of Fattoria dei Barbi and yours truly, Montalcino 1984
Over the years, I’ve sold and tasted almost everything that comes from Italy to America. I’m glad I decided to specialize in Italian wine, although you can find wine from all over the world (even the rare bottle of DRC) in my small, but packed, personal wine room. Port, Champagne, Napa Valley Cabernet, ancient bottles of Australian reds and German Rieslings, Hermitage, Gattinara, Barolo, Barbaresco , Etna Rosso and Bianco and much, much more. I love the culture that wine weaves around our fragile frames, and the challenge it raises trying to get more people to love wine. This isn’t anything unique to the size of the distributor, the channel, or even the route to market. It is the way one’s heart is wired to one’s soul.

I’m not in the position my 30 year old salesperson is, where her life is laid out ahead of her. But I’m also not dead, yet. And I’m not done. Looking in the rear view mirror won’t be my primary activity. Yeah, I’m doing it now, but if you think I’m frozen in time, you’d be wrong.

Wine always keeps us in the present moment, as it is always coming at us with new vintages, unknown grapes, unusual blends or types. No time to look back, only marching forward to a new O-N-D and a new day.

And now that my son is grown up and on his own, I have my nights for the other love, photography. And (with a bit of luck) more assignments, with the ensuing challenges in the darkroom, in the post-production room and behind the lens of the camera.

Proud camera-slinging papa with grown up son

written by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Not the real Marco de Bartoli said...

You have the gift, amico. I raise a glass of Zeltinger Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett to your heart and soul and the soul of the world, anima mundi. And to your bones too.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

In an odd way, wine opened up the world of writing for me, a world I'd abandoned in my youth as you'd shelved photography as a vocation. I guess the secret in life is just to live so long, the world has to grant you a wish.

In many ways, Alfonso, this is you at your best.

Alfonso Cevola said...

thanks gents, much obliged....

Unknown said...

Keep writing and wine-ing!!!

Mike Dunne said...

Darkroom? Just how long have you been away from photography? Actually, I realize that the darkroom has its draw, and that film is having something of a comeback, but I think digital gives photographers more time to be out shooting. Regardless of technique, however, I look forward to your continued sensitive and telling work.

Unknown said...

Love the photos and the writings.

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