Sunday, January 03, 2021

How Italian wine will thrive in the 21st century

Transformational over Transactional

omething I am detecting, acutely, in these early days of 2021, are the relationships that were shaped while working in the wine trade. How many times did I sit at someone’s mother (or grandmother) table enjoying a home-cooked meal while tasting the wines they also made? What did they get out of it? Another meal for a bunch of American wine buyers. Another lost night. More free wine consumed, eating into the margins.

It’s something I ask a lot. Then, maybe it was because they knew I had buying power. But not now. I’m done with that. So, why, if at all, do some of those folks still stay in touch?

I’ll go you one even better. How many times did I send a consumer to a winery in Italy for a visit and those folks at the winery rolled out the red carpet? I mean wine, dinner, maybe even a place to sleep. And for what? Maybe a couple of cases in someone’s cellar, at best?

There has to be more to it than a mere transactional sentiment. It doesn’t make any sense to spend time and money and labor and all that only for a couple of cases of wine. I say this not because I am cynical of my Italian winery friends motivation.

No, I really think many of my Italian friends in the wine trade in Italy aren’t thinking about the transaction as much as the need to transform the hearts and minds of Americans (and other nationalities too). It wasn’t that long ago that they (we) had to spend an inordinate amount of time apologizing for the wine we made (or sold) because they (we) felt it might not be rising to the standards set by our French cousins. I know, that seems like a lifetime ago. But the need to please can often outweigh rational and proper business practices. In other words, transformational relationships surpass the merely transactional ones, over time.

And that is so funny right now, to me, because I have been examining my old wine trade relationships and have found too many of them were merely (to them it seems) the price of doing business. The newly landed wine blogger who didn’t know anybody, who was short of cachet and needed a little support, emotionally (and maybe even financially). The executive who was trying to make inroads into the greater world of Italian wine and wanted to tag along to make some of my relationships also theirs too. The wine buyer, the sommelier, the list goes on. Sadly, those folks, in the post-Covid world of stark, brutal reality, have fallen by the wayside. The friendships have dissolved, gone. Sad.

But, in the transactional world, one knows that nothing is forever. You get a great by-the-glass placement that’s making everybody a bunch of money, and the competition takes the wine buyer to a strip club and gets him a lap dance, and badda-bing, you lose the placement. The wine buyer got a better deal. It was just another transaction. Not even a good business decision, by the way.

So, back to the Italians who have made transformative relationships more important than their business transactions. An example.

There is a wine producer in Piedmont, and I will not use his name, because the person is a very humble person who would be embarrassed by the story I am about to tell you. But for years this person has had me in their home, taken me to dinner, spent time with me, both in Italy in in my own home. We’ve become friends.

Yes, for a short while we did a little business together but the importer changed and it became almost impossible to do business in the future. But always at Vinitaly there was a moment to have an espresso, talk about books, ideas, or the blue sky, even though this person never made a bloody red cent off of me or my influence.

I felt guilty, for sure. I always wanted to do something, something more. But the stars never aligned.

But I also realized that both of us are doing fine in the world. Why couldn’t it be more than a transaction, a real relationship, a friendship? And that was really what it was and is.

[I know, not a tasting note in sight. Alfonso walking the plank with another one of his cockamamie ideas.]

We’ve all had a lot of time to think. We’ve shed a lot of things. Some of us have died. I’ve given away books, clothes, tools, music, money, and yes, stepped away from people I thought were my friends, but for some reason or another are no longer. We’ve all sacrificed something in this past year.

But my friend in Piedmont, is still my friend. I drink his product at home from time to time. I think warmly of him, and he isn’t the only one. There are scores of people in Italy whom I think about in that regards, even though they have nothing – I repeat – NOTHING – to gain from my present position.

This is the golden nugget that makes Italy and her people and her wine so indisputably ascendant. Because these people know something about the value of real relationships, they are and will continue to succeed even in these trying times. And you know what? I’m going to be there with them, raising glass after glass for them, and with them, because that’s how you succeed in the wine business. When you give it all your heart, and then some.

Happier new year, y’all!


wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Unknown said...

Alfonso, a lot to think about buried within this post. A lot.

