Sunday, January 06, 2019

Italian Wine in America - An Array of Abundance

Dallas, Texas - 1979 - Il Sorrento Old World Italian Cuisine
Let’s hop on the Wayback Machine, to 1979, on search of the state of Italian wine in America. Forty years ago. A blink in the eye, in geological time, but an epoch for Italian wine. How do I know? I’m old, man. I was there and on the floor, serving and sommeliering, in Italian restaurants.

The choices were slim. There was Ruffino. And Bolla. Chianti. And Soave. And Frascati, from Fontana Candida. And Corvo, both red and white.

A brash young upstart, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, appeared on the horizon. Red wine with a little bit of fruit. It was refreshing.

There was a little Barolo and Barbaresco. The Barbera that showed up usually “aged” in the warehouses, or the warm racks in the restaurants, and was virtually useless. And there were attempts by other regions, Emilia Romagna, but usually with their sickly sweet Lambruscos. Oh, and there was Asti Spumante. Oh joy.

The choices were sparse. There were no natural wines, no orange wines. No bone-dry sparkling wines. It was an Italian wine desert.

The most exciting thing around then, was the introduction of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, at the time, a virtual unknown.

And then, slowly, importers began bringing in more and more interesting wines from Italy. Around 1984, the rose started to bloom and it has been blossoming for 35 years. Slowly, but surely.

Along the way, around 1987, the traditional American channels of distribution, via wholesalers, started experiencing a wave of consolidation that hasn’t stopped pounding the American shores in all this time. It was troubling (at times, exhilarating) to witness, and be affected by the disruption that has been going on in that arena for the last 30+ years. You never knew what winery or importer was going to switch to another wholesaler. The amount of companies were shrinking, with fewer left standing, as the big fish kept eating the little fish until the big fish became unwieldy whales. And that is where we are now. Huge distributors, along with a bevy of mid-sized ones, hanging on, sometimes for dear life, sometimes thriving. And what the big whales like to call the “bottom feeders,” small start-up companies, maybe in one market (NY or SF) with a dream and a prayer. And slowly, more and more Italian wines are coming into America, so much that if you would come directly in 2019 from 1979 you might not believe you were on the same planet.

2019 - To “go beyond victimization and take more pride in survival.” Originally this quote was about Armenia and Armenians in a recent Anthony Bourdain segment. It can easily apply to all things Italian wine. In 1979 we didn’t have globs of natural wine. Well, actually we did. It survived a gruesome war. Folks despairingly called it “rustic” as if to take the Italian down a notch from France. What those ignoramuses didn’t know was the French winemakers in the “country” were also making rustic wines. Now all is forgiven. It’s trendy. It’s socially acceptable. Influencers abound in prognosticating about how “important” natural wines are. Not any less than they were 30 years ago, before those influencers (and their Instagram feeds) were on the scene.

The Italian arc spans a time, not quite geological in its reach, but definitely beyond a generation or two. And the farmers and winegrowers have passed on to the younger generation (sons and daughters!) an urgency to maintain some of the old ways, in an attempt to forestall a further degradation in the quality of life in general on planet earth. I hope it helps, although the scientists have begun to ring a louder bell, as if to say we might already have crossed over the tipping point. Who knows? We’d need to take the Wayback Machine and reprogram it to the Way Forward Machine and go 200 years into the future and see.

My sense is, if we don’t blow the place up, Italians will be making thousands of different wines, maybe even more than they are now. And from hundreds of new grapes, that they rediscovered in long-lost vineyards on Mt. Etna, Basilicata, Campania and Lazio, among other regions. We think we’re in a Golden Age of wine for Italy. What comes after gold? I kind of wish a was a vampire, so I could see.

I will not hoist my fears upon a wailing wall (real or virtual), lamenting the lack of choice. There are more choices in my neighborhood Italian store than all of the collective choices from the last 30 years of Italian wine availability in America. And I live in flyover country - not New York, not San Francisco. It’s folly (or oversaturated entitlement thinking) to lament not being able to find a Timorasso or a Falanghina “Campi Flegrei” in 2019. Maybe in 1979, yes, but we had our finds then. Now, what is there from Italy that one cannot find one way or another? Maybe not in a grocery store, but who relies solely on grocery stores in this auriferous age of farm-to-anything. I have a special seasoning from Canada that I love. When it runs out, I order more on their website. I’m doing that with wine too. Yes, even in Texas.

Here’s the down-and-dirty truth about wanting something you can’t have. Chances are it has been tried. I cannot tell you how many times I tried to promote an Erbaluce or a Tocai Friulano, or an Italian “novello” or a Ghemme, or a Lugana, or a Malvasia di Lipari or a Salice Salentino or a Bianco di Pitigliano or a Pigato or a Bramaterra or, or, or….suffice to say, many of us, in the last 40 years, tried almost everything under the sun. Not everything, but almost. And in some cases, it worked and continues to work (even if only as a work-in-progress). But sometimes it just doesn’t work. Maybe the timing is off. Maybe the price isn’t right. Maybe the tastes of the people within the community just aren’t there. But, as a business, it has to be viable. It can’t just be someone’s idea of what they think they want or need, or deserve, just because they think it so. It might end up on the close-out rack or sold off, by the glass as a blended red in the bar. Or it might end up going to wine Purgatory, the last stop before wine dies, the tramp steamer. Imagine your beloved orange wine, before you discovered it, before it was cool, being cooked with, in the galley of a ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Wrap your head around that, for it surely happened.

It’s not a lack of availability for me. It’s a lack of personal time left on the planet. There is no reason to groan about not having my special bottle of col fondo, at my beck and call, whenever and wherever I want it. There are more important issues (like the preponderance of more and more homeless souls walking around my city with no future in a world where the wealth is getting more concentrated at the top).

“The love of money and shiny new things is slowly but surely erasing the past,” laments Anthony Bourdain from an ever-changing Hong Kong. It could easily be anywhere in America, as day by day we ease out of our expected social roles and venture into uncharted territory. This is where the Italian mentality comes in. At least the one that I envision, where the solution is greater than the problem. And that is the insatiable thirst the Italian winemaker has for diversity in grapes, in wine, in the general cultural outlook that has captured my idealistic heart and soul. Nothing is exclusively old or new. Everything is up for grabs. Anything is possible. After all, we went, in only 40 years, from a handful of Italian wines dominating the Italian American experience to a torrent of abundance. The sun is bright to those who can see. But even for a blind man, it is warm. Italian wine is like the rays of the sun, and it’s never been brighter, hotter, or more abundant than now.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


thomas tucker said...

Ah, Il Sorrento. Still my most favorite Italian restaurant of all time ( in North America.) And I still wish I had Mr. Messina's lasagna recipe.

Alfonso Cevola said...


I might have a copy of the recipe. I'll take a look and let you know. Thanks

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