Sunday, January 30, 2022

The Autostrada Interview

"An organism that is too greedy and takes too much without giving anything in return destroys what it needs for life and dies out." - Peter Wohlleben - The Hidden Life of Trees

“Do you mind if I record our conversation?” my fellow traveler asked. “I guess not,” I reluctantly replied. It was going to be a five-hour drive to our next appointment. I really was hoping my companion was more interested in listening to a podcast or an audio book. But Fredo is a chatty fellow, an extrovert to the max. “It’s just that I recently lost a friend. He was only 39. I wish I would have something of him, his words, to remember him as I drive down the lonely corridor of life.”

Why is it extroverts see the corridor of life as lonely? Maybe because they are screaming down the autostrada of life at 180 kph? Just maybe. Regardless, I was strapped in, he had the recorder on, and we weren’t getting out of this car for awhile. So it went.

For purposes of clarity, Fredo will be “F” and the person being interviewed will be “I.”

F. How did the Italian winemakers seem to you, when you first got into the business? Were they adventurous? Were they cautious? How were they?

I. Let me give you an example. When I first went to Vinitaly, in 1984, it was a smallish affair. Kind of quiet, compared to recent years, before the pandemic. You could get around and talk to anyone, everyone. Angelo Gaja, Alfredo Currado, Piero Antinori, you name it. They were more visible then. But really, now, of the people I first met in those days, most of them are gone. Retired, passed away, or in the role of chairman (or chairwoman) emeritus. Like the vines, most of them are good for 40 years or so, and then they get replaced. So, really, now, the landscape has turned over to the younger vines.

F. How do the “younger vines” of today compare to those in 1984?

I. Wow, we only have five hours before reaching our destination? Look, history was different then. The young men and women grew up in an impoverished environment, and one that had been disrupted and destroyed by war and natural events. At one time, during World War II, in the south of Italy, warplanes skirted around an erupting volcano! I mean, it was apocalyptic. No one was worrying about some Biancolella vines withering in the heat and the stench of those events. No, they were digging out, literally. They were poor. They were drinking the pasta water, if they had pasta at all. It was bleak. But they soldiered on. They rebuilt their homes, recaptured their land, slowly, gradually. They recovered. And by the time 1984 rolled around, things were looking much better in Italy.

F. Like what?  What do you mean?

I. Like they were looking beyond their borders. They were looking to Germany, to Denmark, to the UK, to Canada, to the USA, even to Japan, to bring their wines and their culture back up to a point where they might get some of the respect that their French cousins already had.

F. How did that show up in your world? What kind of things were gaining traction?

I. Serious red wines, with some higher prices, started gaining momentum. Wines like Brunello, Barolo, Amarone, and Super Tuscans, like Tignanello and Sassicaia, were making inroads on wine lists and the shelves of fine wine shops. It was the beginning of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It was getting brighter. White wines too, were getting better (and brighter, thankfully). Who knew Trebbiano, in 1984, could be a house wine in multiple restaurants? And not just someone from Abruzzo who had fond memories of their nonno’s homemade wine?

F. Was there a turning point?

I. I’m sure there were a few. The wine press was getting more influential, the Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate, namely. But books, too. Vino, by Burton Anderson, had a huge influence on me and others, trying to find stories to tell. I mean, I’d been to Italy, prior to 1984, to visit family, for vacation. But work? I hadn’t visited any wineries in Italy prior to 1984. So, for me, I guess I’d have to say 1984 was my turning point. But it was already in process.

F. What happened?

I. Well, for sure technology happened, Progress happened, Education happened. And Italians started amassing a little money. Success happened. You’d see it in the Langhe. A row of crisp new French barriques would be there in the cellars. The Italians were tweaking the tastes of their wine. Corks got better (and longer!), prices got higher, labels and names on the labels started getting fancier. It was like, all of a sudden, everyone wanted to be Ferrari, not Fiat.

F. What’s wrong with that?

I. It’s a mixed bag, Fredo. In one sense, the Italian strength was in their ability to provide value, almost to a fault. It was as if the Italians would second guess themselves and not charge what their products were worth. Not just with wine either. Italy was a bargain. And then I noticed that some Italians, notably folks like Angelo Gaja, were starting to raise their prices to levels that were being asked for wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa Valley. And why not? Were the Italians not putting as much into their wines as the French, the Californians?

But to gain a larger market share, to dominate, they also had to keep their eyes, collectively, if not individually, on the masses. On the Fiats, not just the Ferraris. Folks like the Marianis (Banfi) the Antinoris and the Marzottos (of Santa Margherita fame) saw the unlimited market that America had to offer those farmers and winemakers of Italy who didn’t aspire to being Gaja or Soldera. Remember, many of these folks still had the blood and dust of a horrible war in their veins and lungs. They just wanted to survive. We still had (then and now) a nuclear cloud hanging over our heads. Anytime it could all go up in a mushroom cloud and life on human earth would cease to exist. A full belly, a soft bed, clean water, a young family, those were the goals of many Italians.

F. So, how do you see it now, it a nutshell?

I. You know, Fredo, life has gotten pretty good for Italian wine families. The Italian wine sector has as much respect as France or Napa Valley. Those little plots of land in Tuscany and Piedmont are more valuable than gold or cyber currency. A lot of the grandchildren of those folks who dug out of the rubble are living their best lives. You know, like our friend Federico. He has a nice Land Rover defender and a Mach I Mustang. He vacations on his dad’s yacht in the Mediterranean. When he wants to be a landlubber, he rotates between a glamping yurt in Sardegna and a “rustic” mountain cabin in Chamonix. In between skiing and sunbathing, he and his influencer girlfriend take the private helicopter to visit their friends in Randazzo. They’ve been gifted a great life from their progenitors. Of course, they will have to deal with the third-generation curse. But, in the meantime, they have plenty of money and time in which to spend it all.

F. That sounds a little sardonic, even for you. I mean, from where I sit, you’ve told me we have come a long way in the past 40 years. Why would the current generation throw it all away on Krug and caviar?

I. I don’t think all of the young Italians will. But the old saying “chi troppo vuole nulla stringe” (those who want too much end up keeping/getting nothing) might be a good way to conclude this interview. The bone was hard to get. It’s even harder to keep, when one mistakes their reflection for reality. 


Hey Fredo, there's an Autogrill up ahead. Let's pull off and get a coffee, eh?


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