From my perspective of traveling to many wine regions throughout the world, perhaps it comes down to culture. I was always just one of those people you refer to as not in the trade and only a couple of case buyer on any visit. That said, what I noticed in Italy and also somewhat in Spain is the natural culture of the hard working, hands in the dirt farmers that happen to grow grapes and make wine. They seem to value relationships, breaking of bread together, vino and a natural curiosity and hospitality towards people in general. I rarely felt like I was being sold anything, but was a guest in their home and wine was an extension of hospitality. There was so often a natural curiosity of what I liked, enjoyed and thought about a multitude of subjects, not only wine.

Conversely, I have traveled to many wine regions in the world I did feel like I was being sold and the goal was how many bottles /cases I might purchase. Culture. It is something that must be experienced to understand I have found.

Always enjoy your post,


Alfonso Cevola said...

Thank you Michael. I'm sure more visits to wineries will be in our future, God willing

Suzanne said...

Lovely, thoughtful post that touched my heart. I can say I have the same feeling when I visit Sicily and it was the same for me when I lived in Valais, Switzerland. The people I've grown so close to over the past decades are truly salt of the earth. They are farmers first and foremost, so sharing their culture is as important to them as selling their wine. I consider their wines an experience, not a beverage. My wine cellar is my scrapbook. Each bottle filled with memories and great stories. The Piemontese have endured far worse and they will endure this. We've all had time to rethink our priorities and shed baggage. The future is bright.

James Biddle said...

At some points on a wine trail, “a tasting note” may not only lead down a rabbit hole but even to a dead-end. Likewise, cockamamie ideas are usually a matter of perspective: too up-close-and-personal often distorts the big-picture. While Firenze is our Italian home-away-from-home, Reggio Emilia is a close second. Every morning for the past several months, my wife gets a greeting from the town. In the midst of yet another seemingly draconian lockdown, these greetings are full of optimism. Their central message ignores the urgent in favor of the important: and the important is always about celebrating and sustaining relationships. 90% of the time, bringing an Italian wine out of our cellar means cherishing the memories of some relationship. No pandemic, or some dictator-wannabe, can take that away.

James Biddle

Tom Fiorina said...

As a longtime reader of your blog, Alfonso, your words and photos have often captured better than my own what I truly appreciate about wine. It's not the tasting notes or scoring a 100-pt wine. As others have commented here, it's the men and woman who put culture before commerce to make fermented grape juice into something special and memorable that I appreciate.
I must confess that your blog has made me appreciate Italian wine in a new way that has nothing to do with both sets of my grandparents coming from Italy. Transformational is a good way of putting it. I'm ready to go transactional for you; when are you going to do the book about Italian wine, and the people who make it, that I know is in you? I'm ready to order my copy right now.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks Tom, kind words from all... as per the book, who knows. right now I'm working on a photo essay's a bit daunting to try and figure out a book, especially when I know how hard it is to get an agent and a publisher and a deal that's good for everyone. There's always the self-publishing route, of course, DTC. Perhaps. It is something to think about, and I thank you for pressing the doorbell to remind me every so often.

Karen, La RosaWorks Sicily Travel and Events said...

My experience in Sicily is the same and I have wrestled with the same sort of guilt. I bring these people some tourists, but they bring me into their hearts. I hold their babies and help out in their kitchens, I am given the key to their house. I in turn welcome them to stay in our NYC apartment. It is an ongoing reminder to me of what really matters and what a relationship really is.

Winecompass said...

I think what you touch on is the true culture of wine , one which is firmly embedded in the national culture -,perhaps one a reflection of the other . Unless born in this environment it is not always learnt so easily . Contrast with New world producing wine industries -,industry being the dominant word . Many aspects of the business is " copied " without the intrinsic understanding of the soul or culture which is its heartbeat , Sadly pretentiousness and posturing is often the approach misguidingly being employed as some kind of interpretation for quality and culture . As superficial as nail polish !

Unknown said...

Wonderful piece, Alfonso. I think you struck at the heart of one of the big questions for me. I am always trying to explain to people why I'm drawn toward Italian wine (and cooking) over other options. The transactional versus transformative concept gets at that. I still think it escapes full description most of the time.

Real Time Analytics