Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Rise of The Italian Wine Specialist in America

An O-N-D Pep Talk

For the past four months I've felt like the mother of all road warriors, in service of Italian wine. I really thought I was finished. I really did. But the wine gods back home in Italy have their ideas. And I had my marching orders. So it was, one more time, around and around America, with sword and shield.

In the wine trade, October, November and December (O-N-D- for short) has been considered the busy time of the year. I've put in 37 O-N-D’s. I’m done with that, my O-N-D having been supplanted by a J-J-A-S (June, July, August and September) with a short October coda thrown in for good measure. Along the way, I experienced something that is very encouraging for the Italian wine trade – and that is the rise of the Italian wine specialist in America.

From California to Texas, from Georgia to Oregon, and all points in between, the Italian wine specialist is a relatively new phenomenon in furthering the understanding (and sales) of Italian wine. Grown out of the enormous wave of consolidation the wholesale trade has undergone in the last 30 years, it has become a necessity. The average salesperson, be it in a large, a medium, or even a boutique sized distribution company, has more to present and sell (and follow-up on) than we had when I first started. Along with that, the climate for buying has changed. With more choices from fewer sources, and with a tighter budget, the trade has become more constricted in its buying habits. Long gone are the days when a team would go into a market and “blitz” and come back at the end of a day with handfuls of orders. Nowadays there are a lot of “let’s talk about it next week, or next month.” Rarely does a buyer pull a trigger right on the spot.

The Italian specialist has grown slowly, but steadily. When I first started, I was considered an Italian specialist. But I presented wine from everywhere. And I preferred having that option. Now, when I talk to a wine buyer about Barolo or Brunello, Prosecco or Etna Rosso, I have a world-wide context in which to put Italian wine. I can talk as easily about the Right Bank wines of Bordeaux as I can the Sangiovese of Panzano. If someone needs to know the difference in Nebbiolo from Monvigliero vs. La Morra, I can easily talk about that. And if needed, talk about the differences between les Vaucrains and Le Musigny. Not a problem. And equally not a problem enjoying wines from all of those places. So, while my focus has been on Italian wine, my heart is with wine.

I think it is important for the emerging Italian wine specialists to understand those differences. Previously, Italian wine was sold with hat-in-hand and with a limping gate of apology. And there was the price. Italian wine was always the low man on the totem pole. We had to dance and sing and crank the hurdy-gurdy and train the monkey. And have the lowest price. All the while, the farmers in Italy were breaking their backs, getting the best Nebbiolo, the best Glera, the best Sangiovese, and on, from the land. Meanwhile, our French cousins learned early on that while all the good practices in the vineyards and in the cellars were of paramount importance, it was also critical that the world understood where the best wine came from. Terroir – the magic bullet. Brilliant.

I make no bones about my respect and love for my French cousins. We share the same goal. We are not on opposing armies. They are my teachers, my friends and my cousins. And Italy has evolved in the way they share their message of wine to the world, more closely to that of the French, which has been very successful for them.

Before there were Italian wine specialists, there were French wine experts. They dazzled the world with their knowledge and pressed forward the cause of France and wine to the far corners of the world. One can drink the best French wines in clubs in Lagos, something unheard of 50 years ago. And likewise, one can experience the best Italy has to offer in places like St. Louis. We’re all covering the world these days. There are no backwater places. Anywhere is possible. And the Italian wine specialists in America understand that. Tyler, Texas on a Saturday night, wine from Rufina? Lambrusco di Sorbara? It is happening, it happened. It is all possible. We are spreading our wings like guardian angels, guardian angels of wine.

But how does one get to become an Italian wine specialist? Does one need training? Certification? Some kind of medallion or pin to signify one’s level of expertise? Well, in America the wine game is like so many other games. You can go in for training, for education, for certification in any number of ways. And if you’re a young person, those pathways are more likely to emerge than they did a generation or two ago.

While I’d never discourage anyone in their continuing education with regards to wine, I will also encourage anyone who cares to read these words that the road to mastery can also take many untrod paths. Trial and error can be slow. And humbling. Let’s just call it like it is – it can and is often a humiliating way to go. I experienced it this week. Traveled thousands of miles, through airports, and auto rental counters, through tollways and unfamiliar urban areas. In gale force weather, with rain slapping the windshield so hard I could barely see in front of me 10 feet ahead. And to arrive to a place, in some rural outpost, to step into a wine shop and to have X wine buyer tell me “No, I don’t need another _____, I have too many already and I don’t have enough business. You wasted a trip.” Yes, I still hear that to this day. I’ve spent 40 years honing my love for Italian wine, only to be told by another faceless, nameless buyer that they could give a shit. Even if you have the letters after your name and the biggest, shiniest pin on your lapel. That’s the way it goes.

The Italian wine specialist really only needs a few things. They are:

• An indomitable spirit that will never be squashed by the "nattering nabobs of negativism."

• An invisible cord back to the motherland, the source, the divine connect to wine in a place where wine was nurtured at an early age.

• A willingness to battle for years – a warrior – a happy one, but a warrior still.

• An unquenchable thirst for more knowledge, more accuracy, more desire to pronounce and spell correctly. Professional presentation skills these days are more needed than ever.

• A desire to help even the most ignorant, egotistical, narcissistic wine buyer. If you don’t think they exist, just look at 100 or so Italian wine lists across America. The level of vain, self-absorbed arrogance can only be truly realized by perusing the lists and then encountering their creators (or I am sure they would consider themselves to be “The Creator”).

• The faith to know that this is not something you can fix in an O-N-D or even in five years. This is a lifetime project.

• That back home in Italy, the cosmic energy knows you – they know you are their emissary. You are on a mission from the wine gods. They will not abandon you.

• And when the grapes are brought in, year after year, you are part of something that has helped to make the world a better place.

Yes, you will be challenged. And yes, your humility and integrity will be tested at every possible step. There will always be someone out there who is jealous of you and your lot in life. Don’t look down, and don’t look back. The wine gods have your back. I know this. For every bad wine list out there, there are 100 farmers trying to grow better grapes, 100 winemakers trying to make a better wine and 100 importers trying to bring in better wines. You are not alone. It has taken two, maybe three generations to get to this point. You can see the ocean. You can see the mountains. You can see the stars. This did not happen overnight. Enjoy the view. And make sure your quiver is full. For on Monday morning, the battle begins anew.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Frank Riccioli said...

At one appointment, a wine buyer at a well-regarded Dallas restaurant dismissed my offer to taste Fontodi by saying "Chianti, Schmanti, they're all the same"...heartbreaking...

Unknown said...

Well said Alfonso. Thank you for including us on your journey. And thank you for the help on pronunciation.

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