I’ve been in Italy for three weeks now. It has been more than 40 years that I have spent this much time in Italy in one, uninterrupted period. As a result, my perspective on Italy is shifting.
For starters, life here is good. I know I don’t see the dark underbelly of this country, although I have seen some troubling signs here. But nothing so troubling as the signs I see coming from America. But that is a larger subject from people who have much more expertise and decision making power. I’ll stick to Italy, my beat.
I’ve spent all the time in northern Italy, in Piedmont and in the Veneto regions. In the Veneto, I have spent time in Valdobbiadene, Conegliano, Treviso and Venice. Venice, because we had a group of visitors for whom there were some programmed activities there for them. But my base, in the Veneto, has really been Treviso.
I really like Treviso. It’s a laid back, mellow place, affluent, and operating at a high and tasteful level. The food here is good, the wine knowledge (and the access to good and great wines from all over Italy) is commendable. And the pace of life here is measured.
What I have noticed, simply by looking into the faces (and the often-diverted eyes of those here who come from the same generation as me) is a level of comfort that seems, to me, a bit of a tight fit. Not to say the Italians don’t wear their wealth well. But it was only a generation or two ago that this area, as well as almost anywhere in Italy, was transforming from a post-war scenario (recalling who the Italian leader sided with, initially, in the war). And with the destruction all around, the economic outlook was dim. In the countryside, it wasn’t as dire, for there was for many centuries a subsistence process in rural life in Italy. In the cities, while a bit more diverse in regards to the makeup of what the people did, there was the sense of impending change and the desire for people to pull themselves up. And as I have witnessed, and with camera always at my side in case I forget, the images that have scrolled past these eyes in the last half century now bring me to this point. And what I am seeing now, in the north of Italy, and let’s focus on the Veneto, is that there is great wealth. And with that reality, there is the inevitable stratification between those who have and those who don’t have as much as them.
And while it is subtle, it’s discommodious. I’ve seen enough nouveau riche in my life, from my childhood growing up in Palm Springs in the 1960’s to my early adulthood in the glitzy 1980’s of Dallas, Texas. I know what is looking back at me as I stare into the blinding brilliance of their bonfires.
Of the many visual signs I saw, over a day or so, this is what they whispered to me in my inner ear:
Suspicion. I’ve worked hard all these years and amassed wealth. Who is trying to steal it, to take it away from me? The government? My neighbor? The flower seller immigrant from Nepal? The tourist?
Boredom. I’ve become wealthy and affluent. Now what? I’ve built my special house with entrance only to those who pass their fingerprint onto a laser to permit a special few. My universe has gotten smaller, admitting only those into my world who I want. But it is a little bit boring.
Fear of death. I thought if I worked hard, even maybe only if it was I got lucky, that I would have the necessary tools to safeguard me from the ultimate - death. But now I am a multimillionaire, I have security guards, and houses in the mountains and by the lake and on the coast. And I still have allergies in the Spring. I thought this would help to make me free of illness and death.
I am now 70. My husband was a great executive, and he left me and the children with no worldly worries. But he was never at home. And when he died, I had spent a life in the shadow of someone I realized I never knew. Now, when I look in the mirror, I see a crumpled-up paper bag. Where did I go? The Botox, the collagen, the makeup, the eye liner, the blush, nothing can prevent this from happening. What can I do now? I have no material worries, but I am empty.
My shoes are made by an Italian craftsman. As are my shirts and pants and jackets. They are considered the finest clothing in the world. I eat the most wonderful organic food, from the local and seasonal vegetables to the compassionately raised pigs and rabbits and cows. My wine cellar is deep and has Barolo and Schioppettino and Brunello and Champagne. I have a wonderful German car that is flawless. I have arrived in this life. Why are you staring at me? Who do you think I am?
The tomatoes. I must go out to my aunt’s garden outside the town to check on the tomatoes. She’s getting too old to check on them herself. I must bring her some wine when I do.
The old dog. Her ears are bothering her. I wonder if she also has allergies from the blossoms of the springtime. I need to make time to take her to the vet, so she doesn’t suffer any more than she must.
My children’s children. What will they do with all those tattoos when they are my age? I can forget the folly of my youth. They will have it all their life, staring at them, to remind them of decisions they made that will look in the future to be foolish ones. Maybe they are more honest in putting them out there for everyone to see, while my generation conveniently forgot that we weren’t so idealistic as we thought we were and in the end, we contributed to the world as it has become.
And so, you might ask, what in the world does this have to do with wine? Dear readers – nothing and everything. Life in Italy is not a single cell under a microscope. This is all interconnected. Yes, you say, you know this. And yes, I reply, I figured. But in our daily comings and goings, living in the present moment sometimes does not offer us the perspective or the connection, in the immediate sense, to see how this has something to do with a winemaker in the Veneto or Piedmont or even in the hills of Valtellina or Tuscany.
