Sunday, February 12, 2017

Showcasing Italian Wine in the USA – 3 Events to Put Your Best Foot Forward

Slow Wine – Vino 2017 – Gambero Rosso

February has been a busy month for Italian wine in America. The Italian holiday vacations, for the most part, are done with. Vinitaly is a couple of months away. And Italians, as 21st century road warriors, have their engines revved. The race has begun. And not just for the wine business. This week I huddled in a snow-bound hotel in lower Manhattan, during Fashion Week, amidst a gaggle of Italian designers, photographers and models. The spirit of Marco Polo, Amerigo Vespucci and Cristoforo Colombo, is well and alive, in the hearts and constitutions of Italian artists, merchants and craftsmen and women. And Italian wine is right there with them - all new, shiny and pretty.

Some recent events I have attended:

Daria Garofoli and Elene Penna - photo by Rob Forman
Slow Wine
This group, which spun-off from Gambero Rosso a few years ago, and is part of Slow Food, is the new kid on the catwalk. Many of the producers eschew the normal marketing routes, i.e. large importer and distribution models and traditional and once all-powerful critical review publications. At the Slow Wine event I attended, in Austin, Texas, there was a mellow vibe to the event. It helped that it was held in a large open Quonset hut kind of building and that the temperature outside hovered around 70° F. There were a large group of producers who didn’t have importation or distribution channels in the US, and so it was kind of a speed-dating approach, with well-tanned and trimmed Italians (straight off the slopes of Monte Bianco) telling their story to anyone who would stop, listen and sip with them. I enjoyed it, found a few new producers to follow in the future as well as the always enjoyable reunions with old friends, like Antonio Benanti from Etna, Elena Penna of Vietti of the Langhe and Daria Garofoli from the Marche. My takeaway from the Slow Wine event is that it is a mellow, easy-paced event where one could pick out one here, one there, and not feel the need to get around to all tables to taste all the highly decorated wines. But there were some compelling stories and interesting wines, made all the more interesting because Slow Wine chose a young and high energy city, located conveniently between the urban petro-sprawl, Houston, and the economic colossus, Dallas. Smart move, on Slow Wine's part, to host it in a progressive (and Slow Food/Wine) city like Austin.

Vino 2017
Sponsored by Italian Trade Agency (once ICE - now ITA) with Vinitaly International. I think the very first Vino event I came to, in New York, was in the late 1990’s. Since then it has changed with the times, and upped its social media presence. This year it was a short 24 hour event, with several educational seminars along with a grand tasting. Again, there were established wineries that had distribution in the US along with new, prospecting wineries looking to make America one of their export markets. I found several new wines of interest, in this case from Rome to the South of Italy.

The seminar on Barbaresco and Barolo, led by Ian D’Agata, was jaw dropping in that Ian’s command of Italian vineyards is exceptional. I was sitting next to a longtime friend and once sommelier, Rebecca Murphy, who would nudge me from time to time and comment on what a mind blowing experience this was to sit in the room, tasting Nebbiolo with Ian, who has such a mastery over the subject. I’d love to see him at TEXSOM in some distant future. He’s a walking encyclopedia. Or rather - in 21st century parlance - a walking, talking Italian wine Google.

I think the fact that the event was short made it sweet. It was concise, quick and to the point, kind of like NY. In all, an event worth attending. And the food in the Grand Tasting hall was very good, fresh, and warm when it needed to be. Lots of available glassware and people there to perform the food and beverage service. Two thumbs up.

Gambero Rosso
While in NY for Vino 2017, I extended my stay to coincide with GR. I’d scheduled a few meetings with winemakers, importers and journalists, so it worked out well. However, nature descended upon NY the night before the event in the form of a snowstorm. Starting around 5:30AM, snow blew in and aggressively dusted Manhattan. I was hunkered down in lower Manhattan in a hotel filled with Spanish, Chinese and Italian fashionistas, who were there for Fashion Week. And while it was a lot of fun sipping diet Coke with the slim set, I braved the mean streets of Manhattan to attend Gambero Rosso on 18th St. I have to say, I am still a bit traumatized from my youthful days in NY (in the mid 1970’s) when Manhattan wasn’t such a cool and groovy place to be. But years and experience have given me the patience and the forbearing to endure life’s little temporary discomforts. I layered up, topped off with Andy Warhol’s old Burberry rain coat that I inherited, and set off for a room full of Italians, to taste their Tre Bicchieri wines.

The Gambero Rosso event in NY was a bit more buttoned down than the Slow Wine event in Austin. But some of that comes with the territory. I hate to sound this way, but these days, Texas is a bit more laid back than NY. Mind you, there is angst in Texas. But New York takes everything to the top. Not that the revelers in the hall on 18th were stressing. For God’s sake, we’re in the wine business, it's not like we’re trying to figure out who the next Supreme Court Justice should or shouldn’t be.

Yes, Gambero Rosso is a well-lubricated event. Lots of producers, a big, bustling room; like a Dim Sum Palace in Beijing on a Sunday afternoon. It was kind of hard to figure out where to start. The map at the entrance showed the table layout, numerically, and a hand-out catalog detailed the producers at the tables. The two didn’t quite mesh, but as in many things Italian, I let go of the desire for order and started walking the hall, looking for interesting wines and people to talk with. Once I surrendered to it, it made for a lovely afternoon. There were so many wonderful friends and producers there.

More than once people would come up to me, sometimes sheepishly, just wanting to introduce themselves and tell me that they like reading this silly old blog. That was really heartwarming. You know, I’ve been typing out these posts, weekly for 11 plus years. Sometimes I think, why am I still doing this? I know why, it’s a log of my experiences on the wine trail in Italy. Duh. Nonetheless, it is always nice to know other people get something from it. And almost always it’s that they come for the stories. Not news, real or fake. Not controversies, made up or real. But good old fashioned stories.

If you are fortunate enough to live in or near an urban area when these Italian wine groups come through, make a point to get to one of them. You don’t have to be a groupie and go to them all. But it really does open up a world that one often can only get when one goes to Vinitaly (which can be difficult to get to if you have a working life and a full schedule) or to the vineyards themselves (which is the ultimate “visit”). But over the years, you can forge deep friendships and be part of something bigger than yourself and something that can be a positive force in this over-wrought world. Sure, we aren’t going to keep the fingers of a mad man off the nuclear switch, but that isn’t why wine came into this world. Wine is part of the peace movement, it married art and agriculture and fashion and commerce and it brings all kinds of diverse people, old and young, men and women, together, and in a wonderful way. And it tastes good, too.

You never know which famous people you will run across in SOHO

written and photographed (unless otherwise noted) by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
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