Sunday, February 06, 2022

“The Worst Year in Italian Wine History”

There was this wonderful period, in the mid-to-late 1980’s, when Italy was having a food and wine renaissance. Magazines in America touted it. French supremacy in the dining room, and in the wine cellar, was being challenged by their Italian cousins. The momentum was unheralded. Italian food and wine were climbing new mountains, and once they got to the top, they were singing arias that hadn’t been heard, ever. It was a magical, glorious time to be in the wine trade, and especially the Italian wine trade.

And then, just like the Hindenburg, it all went up in flames.

I remember the time well. A few years earlier, in 1982, I’d taken a position with a small, boutique importing and distribution company in Texas, based out of Dallas where I lived, and servicing the major markets. We were on fire, selling everything that was fine wine. First growths from Bordeaux. Grand Cru Burgundies, from DRC to Comte de Vogue. Even Vin Jaune from the Jura (sorry hipsters, you didn't "discover" it). German wines from the Mosel, the Rhein, and beyond. Vintage ports going all the way back to 1927. California boutiques, at the time, like Silver Oak, Long (look it up) Dunn, Newton, and many more. Oh, yes, and many of the Grande Marques of Champagne, too. And of course, Italian wine.

I was put in charge of the Italians. I even had a little infernotti in the bottom of the warehouse. There one could find my treasures. Barolo, going back to 1947, Chianti Classico Riserva going back to 1964. Rarities like the 1961 Chambave Rouge from Ezio Voyat, along with his even rarer Passito di Chambave. Brunello, Morellino, Vino Nobile and Carmignano from Tuscany. Tocai, Refosco and Verduzzo from Friuli. Ferrari from Trentino. You name it. We were into it. And that was way before Italian wine had “arrived” in most of America. Oh, yeah, folks like Lou Iacucci and ThomasAbruzzini in New York were pioneers. Yeah, New York, the center of the world for the Italian wine renaissance. Meanwhile, out west, here in flyover country, we were making inroads.

I cannot tell you how many Italian restaurants shunned Italian wine. French wine was king. Moet, Mumm, Lafite, Chateauneuf du Pape, Pouilly Fuisse, you name it. French wine had reached the summit before the Italians in America, and many Italian restaurateurs, albeit unwittingly, defaulted to France. Not all. Out in Los Angeles there were advances made by people like Piero Selvaggio and Emilio Baglioni, among others, who blazed trails for what was to come. Out in Texas? It was still the Wild West, compadre.

But there was an energy to the time and the place. And I felt it, embraced it, and ran with it. It came naturally to me. I just had to convince the other Italians, many who had emigrated to America via ocean liners, that the wine had also “arrived.”

It was tough. First off, many of the newly arrived Italians knew about their village, maybe their region. But most of them really didn’t know Italy. So, if they were from Sardegna, they knew something about Sardinian wines. But wines of Marche? Nah. Same thing with the folks from Milan. They didn’t know what a powerhouse Sicily was, in wine terms. And the folks from the Veneto? You think they’d know a little about wines from Puglia. After all, many of them were weaned on them, inadvertently. But - and I will say this as honestly as I can and with no tinge of cruelty- many of the people I had to deal with were just ignorant of Italian wine. And because of that, they didn’t have the confidence in them. In reality, it was many Italian restaurateurs who lacked of confidence in their own traditions and history.

In fact, I found, many times, I could get farther along presenting Italian wines to young Americans, even the French chefs and sommeliers, who had seen a bit of travel.

But we persevered. And it looked like things were heading up for Italian wines and rapidly.

And then, everything blew up.

Joshua Dunning, who writes the brilliant blog, Word on the Grapevine, recently posted about this disaster. I quote him here:

“Sadly, in 1986 disaster struck. Twenty-four people died due to lethal methanol levels found in more than 300 brands of wine. Winemakers had added methanol to raise alcohol content in poor-quality wine made from underripe grapes. As a result, exports plunged 39.2% in the first eight months of 1986, compared to the same period in 1985. After the scandal, the government declared a state of emergency and eventually arrested more than 20 people. Despite there being no indications that exporters shipped methanol-tainted wines across the Atlantic, exports to the United States tumbled 28.4% in the first eight months of the year from the same period of 1985. The scandal made 1986 'the worst year in the Italian wine industry this century,' according to Guido Scialpi, former publisher of a respected wine magazine.”

I felt a pang in my heart when I read this. Working in America in 1986, it affected me and those around me. I’d had a tough go of it in 1985. My dad died, and, at the same time, a short but intense relationship had ended abruptly. I was a single dad, I was working my tail off, and trying to climb out of the rabbit hole of grief. And then, someone, or some ones in Italy, fucked it all up, royally.

In Jan of 1987 I prepared a report for my bosses, called “Report on the Italian wine market in Texas.” Here is what I wrote then:

“1986 was a year of problems for the Italian wine market in the United States. With the wine scandal of last spring, which resulted in some deaths in Italy, the American press, coming off plane hijackings and Libyan crisis stories, were seeing blood. And the Italian wine industry took a beating. The immediate results were a dramatic decrease (of sales) of Italian wines in America, into the summer months. This, along with spiraling inflation in Italy, coupled with the weakening U.S. dollar, has virtually put us out of the upper-end of Italian wine business, for the time being. I am talking about Italian wines that must sell for about $10.”

“An often-stated argument given by suppliers has been ‘Well, they can do it in New York City!’ Needless to say, that was a weak selling point and a poor pitch to sell any of these wines into the Texas market. Moreover, New York is not breaking any records selling these wines either, according to my sources, which include wholesalers, retailers, and even the Italian Trade Commission. They just have a greater concentration of people, not necessarily a higher degree of sophistication.”

One could sense my frustration, and impatience too. I’d had enough of Alto-Borghese Barones in Italy talking down to me. As it was, I was dealing with folks who had left Italy, in many cases because they couldn’t earn a living and support a family in Italy, what with all the bureaucratic rigmarole in Italy, along with the corruption. At the time, Italy was digging out from a period of upheaval, socially, which continued well into the 1990’s. Even now, the economy (and employment stats) of Italy is in the pits, and that’s not even taking Covid 19 into account. An importer in Milan or Florence couldn’t wave their magic wand and make it all better.

That said, there were a lot of elements tugging away. The economic. The social. The crisis. The changing times. The changing tastes. Oh, and did I say the economy? Yes, I did. Well, I’m saying it again. It was dismal, the outlook for 1987. And little did we know, but Wall Street was on its way to an historic crash in October. Thank God we didn’t know that, or else the red wines from 1983,1984 and 1985 and the white wines on 1986 would have never made their way from Italy into America.

1986 truly was an annus horribilis. And 1987 wasn’t a whole lot better. Oh, except to say I met the love of my life. Yeah, there was that. So, the pessimist might see 1986 as “the worst year in Italian wine history,” and they’d have a point. And even into 1987, especially in regards to the American economic engine that froze up, in October, and died on the road.

But the eternal optimist in me, saw it as a step backwards. Not a fall into a pit from which there was no bottom. And for this optimist, 1987 had its challenges. But it also had its rewards. And that was what kept me going onward, through the fog.

And look where we are now?


written by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy

Images from the 1986 Calendario Carabinieri 

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