All of this meandering, what I am doing is really more for my need to put order into what is splashing across my visual screen in what seems an ever more rapidly moving rate of information. Italy, while so many people want to decry its day has come and gone, is not dead. It is very much alive and in the present moment. Maybe that is the message that has been transmitting to me all these years – my Italy lesson. That even a great culture, which produced such wonderful people and events and art and music and food and history – that in the newness of it all, it doesn’t stop. As well, the questioning doesn’t stop either. And for those of us around the world - whether it be in Shanghai or Sacramento, in Copenhagen or in Cape Town - know that with all the wringing of the hands and jeremiad (such as this one) we are living in a momentous and historical time that waits for no one. Italian wine is simply a metaphor for that larger, unstoppable thing, this life that has seized upon us and will not let us go until it is ready.
And what a la grande bellezza dilemma it is for those of us who are entwined by this and who return that embrace with outstretched and welcoming arms and spirit.
A million years ago, KPFK in Los Angeles aired a story about the Rolling Stone performer, Brian Jones, who found a tribe of master musicians in Morocco, that he became very close to. Jones was searching for the beginnings of music of earth, and it was his realization that the musicians of Joujouka were a large part of that story, embodying a tradition of music that went back hundreds of generations. It was a tale I never forgot, so much that I longed to go to hear the music myself. But life, la vita, found another way to divert me in my search for something rare and ancient, towards my own tribe of the vine.
I arrived into Valdobbiadene this past Monday for a week of wine, starting off in my new role as Ambassador of Prosecco for the Ruggeri winery. This is a new role that found me, post-retirement. It is not a full-time thing, but it sounded like a great challenge and a lot of fun. I accepted the challenge and came to Italy. I was to spend some time with Paolo Bisol, who has a passion for Valdobbiadene and whose family is one of the reasons Prosecco is so sought after today. But this post isn’t about popularity. It is about what makes this place tick.
Paolo is a wiry sexagenarian, one of those lucky few to have a full head of hair color of his youth. “My dad is 99 and he has yet to have his hair turn grey,” Paolo told. So, there is also longevity in his bloodstream. Not that it’s all roses in the garden. Of course, they must make room for Glera. In any case, Paolo was running me around Valdobbiadene, showing me the different terroirs. It was a misty day and looked like rain was in our future. We saw a couple of men working in the fields, planting a new vine, and stopped to take a picture. Paolo tells me, “I will tell them you are a journalist and would like to take a picture. Maybe they won’t be as suspicious.” And so, he did. And when Paolo asked the two men, the younger one, whose face had been concealed behind the vines, popped out and said, “Alfonso what are you doing here?” Ha! It was Christian Zago, a young winemaker. Paolo looks at me, as if to say, “What is this? How does this man know you?” Well, this wasn’t my first rodeo in Proseccoland.
The rain was not here yet, but the feeling was that it might be coming. And Christian and his vineyard man, Alfonso, were ready to come down off the hillside and take a break. “Come, let’s go into my aunt’s house for a little Prosecco, the 2017 is fresh. I want you to try it.” This is where the magic started happening.
In Brian Jones time in Morocco, there were any number of magical moments. And the best ones were about music. In my scenario, it’s centered around wine, but not without the cast of characters, the people. And Valdobbiadene lacks not for intriguing souls. I love them and I love it here and this is one of the reasons I came to Valdobbiadene, to capture some stories to tell a better tale about Prosecco. An unfiltered, natural, inspired story about why this wine has captured the hearts (and mouths) of millions of people around the world. This is no accident.
Sitting around a table in Valdobbiadene with three elderly women (my Sirens?) and the three men, Paolo, Christian and Alfonso, is one of the great joys in my life. I am in their world, and they are talking as if I am not there, which is exactly what I want. My silent camera captures fleeting images and another bottle of Prosecco magically appears. The second of many more to come.
After an hour or so, we say our good byes to the ladies and proceed to Christian’s home, to taste another wine. The rain in now coming down, and we all climb into Paolo’s Rover. Somewhere along the way, when Paolo is not in hearing range, Christian takes me aside. “Thank you for bringing Mr. Bisol to visit. I have so much respect for the work he has done and for the history he is sharing with us today. He is one of the great men of Valdobbiadene.” To hear Christian is to know he is a young man of rare depth. He has the burden of the future on him, and he is beaming to hear about the tradition and the stories. His vineyard man, Alfonso, also is listening intently. These are people who value their learned ones, even if they be learned themselves. And here Nature is emblazoned within their hearts and souls. That is why I think this place could be the spiritual center of the wine world for Italy.
At the Ca’ dei Zago winery the rain in now coming down faster and we repair to the cellar, where there is wine and dry floors. Christians tiny little dog, Ulisse, follows us. Friendly and itsy bitsy, but carissimo. This place is not limited to just the humans for depth of emotion and expression. It’s all interlinked.
We taste first one, then another, and then the rains get harder. So, we go deeper into the cellar. Ulisse disappears into the maelstrom outside. And then we start tasting from the tanks. Large wood, concrete, stainless steel. Sparking whites, col fondo, metodo classico even a small tank of red, one of the true unicorn wines I have had recently. Trevisana Nera, 2017. Don’t try and find it, you won’t. He makes only enough for his family and a few friends. It was, lovely.
