Sunday, January 01, 2017

Is Italian Wine Ready for a Revamp in 2017?

Vision quests, spa treatments, identity crisis wines and start-up disruptors

My Italian friends are posting pictures on their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds, from Myanmar to Miami and from mountain ski resorts. They are starting the year off with a vacation. Every year it strikes me a bit funny when this happens. Maybe my 7% German DNA overrides the need to take off. In the wine industry we just climbed a high mountain, Mt. O-N-D, and although many of us fought all the way to the end, some of us didn’t quite make it to the very top. Camp 4 maybe, but not the summit. That’s kind of the way it is though, we really never reach the top and once we do, it usually isn’t in bright shiny, fashionable ski gear as we slither down the mountain towards a hip-tone chalet filled with Franciacorta and Prosecco awaiting us. No, the battle is done, for a few days. And then it starts all over again.

I’m talking about the battle to win more wine lovers, and in my case, more Italian wine lovers. I now look at it as an orbit. An orbit around the sun. And in my career, this was the 36th go around. I remember my first one, and my old manager, Lee High, took me aside one day at the end of November and told me, “December 1st will be the busiest day of the year.” And for years it was. And then they all became busy, often past the designated days in December, to the 32nd, the 33rd, even the 35th of December. And it never seemed to stop. There were no respites to high rise condos in south Florida, no long weekends in Cortina D’Ampezzo. Just year-end business reviews, and get back on the horse. That’s what we do in America – we work – we grow things – we blow things up. And we do it over and over and over again.

So, Italy – what about you? Once you get back from your vision quests and your spa treatments, your Epiphany celebrations and your Befana sightings – what do you think, in the wine business, you will want to accomplish in 2017? Let me share with you some random thoughts. We all want Italian wine to be greater, yes? Take this as simply one long-time observer’s view of the path ahead.

Relationships are still King. There is no substitute for being here, pressing the flesh, telling your story and following up once you get home. Over and over and over again. It’s like football. Move the ball to the goal, make a goal and do it again, and again and again. Seems simple, eh? Come see us in 2017.

Worried about the political landscape in the US? Look around, things all over are in disruption mode – England, France, Italy, Turkey, Russia, Korea, China, India. We are all in this together, there is no escape. So we all need to learn how to “dance in a hurricane,” as Thomas Friedman writes.

Let’s address a few challenges, and some opportunities as well, for the Italian wine business:

Made-up labels. Many Importers decided, years ago, to protect their interests from losing a brand they built from scratch. They all do it, Winebow, Vias, Domaine Select, Empson, Terlato, even Dalla Terra. Those kinds of wines have a market, but they aren't for everyone. They aren’t for most of the young somm set. The young somm set are looking for compelling stories that resonate with the ideals of their generation. Show a made up label to them and it will just piss them off. So, don’t. Wines like this will work much better in channels where upcoming wine drinkers are shopping, like these mega-gourmet supermarkets that need wine made in more than 1 barrel lots. Hey, look at Eataly, where the Batali-Bastianich group has come up with a series of wines to service their stores in America (and also their restaurants around the world). For the most part, these are well-made wholesome wines. Sure, Raj Parr probably isn’t going to list those wines on his Delectable feed. But these aren’t wines for that world. They don’t fit with the running screenplay of the lives of 20 something’s looking to make their mark in the world. After they get a wine director gig in Houston with five restaurants to feed, then maybe wines like that will make more sense. But for now, this is not the wine for the mostly millennial group.

Toscana Rosso – Jesus, if I see another wine with this appellation, I’m going to scream. Stop it all, now, all of you. Call it something, call it Classicaia or some other fantasy name, just, not another Toscana Rosso, ever, ever again… we’re done in America with this wine. DONE!

Let’s talk about Soave. You all are working real hard to screw the pooch again. Get it together. Soave has become the Zinfandel of white wine of Italy. Stylistically, it’s all over the place – from high acid, lean, mineral-staccato style to ripe, flowery, late-harvest, gooey, agave syrup-like renditions. Somethings got to give. America loves Soave – if they didn’t then the folks at Gallo wouldn’t have taken a position on it with Pieropan, for they have much bigger fish to fry. Keep it simple. Stop trying to make it into a Montrachet or a SLH Chardonnay.

Nebbiolo’s close up moment. This wine is gearing up for a big run. I can sense this is already happening. Things are lining up. It’s about to become the monster that Toscana Rosso thought it was meant to be. But it has the blessing of its parents, Barolo and Barbaresco. And we have probably 4-5 years before someone screws the market up, with greed, unbelievably low prices and lesser wine. It happened with Bourgogne Rouge, it can happen with Nebbiolo. I hope it won’t.

Sardegna. Well we all know Sardegna isn't Sicily. Or Corsica. The wines just aren’t taking off in America. What is the problem, Sardegna? You had Tachis as your guardian angel! And still, the market, who cares? That’s them talking, not me. Sardegna, perhaps the world doesn't want Vermentino or Grenache from you- they can get it from the South of France or Tuscany and more people travel there in any case. So what treasure are you concealing from us? What covert gems are lurking in those hills? Do we need a Kermit Lynch to come and find them? Like he did in Corsica? I know you’ve got something better for us than what we’re getting. Bring them to us. Please.

Franciacorta – Ok, I’ve tried, I’ve really tried. Lots of us have. But Champagne is back on the upswing. And Prosecco is kicking everyone’s ass. Or at least the heavily discounted, under $10 Prosecco. Hey, even folks are now looking to Cava for some relief. And that’s probably a direction more wine shoppers will go this year – there are some amazing Cava wines available – much more character than Prosecco and not as expensive as Champagne (or Franciacorta). Franciacorta, the party is over. You want one more rotation on the planet around the sun? Or maybe just pack it up and go home? Who are you? The ball is in your court – you make the shots – and by the way, you could use a couple of three-pointers right now.

Good news? Do I have any? Well, in fact I do. Ever heard of Drizly? I didn’t think so. I spent a day in Boston with the folks who started and run this “fast-company.” My mind was blown. I see Drizly as a shot in the arm for the wine business. It’s time hasn’t come yet. But it’s a coming. Imagine trying to find a hard to get wine that is in plain sight ( at least in some retailers or wholesalers stocks) and you can get it delivered in a couple of hours , or at best a day or so? It’s the ultimate millennial wet dream, having access to something they don’t even know they want. So. Very. Badly. Oh yeah, it’s a coming. You’ll be dancing in the eye of the hurricane. I will write more about this in 2017. I cannot even tell you how this company has blown my mind with the possibility of delivering to my expectations for a more level playing field in the fine wine acquisition department.

So far I’ve picked on Italians who are sunning at Phuket or skiing at Madonna di Campiglio in January, private made up labels, generic red wine from Tuscany, Soave with gender identity issues, Sardegna and Franciacorta. And I’ve praised Nebbiolo (for now) and an obscure startup company with an odd name, Drizly. The horses aren’t exactly roaring out of the gate in 2017, from this perspective, on the wine trail in Italy. But we have left 2016 in the past, where it belongs, with 2012, 2008, 2001, 2000, 1992 and all the other rotations around the sun that left us older (and hopefully, wiser).

Well, it’s early still… but not too early for a glass of, what’ll it be?

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy + Drizly + W
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