Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Fate of Italian Wine in a Strange, New America

All across Italy there is an army of souls standing over fermenting tanks, hoses running everywhere, with the ubiquitous sweet-sour scent of fermentation, laboring long hours in the annual miracle of grapes into wine. And thousands of miles away, their largest market, America, is shattering day by day, self-destructing in a miasma of fear and rancor. To the farmer and the winemaker, it is like being a chef on a luxury liner that is heading towards an iceberg, preparing dinner for a room full of people who might never see dessert. And still they hover over the barrels in ancient chambers, in the dark, hoping to husband this fermenting mess of must into something miraculous and wonderful. And for whom? For these new American barbarians? While this is nothing new to the Italian culture which has often been between Scylla and Charybdis, this does nevertheless present a present-day dilemma, which has concrete, material implications. But it also advances a metaphysical plight. How does one expect to nurture and grow their business among their largest audience when that audience is undergoing a societal seppuku?

As a long time member of the wine trade in America, now sitting more on the sidelines, writing about wine and occasionally consulting with Italian wineries, I am in a quandary. What do I tell my friends and colleagues in Italy? How do I convey to them that sense of hope in the American dream which still burns bright inside me, in such a time of tumult and upheaval?

I’m, frankly, not shocked by any of what I see in America. The carnage, the destruction, the unfiltered hate that spews out of every possible outlet there is. Alvin Toffler clued me into this in 1970 with his book, Future Shock. Much of what I am seeing before my very eyes, is this overall inability by Americans-at-large to assimilate the information that is being thrown at them in such a voluminous and haphazard manner. We are a country in present shock. We have become a zombie nation. I’m not sure we believe in a collective future for those unborn souls.

So, how do I tell the Soave producer to keep on plugging away, we will turn a corner soon? What do I do to convince the Sangiovese farmer in Montalcino to keep the faith? In which way should I counsel the Prosecco producer, or the Barolo winemaker or the small vigneron on Mt. Etna, that this is a temporary moment in time and space and it will pass – go ahead and borrow that €5 million to buy that parcel to expand your production? I mean, really? What do I say? What do we do?

In our house, we now talk of an impending event of violence, that we very well could experience. It could be at our Kroger, or at our workout space, or in a public place like an open park, a concert, a gas station. Or a synagogue, for God’s sake, where one cannot even celebrate a new life, naturally in America, without avoiding senseless slaughter? Thoughts and prayers, my ass!

It has happened, countless times, and we as a country are inured by the endless and senseless killings and violence. It is as if we have come to expect it, all the while hoping it won’t touch us personally. But it has pierced us as a culture. We are wounded, and slowly bleeding out as a country. Hope is draining out of America, worse than it was in 1968. Now, the war isn’t in Vietnam. it’s in Pittsburgh, in Miami, in Las Vegas, in San Bernardino, in Louisville, Kentucky. It is everywhere, we are in a war. Call it a civil war, call it a cultural war. Call it a fringe war. But we are at war.

Oh yes, we can still make reservations for dinner and go have blue fin tuna sashimi flown in from Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market. And we can go to out local steak house and have 120-day aged wagyu steaks. And we can go to our cool kid’s wine bar and drink grower Champagne or orange wine or 1st growth Bordeaux or Gaja Barbaresco and leave our Tesla at the valet stand while we amble up a marble staircase where all pleasure will await us. So, it doesn’t seem like we are at war when we can divert our attention from the carnage on a screen to a sous-vide on our plate with a sharp Laguiole steak knife by our side and a Zalto wine glass filled with Screaming Eagle. After all, it’s not in our back yard.

Alas, in the last four months of traveling across this United States, I did see otherwise. Everywhere, including in our nations capital, homeless people, everywhere. Soldiers who went to Iraq and Afghanistan, now on the streets, mothers and their children darting out of dumpsters, peering behind fences, waiting for the cars to pass so they can find some thing of nourishment. It’s all there, in America. So, how do we reconcile with an uncertain fate for Italian wine in this strange, new America? What do I tell them, tell you, who is reading from Poggibonsi, from Ancona, from Randazzo? Go somewhere else? Seek your future in China? In Russia? In Kazakhstan?

I do not know what to tell you in Italy. I think about WWII and what everyone had to go through then. And they did, and they came out of it and rebuilt their lives. But it took generations to do that. And we have been steadily climbing out of that pile of rubble for 70 years. How much fight does one need to have in them? How many rounds must one go?

I am not a pessimistic person by nature. But I don’t know what to say. I don’t know where to run, to move to, to escape this endless death spiral this country seems to be in the grip of. Worry not, this isn’t being penned by someone who is depressed. On the contrary, I am a resilient being. Mind you, this is coming from one whose wife died in my arms when we were in our 40’s, an incessant procession to the end, an incurable illness, while she (and we) were in the peak of our life. I’m not afraid of death. But I am stumped here. I have not a clue out of the fog this country is in, and which appears to be putting the whole world at risk. So, really, which Chianti Classico or Rosso Piceno one chooses to have in the dining room of the luxury liner isn’t on my highest priority list. What wine is trending on Instagram is of little concern to me. What an errant master sommelier did to change the life of one (or 23) young aspirant pales in comparison to the bigger issues facing us. What over-the-top Halloween costume party where everyone had a great time at the prestigious winery in wine country in California seems trite and meaningless in these troubled times. Rome is burning!

I am sick of what my America is projecting to the world right now. How can I tell my Italian friends and colleagues in wine anything that sounds remotely hopeful, if we don’t fix this monstrous mess of a country?



wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

4 comments:

Marco Strasatto said...

Amen, amico, amen. It is difficult to be aware of the carnage and hate and equally disturbing to try and look around the corner to see what's coming. Is there a middle ground? I feel for people who are depressed in these times or any times for that matter.

Bob Rossi said...

Brilliant! And I have no answers to your questions.

George Schwartz said...

Alfonso,
A great breath of our stalest air, complimente. It evokes rage for sure. What a dichotomy: we have the greatest riches for our glasses and beyond, but we are bamboozled by hate, growing fears, divisions, and an indigestion of life that seems to beget cancers. Cheers

toro_SF said...

Except, Alfonso, things are nearly as awful in Italy as in the US, what with Salvini, Five Star, and the League. Thank God for Italian gun laws! Otherwise, who knows what nut would shoot up African migrants in Puglia or Friuli? These are dark evil times, and it's happening world-wide (witness the Brazilian election). Great piece, though Al - we're feeling the same pain.

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