Christian sabers a bottle of metodo classico. Prosecco is better known as a sparkling wine made in the “bulk” method (or Charmat, or as the Italian like to say, the Martinotti Method). And there are good reasons for that. But sometimes one likes to see what a wine can stretch to. And this is how Christian reaches. Paolo is intrigued. Meanwhile the two Alfonso’s are sipping away, smiles getting bigger. We are praying for more rain. And Ulisse reappears, the quintessential wet dog.
But after six bottles, we must shove off. the rain is over and work must continue. It is Monday, after all. So, Paolo and I head out, looking for coffee.
I ask Paolo if he knows Primo Franco. “Of course, we’re old friends! Would you like to go see him? Let me call him now.” What started out as Paolo telling me about Prosecco and the land, in a leisurely drive around the hills, has now become a moving salon of sorts. And so, with a call and an invite, we are heading to see Primo at Nino Franco.
Now, Paolo doesn’t know me from Adam, and again when Primo embraces me like a long-lost brother, speaking in very familiar ways (no Lei here, only tu) I see Paolo’s eyebrow arch in a Spock-ian way. Perhaps he is thinking, “Who is this fellow from Texas that we just assigned to be our Ambassador in America?” We’re both getting to know each other in this way. And let me tell you, this is what I am looking for. I need to know who Paolo is in this world, and what better way than to have him in the company of his contemporaries in wine in Valdobbiadene, and see how they play together. And they play well.
Look, Primo is a force of nature in his own right. And I unabashedly love him and his family. He calls up his daughter, Silvia, in in two minutes she appears. We hug, and she looks at me, “What is this that you just materialize here out of this air?” I reference Star Trek and how Scotty beamed me down and we all laugh. This is a Monday for the history books, at least for me, given my ambivalence for the day, under normal circumstances. But there is nothing normal about Valdobbiadene. And I am fine, more than fine, with that.
We sit, and then Primo starts bringing about ancient bottles and then ancient records of purchase, postcards, an archive that he and Paolo are pouring over, like two little boys looking at a baseball card collection. Jeez, it doesn’t get any better than this. And on top of it all we’re sipping on something old and something new. A 1992, a 1995 and the new baby. It seems Silvia isn’t the only one giving birth in the Franco family. But Primo has many offspring in the cellars. He is after all, part of the magic. For me, a big part. Like I said, I love the man and his family.
I’m rambling, but this was our day. Eventually Paolo gets a call and we must rush off. When his wife passed away, four years ago, she left him with nine cats and four dogs. Now there remain six cats and three dogs. And he must attend to their needs. He wants to stay, you know the hospitalitas thing. But I tell him not to worry, we will see more of each other, go take care of your animals. They need you now.
This is the end of this chapter, but not the end of the story. It’s just the beginning. Yes, I am retired, as Luca Currado and Stefano Illuminati both laughingly calls me, a “pensionato.” But I am not sitting on the couch waiting for the sun to set. In fact, I haven’t seen that couch lately (or my loved ones and my animals). I need to get home eventually. But for the time being, I am in my own sacred village, sitting and sipping with my spiritual brothers and sisters. And this is just the beginning.
I very much look forward to meeting Paolo’s six cats and three dogs.
(Traveling now and am thinking about this subject, first posted in 2011 and which will have a follow up post.)
Pan di sudore, miglior sapore
The messages emanating from the Italian peninsula in recent days have been ones of concern for their future and whether or not the average Italian will be able to live a life as their father and grandfather have. The reality is that the life their father and especially their grandfather lived wasn’t a bed of roses. Funny how the human mind forgets history so fast. Thankfully the human heart is there to redirect the course of one’s life. And in the average Italian’s life here is what I see.
I see that the world is no longer a place where one can work until 60 and then retire for the next 25 years in pursuit of leisure and pleasure. Those days are gone. They do not even seem right to me, for as we are here on earth for a short time, why spend the final 30% of one’s life resting when that is what one most likely will be doing for all eternity? Find a cause, help someone, make a difference. Pivot.
I see strikes in Italy as we had in the 1970’s making a comeback. Sciopero is once again in fashion, like skinny jeans. Wonderful. So what to do about it? If one is dependent on things like public transportation, not much. One might find a way to get to a place in a car. But with the new levies of fuel, effectively setting the base price of gas at $10 a gallon, that might not be a solution for everyone. For the folks with millions, the ones who won’t like it but will carry on driving their Bugatti (with an effective registration fee of over $100,000 a year) or their Ferrari, it will be an irritation. But it won't be a deal breaker. Both sets of problems and the people who have them will most likely have to persevere.
Already I am seeing folks coming out with price increases, effective Jan 1, 2012. These increases most likely are being drudged up because folks have absorbed the higher costs of energy, the reduced flow of capital into the hands of the average Italian. Or the lower profits that folks who are exposed with property and product and must move the juice. My sense is this: If the increases are negligible, commerce will not be disrupted. But if a country like the USA absorbs the increases and life goes on, and then there is a transportation strike and the flow of products is interrupted, be ready for a howl from the front line – the folks who drink the stuff. Or watch the demand dry up. Instantly. I have seen this cycle many times now in the last 30 years. But as I said above, the human mind forgets history. This time on the receiving end, the reality is this: the spendable dollars are less for the average American. And there are options from other parts of the world. Just wait until China starts sending their wine to America. I will say this to anyone in Italy who might be reading or listening or who gives a damn about their economic future in the USA, which at this time is the largest consuming country of wine in the world: If you ask America to persevere and they don’t, be prepared to pivot – in a nanosecond.
