Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Big One is Coming! Hurricane, Cyclone and Typhoon Season in Italy

Over the past 50 years I have been an avid Italy watcher. In time I became an active participant in the wine trade. In the boat, either rowing or rocking it, depending on my role at the time, navigating the sea of Italian wine has been a vigorous and spirited undertaking. But now that I have debarked, I observe from the shore. As we go into the month of December, the world is collectively gasping a sigh of relief, as the hurricane, cyclone and typhoon seasons are winding down.  But the way I see it, for the future of Italian wine, there is a storm season coming, a big one. And for those on the wrong side of the squall, there will be an unprecedented jolt. For the way of Italian wine is undergoing, once again, a tectonic change. People get ready!


Population Shifts/Demographic Diversification

Italy is losing many of its young people to other countries. Already, the Italian ex-pat population of London exceeds that of Bologna or Pisa, according to Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy program on CNN. Italians in the UK have dramatically increased since 2008, over 230%.  Along with that, migrating populations from North Africa, Albania, Morocco, Ukraine and China are altering the culture and demographics of Italy. As well, an aging and increasingly hidebound Italian population are seeing its traditional way of life in upheaval. Mores, technology, communication, language, family values, religion, all are causing Italy to virtually shake in its boots. It is not a good time for the culturally inflexible in Italy.

So, Italy is losing, once again, some of its youngest and more entrepreneurial people to other countries, the UK, Canada, The US, even China. A friend of mine, extremely well established and known in wine circles in Italy, went to Shanghai three years ago. He hasn’t been back to Italy.

Point being, Italy is losing its native population and the replacing population are not being totally embraced by the remaining Italian population as well as needed. Not to say there aren’t open minded (and open-hearted) Italians in Italy who are embracing a more diverse culture. There are. But not with much help from its political leaders. Italy is stuck, culturally, in a 19th century colonial mindset when it comes to its politicians. And that mentality also bleeds into the Italian wine trade. Very hard to be a woman, to be Black, to be young, to be poor, to be different, and get an invite to the table in Italy.  Nonetheless, that twister has already headed to the Italian peninsula, and Sicily too. The winds of transformation are blowing.


Quality/ Style

Italy, long known for inexpensive and ever-available quantities of drinkable wine, has, for some time, labored under the “cheap and cheerful” banner. But Italy, like so many other developed Western countries, is seeing a spike in the creation of and demand for luxury and ultra-luxury items. Clothes, design, furniture, jewelry, watches, perfumes, cars, yachts, you name it. Italy is a luxury brand these days. Still, there are those industrial/conglomerate interests that suck on the teat of Italy’s vigorous and inexhaustible supply of wine. For them, quantity = riches.  They worship at the altar of “Feed the masses, dine with the classes.”

But that world is also undergoing revisions.

China is ramping up its wine production all over its huge country. 32 times the size of Italy, three cities in China, Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou account for more population than all of Italy. And China knows how to replicate almost anything. Just ask the watchmakers in Switzerland or the clothing designers in Paris. It’s just a matter of time before China ferrets out the best places where to make Burgundy (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), Bordeaux, Champagne/Prosecco/Cava, Napa Valley style Cabernet Sauvignon, and Italian Nebbiolo (Barolo/Barbaresco) and Sangiovese (Chianti Classico/Nobile/Brunello). Not to mention Chile, Australia, California, etc. 50 years from now it will be a different world altogether. And I say that because Italy must make the intellectual shift to a quality and style of wine that will indisputably say, “Made in Italy and only in Italy.”

But the folks in power, both in the political realm and the commercial, are not facilitating that transition. Why? Well, like most places of power, there is corruption, even in the most unthought of places. In the Italian wine world, one can go to Vinitaly and see it on display unabashedly. I’ve had my moments of exposure to and enlightenment from it. The √úbermensch’s response was to try and cancel people like me.

Young Italians know quality – it is in their bones. And the world is queuing up every day for high quality and authentic unique expressions of wine. That is the way the world is going. And that is another storm that is hitting Italy’s shores. It’s going to take more than an umbrella and an under the table solution. I can't wait to see how this plays out.


