Thursday, February 16, 2017

Italian Wine and its Truth-Adjacent Death Spiral

I was making my rounds in the wine job circuit. Serving tables. Sommelier. And now (1981) I was managing a wine bar in Dallas. My son was nearing school age. I needed a day job, being a single parent. A wholesale wine manager, sitting at my bar, told me I’d do great in the distribution side and offered me a job. And so I took a leap.

Over the years, it has been a good ride. I took a few years in between, working for an importer. I loved that side of it as well. But it was always distribution that called to me.

They don’t tell you these things in college, or at least they didn’t then. All I knew was that it was a steady job, with insurance and a modicum of freedom. So I could be a parent, have a life outside of work.

To those who are slaves to the vine, having a life is a bit of a mixed bag. A young salesperson yesterday told me that in the company she previously worked for, they told her to turn off her phone on the weekends, don’t look at your email. Let it be. Monday will come soon enough. I wish someone would have told me that, back then, when I was her age. But they didn’t. I spent many Sunday nights, making shelf talkers, preparing for the week, doing proposals, studying my inventory. So it goes. Or so it went.

For Italian wine in the wholesale distribution end, it has never been better. Remembering how little choices the buying public had in 1980, it was what we in Texas called slim pickins’. Now it is an embarrassment of riches.

Over the last 30 years, I have witnessed unprecedented consolidation. Just when you think it is over, another round starts. It’s like the sparrow hawk and the wild parrots in my back yard. Monday there were 11 parrots and 2 sparrow hawks. Today there are 10 parrots and 2 sparrow hawks. Mind you, 10 slightly more pissed off parrots. But 10, nonetheless. So it goes. It’s a natural progression, whether you like it or not. It is.

From my perch, I see a young sales force and I see a lot of dedication. The Millennials are coming along just fine, in their own way. Brands are being born, some are dying. Babies are being born, older folks are dying off. That’s just the way it is. It’s nature’s way.

But for Italian wine, I’ve never seen more choices than I do today. When I look at my inventory (now on Monday morning, no longer on Sunday night) and look at what is available, I am amazed at how far we have come. I guess I’m a glad half-full kind of guy, not a half-empty person. Just like I like to look at things the way they appear, not some truth-adjacent view of the world, which pits the consumer as left out in the cold, with no choices. How many Roero Arneis are enough? Ten? In 1983, we had one. Or how about wine from Etna? In 1987, you might have been able to scrape up one. Now, there isn’t enough room on the shelves for them all. And that’s in Texas. New York? San Francisco? The real estate is too valuable to put them all on the shelves. There isn't enough storage room to put them all on a wine list.

I’m looking at a list of Sauvignon Blancs from Friuli. On the same list is a slightly orange Pinot Grigio wine. All great stuff. On the same list is a single vineyard Aglianico Del Vulture. As well, there is a Grillo from Mozia, a couple of Malvasia wines from Lipari. Rosso Conero to die for. Brunello from all persuasion and corners of Montalcino. Chianti, not just Classico, but Rufina, Montespertoli. Colli Senesi. And Classico, some going back 25 years or more. In the inventory. Now. Today. All ready and available. Sitting patiently, in cool rooms, in the warehouse, of the distributor.

Like I’ve said, time and again, we’re living in the Golden Age for Italian wine in America.

Come and take ‘em.
A gaggle of masters at SouthFork Ranch - the "real home" of J.R. and Sue Ellen

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Bob96 said...

Magari, as we say. I wish the picture you paint were true everywhere, but it is not. Even in Manhattan, which we left 4 years ago for the relax of the Carolina coast, was a mixed bag. Sure, there were Etnas and Roeros to choose from, but as in so much else, choice slavishly followed trend--so that where once you could enjoy a range of Salice Salentino, they got pushed out for all those Etna, which pushed out lesser interest Nero d'Avola. Apart from canonical offerings from Piedmont and Tuscany (and now, at least for a while, Etna), it could be frustrating to find, say, a range of Ciro or a Savuto or even a Rosso Conero or Piceno or Sardinians beyond the usual seafood whites. Here in a fairly cosmopolitan city in NC, it's far worse--a sea of the same Chiantis and endless Pinot Grigio, with the occasional appearance of a Pieropan basic Soave or a Regaleali roast cause for joy. Admittedly, I got used to seeing a (unpredictably) revolving cast of characters in NY--Rossesse di Dolcwaqua for a while, then some Refosco, then some odd Cannonau, but even there, the shelves seemed to get filled by some distributor whim. There were exceptions, like those shops devoted to Italian wine that tried to keep a representative range of regions and types. But they were the execptions. I understand the realities of the consumer market, I think, but I'd rather have fewer Roero choices and certainly fewer than 12 Pinto Grigios for two Aglianico di Vulture or one Greco di Tufo or even one Ciro Rosato. But I take what I can get.

Athalia said...

I discovered your blog just as I was getting into wine seriously and learned a lot from your well written, humble and informative posts. Thanks for sharing

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