I have written tirelessly on this site for years about what I think the Italian should do or not do. And in this time I have seen an evolution of the way Italy goes to market. I will take no credit for that progress, as I am on a relatively minor river looking at the flow, and know my place. I love Italy and her people and her wines and as stated many times before, I have burned the boat, I am here, and here to help. An ambassador who will never get called back for the simple reason that there is no going back. I will persevere.
Lastly, this wine material is a product of earth, an agricultural process. It is affected by everything around it, as we are. It is within the realm of the Italian psyche to be sensitive to this. It’s what makes Italy so special, to me and millions of us throughout history. Please do not lose that special characteristic in these challenging times. I guess what I am really saying isn’t that you should be prepared to pivot or persevere. It really looks like all of us, in 2012 and for a time, will need to be ready to pivot and persevere.
Let’s say you’re 25, finished with formal schooling, looking for a path in life to follow. Let’s say you are in a developed (or developing) country, where the economy is growing, and people are starting have time for things beyond the basic necessities of food, shelter and clothing. And let’s say you live in a town or a city where the population is growing, even burgeoning. And you want to stand out in a crowd and carve out a life of meaning. How in the world does Italian wine fit into this scenario, you say?
Speaking from a lifetime of experience in this matter, I’m going to share with you, not so much my singular experience, but a pathway that was not unique to a young man in America in the 1970’s. it could equally apply to a young woman in Shanghai or middle-aged man, starting all over in Copenhagen.
What is it we all want to feel, on this crowded planet of 7+ billion souls? To feel unique. To be wanted. To associate our life with some kind of meaningful livelihood. Not just food, shelter and clothing, but meaningful, connected and joyful interaction in this short time we have on earth. OK, enough of the blue sky, let’s get down to some of the steps.
1) Find a teacher or a course work that will give you the ability to learn, intensely, enough about Italian wine to be able to impart knowledge, information and inspiration to those around you with whom you will interact. If you are going to work in a restaurant, or a wine shop, or with an importer, or in distribution, or in education, you will need to cultivate expertise within the garden of your being. You will need to water it, feed it and give it room to grow. And think of the fruit, or the flowers, of that garden, as the gifts you will share with your community, your clients, and hopefully your friends. Not in a superior way, but in a humble and open-hearted way. And yes, your heart will be broken, many times. Many times, you will be rejected, you will be misunderstood and there will be people who turn you away from their doors. I know this, because it happened to me and not when I was just beginning. Even so recently as 6 months ago. There will be those with darkened hearts who will never open them up to you. But do not be discouraged.
2) Taste, taste, taste. Not just Italian wine and not just wine. But everything, as it will relate to how you impart your knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject. Look at your palate and an empty canvas, or a sketch book, which you constantly scribble or draw new impressions. Take a look at the sketchbooks of Leonardo da Vinci, or Michelangelo or Marie Cassatt. They did not always make masterpieces. First, they had to have an idea, a seed. And then they had to plant it. And your devotion to tasting will give you a notebook with which someway, somewhere, you will be able to draw an eventual masterpiece. But don’t get hung up on the product. Concentrate on the process.
3) Smell, smell, smell. I often go outside with my cat (yes, I said cat) Buttercup. And she sits by the herb garden and looks at the herbs. I pinch the oregano for her so she can smell it. Along the way, she is teaching me to slow down and smell the oregano. Or the basil, or any number of fragrances that grace the garden. Find some way to get your nose into everything you can. Even if it is sometimes downright unpleasant. Smell the oxidized banana peel, the dried grass clippings, the pot of chicken stock simmering on the stove. Smell it all, and commit it to an olfactory library inside your brain. It will serve you well, when you are hunkered down over a glass of Timorasso, trying to figure out how to convey the qualities of that undiscovered and somewhat obscure, but important variety. Rinse. And repeat. Over and over and over again. This will be a lifetime of work, your yoga for the nose. Remember this. You will rule the world.
4) Learn, not just from those who know more than you. Learn from those who you think might know less. They have other life skills, and they will use them to learn what they need to know. what is it about them, in their path that can impart a freshness in your learning process? You think you cannot learn from a beginner? Think again. You will learn more from them than from a master. They are silent and often invisible masters. I’m giving you one of my secrets.
5) Travel. Find a way to go to Calabria or the Marche. Oh, it’s out of your comfort zone? It’s not your native language? The customs are so foreign to you? Yes, all of that might be true. But it is a block of marble. Find the beautiful statue inside, carve it out with your diligence and your desire to overcome your fears (and fear of failing). No one is looking at you when you do this. This is your moment in front of the mirror of life. No one wants you to fail. Push on, forward, even if it is through the fog of the Langhe. Onward. Keep moving, keep digging.