Representation

How Italy goes to market has been operating under a “tried and true” formula since the end of WWII. But since then, the world has seen an array of unprecedented changes. Population of the world has more than quadrupled. The communication channels are swifter and more elaborate. Shipping, via water and air, are the stuff dreams were made of in 1945. We’ve gone to the moon for heavens sake. Everything has changed inexorably. But the importer/broker/wholesaler/distributor/retailer modality still lumbers on, a broken-down survivor of an ancient patriarchal model. Oy! I couldn’t imagine working in the wine trade today under the heft of that whale. And still, it persists.

Well, that storm might be a bit further out to sea, but it is building, and the tsunami that it will bring will upheave even the mightiest leviathan. Already we are seeing a more direct mode of getting wine to the end-user. And it is growing faster than your 401K (not that that is saying much in 2022). Still, the momentum is building.

And Italy is slumbering.

Again, other economies in the world are figuring this out. I can order something on November 25th from China, say a workout suit. Cotton and cashmere. And it will be here in time to wrap and put under the Christmas tree. Sure, it isn’t as regulated as alcohol. But the logistics of moving the product from the factory to the consumer is the same. Same with phones, watches, cameras, perfume, battery powered tools, solar panels, etc. and not just China. Italy must break the yolk of the old paradigm before the wave arrives and washes everything out to sea.


Communication

Along with that, the way we communicate product knowledge is changing. Once upon a time, a wholesaler’s rep would be knowledgeable and could explain the benefits of most products in its portfolio. These days, not so much, as the business has consolidated so much now that those super salespersons have aged out or migrated to other more lucrative fields. Not to say there aren’t those still there, trying to fight the good fight. But the large companies are just too big, with too many priorities. And they are run by wealthy people who live in a different world than most people. The craft of selling is dying, being replaced by online platforms, some good, some not as good. When a distributor’s proprietary online selling platform lists a wine as a “White Barolo” something has gotten lost in the process. Or broken. And it is too prevalent to attempt a fix, by the worker bees. There isn’t enough time. And at the top, is there really the desire for that level of detail? I’m skeptical.

Meanwhile, there’s a grass roots communication revolution that has been stirring for 20 years now. Blogs, social media, Instagram, quicker and more representational viaducts of data that young people, who grew up with the computer take to, like the proverbial duck to water.

And speaking of water, that flood storm has already been brewing for some time. Italy just hasn’t figured it out as well, what with taking the month of August off, 2-3 weeks during Christmas, a week or so in Easter time, along with the changes of government, elections, strikes and those most-necessary trips of rest and rejuvenation to Cuba or Thailand, Nepal, or Dubai. In other words, it just doesn’t hurt bad enough yet to do something about it. But the flood brings bacteria and virus, not necessarily physical ones, but emotional and practical ones. You’ve been warned!


Cohesion

Probably the Achilles heel for Italy and Italians. Because individuality is so valued among the populace. To be “particulare” is de rigueur. But other cultures are banking on the single-purpose of mind that will help them win whatever campaign they are waging. Italians are unique and expressive and wonderful. But they are wailing and flailing in a lifeboat, with everyone aboard saying to go in a different direction. And five years in a commercial period, these days, is like a century. It is hard make up the losses. Just ask an 80-year-old who just lost 15-25% of their retirement money what they think of a five-year plan to recoup the loss. I can tell you what one told me, but I can’t use the exact words here.

So, that is the little cyclone that Italy is and will continue to encounter, in the wine world and beyond.

Look, nothing is impossible. But time, there is only so much of it. The world, right now, is racing towards an existential precipice. This might all be irrelevant. But the human spirit believes (and hopes) that there will be a bright future ahead for our children’s children’s children. If not, why even be here in the first place? Oh right, this is all an accident of nature, earth and life. I don’t think so. We’re all here for a purpose.

The question to the Italian wine world is: What is your purpose in the here and now and what are you doing about it to make that future happen?

 

More reading: Is Italy (and Italian wine) heading towards a catastrophic precipice?

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

1 comment:

tomfiorina said...

I agree with your assessment of the seismic cultural, societal, logistical and economic threats to Italy. I'm particularly concerned with the recent hard-right political turn that echoes the US in erecting barriers and navel-gazing self-absorption in both countries instead of seeking solutions.

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