Sunday, March 26, 2017

Who are the Future “Thought Leaders” for Italian Wine?

With harvest behind us and winemaking for the year finished, Italians in the wine trade are living out of their suitcases. Traveling to markets around the world, attending portfolio tastings and working with salespeople in the trenches. Last week there was Prowein. This week all eyes turn to Bordeaux for their annual UGC 2016 vintage tastings. But soon there will be Vinitaly. Emails are being sent to round up prospective new clients and export markets. Seminars are being scheduled. Dinners, which will go late into the night, are being planned, in and around Verona. And there are all the people planning travel to Italy to visit and taste, before and after Vinitaly. All this eating and drinking and tasting and talking, what will come of it?

Armando de Rham with Luciano de Giacomi at Bricco del Drago
The process of making wine, while it seems, on the surface, to be an activity confined to a facility to process grapes into the precious liquid, that is only part of it. Of course, as has been told time and again, there is the vineyard and all the practices that farmers and gardeners are concerned with. There is the spiritual connection, terroir as the Omniscient Presence, the invisible Guiding Hand that makes every tiny parcel unique and particular.

And there is the ongoing conversation among wine lovers and influencers, over the direction wine is taking, as it is guided by the hand of men and women who are the servants of the vine.

I kiddingly use the term “slaves to the wine god,” but there is a kernel inside that phrase. If one understands that connection, it makes all the difference in the world. It is the difference between taking off early on a Friday and going to lunch, popping some bottles and posting one’s trophies on Instagram or Facebook. And taking some bottle (or bottles) to see a client in the hopes of finding more homes for those wines which those men and women back in the vineyards slaved so hard over to make.

Salvo Foti in his Aeris vineyrd in Milo, on Etna
Somewhere in this process, there are people who are actually concerned with the future of wine, not just one’s immediate visceral pleasures. People who understand history, or have even made some of it, who know Italian wine wasn’t always at the top of the charts when it came to quality and appreciation.

It’s hard for someone who hasn’t been in the game for very long to understand this: Italian wines, at one point, were lacking, some would say even awful. White wines, especially. This observer noticed, around the early 1980’s, that a transformation was taking place inside wineries. Italy was coming out of its slumber. The economy was creating more opportunities, and especially in a global sense, the markets were opening up to wine from Italy that had once been dominated by France. It was, it is an extremely exciting time. Again, though, there was some direction, some thought, some philosophy that had to be put into action, in order for that transformation to proceed.

So, now we are at the mountain top. Where do we go now? Who are the 21st century Antinori’s, Gaja’s, Quintarelli’s, Mastroberardino’s? Who is leading Italian wine in to the future, not only with their wine but with their ideas?

Alessandro de Renzis Sonnino in his venerable vinsantaio
That is the stuff, at late night dinners and bottles of Vin Santo, which people will talk over in the coming days. Along with the political climate change that is affecting every one of us on earth, and the economic gyrations, the mass movement of humans across the globe. That and the fundamental questions many of us ask, often – what am I doing here? Am I making a difference? It might take more than a bottle of Vin Santo.

Consider this: the experience a young winemaker has, over a winter break, whether trekking across Myanmar or swimming in Miami, can affect one’s perception of their place in the world. And we are in a unique time now, as subliminal factors enter into the experience of young Italians in the wine trade, who go back to Barolo or Montalcino with these experiences and alters their philosophy about wine. These modern day Marco Polos, en masse, are like tiny drops of water - drip, drip, drip - slowly impressing a concavity into the stone. Do you not find this to be an exciting time for Italian wine? For sure, there are those souls who care not to venture any further from their farm in Pontignano than maybe Florence, or in Barbaresco to perhaps Torino. And we need those people too. They are the grounding rod for the process. They prevent Chianti from turning into Shiraz or Barbaresco into Merlot.

Arianna Occhipinti - in Fossa di Lupo
I know I’ve lost some of you with this. In fact, in the last few months I’ve probably lost many more to the many distractions and chatter in our everyday lives of the here and now. The pressing issues of the day, the scandals, the dramas, the nerve wracking, heart pounding, stress inducing dilemmas at our doorstep. But take a step back, for a minute, let those daily things be, and just think about where we’re at in regards to Italian wine and what it means to you, reading this. Hasn’t it blossomed beautifully in your lifetime? Haven’t those gardeners of the soul of Italian wine done an amazing job?

We’ve come a long way in the last 7,000 or 8,000 years. And the last 70 have been probably the most impactful of them all. But those pioneers are older now. And while their light hasn’t dimmed, their time on the stage is passing. Their sons and daughters, and grandchildren, are swarming the center line. Which of them are gazing into the deep pool of time with the thirst for leading us where no one has gone before?

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