6) What about the lonely times, when you are so tired, you are finding locked doors, and empty streets and you are all alone in this world? At one time we all find ourselves there. You really aren’t alone, as there is this bardo in which we all are invisible to one another. But we are all there together, in those streets, in front of those closed doors. Commit to know that you cannot see or understand what is happening at the time. But commit to not give up. And go get some rest or read a book or change completely what you are doing. Go hang up some clothes to dry in the sun. a revelation is right around the corner.
If all of this sounds naïve and blasé, then what I am saying is not to you. This message is not for you. And there are some out there who will think I am a fool. And to those, I say, “Stand in line and take a number.” If I am anybody’s fool I am my own fool. So, this is not news to me. But what I am, also, is still very much a hopeful person and one who knows these things do work out, with hard work, with a little luck and with a lot of desire to succeed. Maybe that is the gift of my grandparents, this “American Dream” thing. It can also be a “Chinese dream” or a “Scandinavian Dream,” It can be your dream. And it can be your dream job and your wonderful life in Italian wine.
Of the epiphanies I had at Vinitaly this year, one of them was over Prosecco. Watching the Prosecco phenomenon over the last 25 years has been one for the books. As I have written before, somewhere in this blog, one of my first encounters with Prosecco was to find a palate of the stuff in the corner of a warehouse, wondering what the heck it was. What it was at the time, was more frizzante (although the product was so old, it had been “stilled”) than what we now know Prosecco to be. But enough of the rear-view mirror stuff, let’s dive in.
What Prosecco isn’t
Prosecco isn’t Champagne. Or Cava. Or Cremant. Or some new world traditional method sparkler. In fact, I believe calling Prosecco a sparkling wine does it a disservice. For immediately, folks want to start categorizing it as an ingredient for Mimosa’s. Yes, yes, I know some of you will be going, “But, but, the Bellini at Harry’s in Venice!” Yeah, there’s that. And if you’d tried the frizzante version which I did, that day in the warehouse (or some creative type at Harry’s), you’d probably also be trying to find a way to make the stuff palatable. Prosecco wasn’t as pretty as it is today.
That folks would migrate from Champagne to Prosecco has been a thing of wonder for me. The two couldn’t be more different. I think the reason this happened, ten or so years ago, was because of the world-wide economic meltdown, which had folks scurrying to substitute a luxury item for a more affordable alternative. And the Italians (and their worldwide marketing army) are always there to play another song on the hurdy-gurdy. As I’ve written, Italians have something inside their DNA that (generally) compels them to want to please, to want to be of service, to be included, to get inside the room where the warm fire is burning. And the events of ten years ago, set it up for a perfect substitution. But I’m not buying that. There’s probably another reason, in tandem, that caused Prosecco to blossom and blow up in places like England. But I’ll get to that later, when I’m talking about what Prosecco is.
Prosecco isn’t Cava. No way. If it were, why would the Spanish Cava companies be coming out with their own (Italian) version of Prosecco? Possibly because right now (and for some time) Cava has been in the crapper. Which could be a bit of a cautionary tale for the Italians. What happened to Cava to cause it to plummet in popularity, for surely 25 years ago, it had a greater place in the world, was more well known that Prosecco and things were moving along pretty smoothly for the Cava producers.
As an industry watcher, my view on this is that Cava started cutting corners, making the wine more profitable for the producers but the final product started losing some of its initial charm. Remember, 30 or so years ago, people used Cava for Mimosas and as a substitute for Champagne. And the wine goer in those days wasn’t as savvy as they are now. We also didn’t have an army of sommeliers on the floor, educating and influencing diners, like we do now. Cava got dumbed down. And the really good producers (and there some really good ones) got caught in the riptide. Prosecco producers, right now, are luxuriating above them in waves of foam (foamies, my surf buds used to call them). But the tides change. And Prosecco producers are well aware of the dangers that their extreme popularity present them. There is always someone looking to make a quick buck (or Euro) on the latest craze, and Proseccoland has been penetrated by any number of marketer(s), looking to cash in before the tsunami crashes upon the shore.
Prosecco is not from Australia. Come on folks, talk about a pitiful exercise in wannabe-ism. Again, I remember seeing an Australian “Prosecco”, maybe 10-15 years ago, and thinking “What the hell are they thinking?” It’s just pitiful and the doctors and scientists just can’t explain it into a rational answer. Prosecco, like Burgundy, like Chablis, like Chianti, like Champagne, has a “place.” And it ain’t “down under.” Jesus, forgive me, for even having to bring it up. It’s a global embarrassment. Find a name, folks, make it your own. But Prosecco it ain’t.
What Prosecco is Look, this could go long. If you want more, there is plenty of that on previous posts I have written over the years. But I’m going to expand upon the epiphany I had last week during Vinitaly.
I was in a smart booth, it was as if I were in the vineyard, with a well-made video above me, and the owners scrambling around the room, doing what they do best: making people feel welcome and acknowledged. Acknowledged? Yes, in that at Vinitaly this is the place where hospitalitas, that most Italianita of things is extended is a warm and open manner. Lovely to experience. And Italians do it so well.
As we went through the wines, it was as if I had never had Prosecco in my life. Maybe that was own thought project, but I really had the mind set of “OK, let’s look at this thing from the eyes of someone who never has had Prosecco.” And what transpired, transformed me.
