Sunday, August 07, 2022

How to destroy your Italian wine legacy in one generation

The following is a pirated Zoom transcript from a putative conversation between two old friends – an ancient matriarch (Maria, or, M) of a renown Italian wine estate and her venerable importer (Carl, or, C) in the US. Howdy-do from an innermost and very particular cyber-labyrinth, seldom penetrated by we mere mortals.  

C: Hello darling, how goes it in the bowels of Italy in August? Are you somewhere cool and wet, I hope?

M: I wish, my dear. No, I am sequestered on our family estate, as my three nieces have Covid. They came for a visit and brought this dreadful virus with them.

C: Oh no! You poor dear. I hope your satellite internet is working, so the children can document their every breath on their Insta.

M: Of course. They live such fascinating lives and we all must keep up with it. What a time we live in, yes?

C: Tell me about it. Shall we jump right in?

M: Of course. Fire away, maestro.

C: So, tell me about your estate and where everything lies at this point. Last time we talked, you were contemplating your ultimate demise and annihilation, and worrying about your castle, your vines, your wines and your legacy. Did I frame it up for you ok?

M: Oh yes. Perfect. As you know I am nearing my 10th decade on this lovely planet, and even though I am still quite healthy, time isn’t on my side. I took this place over from my father 60 years ago. He had married into a famous family, but papa was a working man. And as he had no sons, it fell to me, the oldest daughter, to carry on what he had started. It was quite an eye-opener for me in 1962. I was newly married, my husband was starting his job at the nearby university, and I became steeped in the feminist movement, mainly as a result of how the men on the farm regarded me.

C: How so?

M: Well, they did not accept a woman as their equal, let alone their boss. And they would go about doing things the way they always had. My husband was very supportive of me, mind you, but he was busy. So, I had to “learn to drive” by crashing, metaphorically. Fortunately, I was stubborn and didn’t lack for confidence. I was no shrinking violet.

My father saw to it that I traveled when I was young. I went to France. Paris. Bordeaux. Burgundy. Nice. Normandy. A well-rounded tour. And then he sent me to London, to learn English, but also to study the Anglo-Saxon mind. We saw a lot of English visitors to our region after the war, but to study them and make friends with them in their element was a different experience. And I made some lasting associations that served me well in life and business.

C: Your winery and its ascension in the world of wine as one of the great wines of Italy was something you had planned for?

M: Oh, absolutely not! I was trying to keep the place together for papa, and it is a wonderful estate. But the winemaking in the 1950’s was far from optimal, as it was in most of post-war Italy. Along with that, our economy was slow to start. But around the time I took over the winery, we were seeing momentum. Italy was waking up.

C: You and I worked together for 30-40 years. In that time, we saw an evolution in your wines.

M: Yes, but we also saw a cultural shift, both in Italy and in America. The young people were becoming more attuned to globalism, not just to their backyards. Travel became more prevalent, not just among the well-heeled, but also by students. Eurail helped for sure. But also, there were the beginnings of a social consciousness that the young were cultivating. Maybe the war in Vietnam prompted it, or the birth control pill? Ha! Yes, it was probably more the pill than the war.

C: I saw it here too, not just in California and New York, but all across America. Something was stirring.

Fast forward to today. We’ve lived a good, long life. Italian wines are heralded as some of the finest in the world. Your estate has prospered, as has your family. Who among your successors will take it to the next level? Do you have a succession plan?

M: Oh, Lord, this has been weighing on me of late. I am a bit worried about the future, even though I know there is not much there waiting for me.

C: How so?

M: As you know, my nieces, the ones who are here with Covid, all went to the best universities. And they are smart and beautiful, and tanned and trim, and they lack not for attention from men (and women). But they don’t have so much life experience. Oh yes, they handle our export business and our social media platforms. They get our wine in front of the best influencers and trendsetters. And they make it all look gorgeous and effortless. But I worry that they live in this fabricated world so much that the visceral world is not as much to their liking as the virtual one. I try to tell them that the physical body has time constraints on it. They won’t always be young and beautiful and buxomly. Yes, my words, from this ancient feminist!

C: You are worried that they don’t understand the blood, sweat and tears it took to get to this point?

M: Most certainly! They have credit cards with no limits. Since they were little girls, they have traveled first class. Their lives have been curated and polished, there are no rough edges to them. But life, itself, is very roughhewn. One needs only to walk among the vines before dawn to see what a cruel jungle it can be out there. And likewise, in the so-called civilized world. You know, they can make it look fabulous. One week they are doing a vertical tasting among the greatest sommeliers in London. And the next week they are on their family yacht, swimming and tanning on the Costa Smeralda. But they have their very own unique reality, their bubble, which is very different from most of our clients. I often wonder how they can relate to the everyday person, like I had to, when I was coming up. I had no choice, I had to press on. My nieces are a bit more elevated from the dirt. Entitled? I mean, we all want the best for our children. But sometimes, when everything is handed to them, where is the struggle to achieve something for oneself? This is what is haunting me, and many like me, across the wine world in Italy and France. The generation that put wine on the map is dying and the young people, I worry, do not know how hard it was get here. We are perilously close to seeing our Italian wine legacy destroyed in one generation. And we are, more or less, powerless to do much about it. We are ancient. We are invisible. Oh yes, we have the power of the checkbook. But time is not on our side. My concern is that the youth, who all their lives have been young, will squander this opportunity by spending too much time with their selfies, their Botox, with living their best lives, to actually make provisions for their future, when they are old and grey. When I ask my nieces about their incessant capriciousness on social media, they just laugh out loud and tell me not to worry. They say, “Zia, don’t worry. We are cancelling ourselves!”

It terrifies many of us who worked so hard to get here. We didn’t go this far to cancel anything. We saw a demon of a man try to cancel us, our culture, our history and our legacy. And he killed himself in a bunker in Berlin, thank God. But we never know when that sort of maniacal energy will arise. At the beginning of our chat, you asked me where I was, someplace cool and wet? And here I am on the family plot. It is hot. It is dry. It is unlike anywhere and anytime I can recall. But we, in Europe, are at war. There is a war being waged, a day’s drive from here. And my nieces complain because the Cartier shop in Florence keeps shorter hours in summer. This is the reality I am facing. So, yes, I do believe we are on the precipice of legacy ending occurrences.

C: I hear from your voice the anxiety in it. I see your concern.

M: Look, fortunately I am not frail. I may be on the doorstep of my 10th decade, but it is going to take more than a lazy breeze to push me over. I only hope my nieces will have the strength to face the everyday world, not this construct that agrees and “likes” their every little whim. I don’t know. I hope. I didn’t get here though, just by hoping. It was blood, sweat and tears, lots of it. And of course, lots of red wine, too, thankfully.

We’ll get through this, if I have anything to say about it. And if we don’t, I hope I will be long gone by then. I’ve realized that legacy is a fantasy. It is something we pin up on a wall and before long we begin to adore and worship it, rather than the thing it represents. I’ll say it again – legacy is a delusion.

C: Maria, here’s to the delusion of legacy and deliciousness of your wine. A votre santé.

M: Same to you, dear friend. Come see me before we both get too old to breathe on our own. I’ll open the last bottle of the ’61 for us. See you soon, I hope.


C: From your lips to God's ears. Talk soon, amica.


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