Sunday, October 22, 2023

Interviewing Italian Wine - The Moment When Everything Changed

Italian culture is a timeless and ongoing revolution. Wine has been swept up in that benevolent maelstrom. Thus, it seems like a good time to revisit our old friend, Italian Wine, and interview them. Over several long lunches and a myriad of bottles opened, young and old, this interview has been streamlined for today’s attention span deficient society. However, this process has been going on for hundreds of years. Glad for you to dip in.


Q: Ciao, and thank you for joining us.

IW: Niente, you’re most welcome.

Q: Let’s jump right in. Did you notice an inflection point, a moment of illumination, internal/external, when your awareness changed (when you awoke to the meaning/ direction in your process), was there an event that changed or was there something that took place, internally, that happened?

IW: Wow, a long question with not a short answer. But I will try and explain. As you know, we’ve been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, in some form or another. But realistically, it wasn’t until the 20th century that wine, in general, took on a more rapid evolution. It seems to have coincided with the technological changes the world was undergoing. But there was also a new energy coming from the earth, a novel expression of life, that was being captured in the vines. It was as if the earth was awakening from a long sleep. And Italy is more than blessed to be an epicenter of the world’s energy, or so the Italians like to think. And maybe that is so. In any case, the momentum right after World War II gave impetus to the most rapid set of changes in Italian (and I daresay the world) wine creation. Technology, rebuilding a world that was destroyed by war, economic investment, more rapid and efficient forms of communication and transportation, and the desire to get back to life and living, by the humans, gave us hope in the ground. The long sleep was over and a new dawn was upon us.  So, I hope that begins to answer our question, although there could be a book written about that subject.

Q: Yes, yes, understood. But was there a pivotal moment, an “Aha!” flash when it seemed so clear that something had fundamentally changed?

IW: Well, not so much one lightning bolt but a long storm, say from the late 1950’s until the mid-1980’s. When the winemakers in Piedmont and Tuscany started elevating their expectations, people like Piero Antinori and Angelo Gaja, and presenting a higher level of Italian wine, much like wine lovers had come to expect from the French and French wine, then a lightbulb did go off. But not without a lot of preparation. And that’s not to say those two gentlemen alone made the revolution. They might have been two of the most visible faces, but alongside them was an army of men and women, in the fields, in the labs, in the wineries, in the importation companies and on the front lines, with the consumers, to pull the message all the way to the wine-lovers-in-waiting. But technology played a huge part.

Also, Italy stopped apologizing for their wines and stopped being the lowest common denominator. Always wanting to please, Italians would give you the shirt off their back. But this was a different mode. We were talking about the evolution and ultimately the survival of Italian wine culture. In that time, France was still very strong and countries like Spain, Australia and America were constructing their own battles for the heart (and the wallets) of the wine drinker.

Q: Yes, I see that. But what was it about Italy that made such a radical transformation?

IW: Well, Italy was becoming more affluent, rising up from the abject poverty that came as a result of a disastrous war in which we were involved. And the war was fought on our land, so everyone and every living thing suffered. Seneca once said, “Find a path or make one.” The huge influx of aid and capital (some might call it the Marshall Plan) helped to restore and really modernize the infrastructure of Italy. Look at the cinema of the late 1950’s-early 1960’s. It was as if Italy became Oz. Everyone was walking around in ruby slippers and going out to eat and drink. And Italian wine was part of the glamourous makeover of Italy.

Q: So, the late 1950’s-early 1960’s was a flashpoint in time. Any other time slots?

IW: Well, the early 1980’s saw a revolution in winemaking. The use of small barrels (barriques) for reds, mainly, and the cold fermentation of whites, resulting from a technological impetus in the Veneto, places like Conegliano and Treviso, which had a large concentration of interest in modernization and mechanization. It was a two-pronged affair. Red wines became able to be compared with Bordeaux and Burgundy reds. The default for white wines was no longer flabby and accidentally oxidized. Refrigerated containers also helped to assure the wines arrived in tip-top condition. It was a benign conspiracy on the part of Italian scientists, winemakers, wine marketers and land owners.

And it didn’t end there. The 1990’s and on into the 21st century elaborated on the advances and sought to refine, refine, refine. Italians started traveling the world, again, and seeing what was being done in other places, and also sharing their ideas. Along with that came the rise of the Internet age, and with it, ease of communication and better sharing of information. Word got out – Italian wine was no longer the pitiful poor-child of the wine world. Like the fashion and the food and the cars and the art, and so on, Italian wine was elevated to a more appropriate position in the world.

Q: So,
how do you think you have changed the world?

IW: Well, we do not apologize for being great anymore. We don’t down sell our efforts, and I like to think that raises everything around it. People want to compete with the best, and if we strive to be the best, while also looking to compete with the best in the world, wine wins! Did we save wine, all by ourselves? No. France, California, Australia, and countless other wine producing countries have all been enhanced in the last 70 years. So, maybe we didn’t change the world, but the world changed anyway. And we were there. We are still there, working to make it even better.

I must say this: While Italian wine can be the best and sometimes very expensive, there is a huge reservoir of wholesome, good and delicious wine from Italy that can be enjoyed by people who aren’t billionaires. That is one of the great strengths of Italian wine - a democratization of sorts. Very important to note this.

Q: Last question. The road not taken – was there one? If so, do you have feelings about the road not taken (regrets/relief)? And, if so, is there anything you would have done differently? Last words?

IW: I don’t think the road is set in concrete, to mix metaphors. Maybe it’s more like the young ones call it, a journey. Is the journey over? No way! In a sense, it’s just begun. After what, 2-3-4-5,000 years of winemaking, it’s all over in just 70? I think the wine gods would have something to say about that.

Done differently? Well, I think the “laboratory for doing things differently” is open and busy. Just look at some of the wines that are coming out of Italy, along with the traditional and modern wines. Again, in a nod to the more youthful members of our community, they are experimenting with some of the ancestral methods to see what is there, and if it has relevance within the pantheon of Italian wine today.

You see, Italians are not made of only one stone. We like an array of things. Look at our pastas, our cheeses, our salumi. You see where I am going with this?

By no means, is there one way or one wine. There are good wines that are delicious and thrilling to love. But like love, isn’t it always in the eye of the beholder?


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