Prosecco is the soft cloth that polishes the solver, not the sandpaper that sands down the rough plank.
Prosecco is lanugo- the delicate, downy hair that you find on a new born.
Prosecco doesn't drip luxury like Champagne, but one can luxuriate in the glow of the downy dew of Prosecco. Think linen shirt and trousers vs. a white tie tuxedo. It is access, without the aggravation of influence.
Prosecco has a place, and it is in the Veneto. I know there’s a place in Friuli that is called Prosecco, and I know the politic of Italy gives that place the benefit that the Veneto (and really those defined areas, like Valdobbiadene, Conegliano, Asolo, etc.) has by right of its locus . and place is very important, in the case of Prosecco, because it isn’t a product that one can (or should) find anywhere else in the world. The mere accident of its popularity has obscured this very important factor. And really, one can best realize this by being there. Go to Valdobbiadene, stand in the vineyards of Cartizze and be still for ten minutes. And breath. And it will reveal all its secrets to you. It’s the closest thing to magic you will experience. In the world.
Because of that, Prosecco is in a privileged position in the cosmos. But popularity and our consumer driven world doesn’t have time for this stuff. But you must know this. Prosecco’s place has power. The power that Yaqui shamans talk of in their worlds. The power of the place is what has made this phenomenon possible. Yes, the product is on fire. And yes, you can get any number of types of Prosecco, from the fruity and soft and “Sunday brunchable” to the senza zolfo, col fondo, brut zero, metodo ancestrale, “gone to Burning Man” types. Good for you. but don’t be distracted by all this yammering. There is Spirit that permeates this wine, beyond the trends and the quirks and the buzzwords and the marketing clichés. You must go there and experience this for yourself.
All this passed through my being, sitting there in that booth, tasting this family's (Ruggeri) wines. It was transformative. It was revealing. It was liberating. It was what I have come to see Italy as a source of my love for wine (and life). And yes, it was an epiphany.
For my first time in 34 years, Vinitaly was an exploration of a different kind. While, previously, I have attended as a tradesperson, now I am free to go wherever I want. Thanks to Ian D’Agata and his generous network, I went to in-depth tastings, enjoyed lunch, sitting down, like a civilized human being and had access to the best bathrooms at the fair (not a small thing). But the real epiphany was what I stumbled upon, wondering as I wandered where my feet led.
Sicily - I ran across Ciro and Stef Biondi under the Sicilian big tent and tasted with them. Within minutes the conversation veered into philosophical territory (my doing). The new wines are brilliant, the name change (from Chianta to Pianta, thanks to the Chianti mafia) on one of the cru’s is fine (per Ciro) and what I sense about Etna is that the window is rapidly closing on any kind of naive actuality in regards to Etna being this undiscovered, and heretofore, untouched spot for wine worshipers. Etna has more than been discovered, although in no way has it yet become fully Burgundized. We can still afford Pianta and many of the marquee wines from the Etna zone. But the days of innocence are long gone. The marketers have moved into the neighborhood. There will be blood.
Calabria however, is still feral and wild and wonderful (with no aspersions to those who are making the highest level of quality wines found across the Straits of Messina on Etna). Two producers I tasted with, Francesco De Franco of 'A Vita and Sergio Arcuri of Azienda Agricola Bio Arcuri Sergio. These are Ciro producers, and I tasted their red and rosé wines. A Vita wines are focused, vibrant and full of flavor, while remaining true to the Gaglioppo character, with some lively fruit tannins that make for a mouthwatering (and food begging) wine. Sergio Arcuri wines are a bit more wild, reminiscent of their origins, and welcome to this palate. The wines bring me to a place that I recognize, not just from being there, but also from a time before I remember. De Franco’s passito was a wine from my grandmother’s memory, locked inside some cellular anamnesis within my core. It was wonderful, took me back to life before mine, and that is something a wine can do if you are open. A vinous vision (with thanks to Ole Udsen).
Along the way, I tasted wine from Pessac-Leognan (a comparative tasting with their alto Borghese Bolgheri cousins. I had the chance to test my hopeful speculation in regards to Italian wine influence outside the borders of Italy. In fact, I asked a high ranking Bolgheri insider if indeed the wines from Bolgheri had influenced their Bordelaise colleagues. His answer? “The French, in influenced by us? I don’t think so. They appreciate the exchange, though, they are relationship driven.” I wondered if that was a diplomatic response or if the idea of relationship can be independent from influence. I have no evidence that the two are autonomous from one another. So, indeed it was a gracious response in which one can draw their own conclusions. I found no evidence of influence from Bolgheri in the wines of Pessac-Leognan, though. So much for my burgeoning theory.
As with any extended stay in Verona, one will be eventually exposed to Amarone. And as the Tommasi family hosted our writer’s klatch, we were generously exposed on more than one occasion to Amarone and how a traditional style can age, as well as the evolution of winemaking. In the case of ageing, one goes back in time. With evolution, one looks forward to the most recent, to see what has become of the thing being studied.
I’ve felt for some time that aged wines aren’t all they are cracked up to be. I know with older Italian wine that the storage (and winemaking in general in 1958) just wasn’t as good as it is today. The good old days aren’t the days of old – it is now. And for young wine lovers (and collectors) this is a great time to stow away some of the new wines coming. The 2013 vintage of Amarone is quite lovely, as is Brunello, Barolo and Aglianico del Vulture (just some of the ‘13’s I tasted during Vinitaly). This is your golden age.
My new/old discovery – Freisa. The Consorzio Barbera d’Asti e Vini Del Monferrato asked me to lead a master class they called “Discovering Freisa, ancient grape of Piedmont, and its versatility.” Having had a little experience with Freisa over the years, I thought the day before to go around the Piedmont pavilion and taste a few. What I found were few producers who had the wines to show. One producer Fabio Alessandria of G.B Burlotto, in the Langhe (not in the Asti Consortium) poured me his and his mother volunterred a little history of the wine (its ups and downs) as she has witnessed it in her life. It’s so funny, how a wine disappears and then someday it pokes its head out and becomes a "discovery." Freisa was consumed in great quantities up to about the 1960’s. and then other things started taking its place, like Barbera, and the globalization phenomenon. All the while, Freisa stayed in the back ground, supplying international varieties with some local context, as it was often blended together. But Freisa is not a wallflower wine. I really must say no more, as this is a blog post on its own. But it was like opening King Tut’s tomb and finding something that had been overlooked all those years. The folks in Asti/Monferrato are making lovely Freisa wines, once again.
The organization of Vinitaly, this year, was probably the best I have seen in my 34 years of going to the show. The lines were, to this introvert, manageable. The crowds were sober, which shows real vigilance in keeping out the riff-raff. And the bathrooms were plentiful and clean (for the men. Cannot speak for the women, but I would hope they were as good). And the wines have never been better.
Italian wine is something to be proud of – they are inventive, varied and with so much of their real nature. Organic methods are becoming the standard, not the exception. Oak ageing is not out of control like it was in decades’ past. Use of alternate energy sources (solar, notably) is on the rise. And the young generation is kicking in. You can feel their youthful exuberance, I really wish, in some ways, I was just about 20 years younger, so that I could actively witness the evolution that we will see in the next 34 years. That said, with a mother who lived to be 102, I quite possibly will. Now that’d be a real kicker!
For years, the Italian winemaker has sought to please the global wine lover with a spectrum of flavors, from the rustic and feral to the refined and bridled. Much of this comes from our inborn desire to please. Imagine a highly-trained opera singer, like Pavarotti, crooning Neapolitan folk songs. A bit below his station in life, people said, when he did. But boy, did the masses eat it up. Italians live for love and approval, at least from where I perch on the tree of life.
So, what if the Italian winemakers have, with all their energy (male and female) in the last 60 or so years, created a model where they no longer need to mimic to please, but in which the world now spins on their axis? Bear with me, this is a bit of a thought experiment, but also a way to perceive another way in which Italian wine and culture, by extension, could be a Tesla coil of sorts. And how, you ask? In the way in which we go about perceiving, tasting and even evaluating wines from around the globe, doused by the ablution of Italian wine.
What if we approached Bordeaux as if we came first to Tuscany and then our perceptions splayed out from there? Or rather than coming to Barolo and Barbaresco with a Burgundian sensibility, what if we turned the tables and assessed a Vosne-Romanée from the perspective of one from La Morra?
Or what if we decided to look at that Zinfandel from Mt. Veeder in Napa Valley as if it were an erstwhile immigrant from Puglia who was dropped onto the mountain top many years ago? Left to fend for itself, to survive and then to rise to the challenge, not of being and becoming a California wine, but to shine as if everyone back in Sava needed it to, as a reflection of where (and who) it came from?
Maybe that Shiraz in McLaren Vale really took its cue from some past life as a Grenache grape struggling to keep from being eaten up by a drove of sheep in some godforsaken corner of Sardegna? Just for purposes of meditation, is all I am asking. I’m not suggesting you make an equivalency, or even proscribe magical powers to the Italian connection. Only to alter the wavelength for the purpose of seeing things differently.
I say this, because I am looking at things from an altered perspective. After all these years of trying to get people to love Italian wine (and really, in the sales end of things, to love the salesman) I no longer have that desire, that drive. I’m willing to go out on the limb of the tree of life, maybe only to have my perch fracture, sending me down to earth with a thud full of reality. In the meantime, what if? What just if?
The world of wine is now more open to experimentation and pleasure. Winemakers circle the globe; the colliding of ideas and customs is in full cadence. The genie is out of the bottle. And what is going into it is more exciting than ever. And with that our perceptions and attitudes about those precious liquids can be re-energized, as well. I understand this can be a fruitless exercise to some, an abyss to others. I find it deliriously revitalizing.
Just something to sip on…again without a single tasting note or score. And again, with no apologies. Take a moment and jump with me, before the branch breaks?
We’re only a week into this next chapter, and I’m bushed. And I’m also relieved and excited, like I just crossed over on a tightrope, without a net, to the other side. Now what? Well, the now isn’t so much a “hurry up” as much as an “OK, let’s see where this road will take me.”
For one, the whole world of Italian wine has just opened up to me in ways more than I could have imagined. No, strike that, the world of wine, not just Italian. Greek, New Zealand, Argentine, Spanish, Texas, German, you name it. I can go anywhere, do anything, write about any wine from anywhere in the world that I care to. After all, I drink wine from all over the world. Yes, Italy is my first love. Yes, it will always be my first love. But as we all know too well in the 21st Century, there is no edict that says it has to be the only love.
That said, I head to Italy in a few days. Vinitaly, to be exact. But this time, not as a crazed tradesman, running around the halls, trying to make sure I see everyone I must see. In fact, I don’t even know what my itinerary is. I just know that I will show up, and see what happens.
And it isn’t anything that causes me anxiety. I have, for years, just wanted to wander the halls of Vinitaly, as if it were the petals of a rose, opening up and displaying its colors, aroma and beauty. Wow, that sounds so pollyannaish, doesn’t it? Sorry, deal with it. I am like a kid in a candy store, and I want to look at, sample and taste everything. Everything.
What, you say? Haven’t you done that all your years in the “business?” In a way, yes, but that came with some restrictions. I was, after all, representing some of them. Well, over the years, many of them. Now, not so much. I am looking to see what it feels like to an unbridled enthusiast, to discover what I have overlooked, ignored and just couldn’t get to.
Not that I couldn’t get around to most of what I wanted to, in any case. But now I can unleash my instincts, and channel the wine gods to lead me along wine paths I might not have had time for. I may not be the new kid on the block, but I feel like a novitiate in this phase.
And with that, to see the magic, the wonder and the infinite possibilities that Italian wine, or wine, or just life has, in this stage, is wonderfully liberating. Oak, no oak? OK. Sulfur, senza zolfo? I can suffer through it. Natural or manipulated? I can manage. Anything goes, there is no wall, no border, no army holding back my caravan. I am free, for the rest of my life.
I am reorganization man, hear me roar. And laugh. And cry. And wonder as I wander. See you on the wine trail.
How easy it is, these days, to give in to the dark and destructive tendencies which seem to be roiling the bipeds on the spaceship. What is the best way to say goodbye to some (if not all) of the constant haranguing that is filling up our cup these days? Is there a path out of the shadow, towards a more meaningful purlieu? I have spent the greater part of my adult life in service of something, someone, whether it is family or company or the other. Serving something. I am now at a juncture in my life and the sign on the trail clearly says, quo vadis?
I have been thinking like a grape vine, for much of my work life. There is a season, starting with the dead of winter. We prune our habits, cutting out that which we know will not work in the coming year. The advance of the growing season comes with little daily movements. A shoot, a bud, a leaf. And then we pick up momentum, growing, growing, growing, until summer arrives. And then it’s sun, heat, grow some more. Maybe too much. Clean up some of the shoots, growing too far out this way or that. Look out for the fruit, protect it, nurture it, bend it. and then, rush, rush, rush to pick it and preserve it, get it in, crush it and put it in a safe place and wait. And collapse again, only to have it start over and over again.
This has been my life of work. I’ve followed the season of the grape, and been a trafficker of fermented juice. We’ve talked to the prospects about this one or that one. We’ve clashed with our rivals for this place on a list, that space on a shelf. Bigger battles have ensued over a by-the-glass feature, or an endcap display. Shelf talkers became bulwarks to encourage unsuspecting consumers to cross over to our side. In the foxholes, it often got down and dirty and sometimes, very dark. All for some farmer somewhere who must do daily battle with a myriad of aggressors. Mold, hail, frost, wind, fungus, winged creatures, large and small, four legged poachers, deer and wild boar. All so that enthusiasts can take pictures of their precious liquid trophies and do battle over a table of preserved meats or on a bulletin board, aiming arrows at another because their opinion needs to be heard. This is why we were brought here on this earth?
I’m lately more obsessed with what appears to be the end of a cycle. A bottle of wine, stored carefully in my petite armoire, which when opened, smells off. Tastes good, but something in the nose has been altered. All the heartache and passion of getting the crushed grapes to this point, only to have it not make it, having already crossed over to the bardo, and too soon. With a bottle of wine, you can just go into the closet and get another one. With a loved one, not at all. And with oneself, as one looks over the swath of their life’s labors, again it raises the question, quo vadis?
Maybe it is to go to Rome to be crucified, although I believe that is for far greater souls than I. But I do hope, as I pass from the shadow into the sunlight, to, at long last, revel in an entwinement of substance.
“Oh God, here he goes again,” Arlecchino whispers in the shadows. “He thinks his ‘64 Monfortino is going to live forever.” It might seem like that to the new arrival to these posts. But for those who have traveled along the wine trail with me, you know I’m not just talking about myself. Yes, I’m grappling with what to do with all this wine I’ve amassed. And yes, I’m tussling with my mortality as well. Aren’t we all? But more than which wine with which food or what is the best Barolo in the Langhe, I’m stretching to find the core – the essence. And quite likely I will be doing as long as I’m marooned on this tiny rock hurtling through space at unimaginable speeds.
I am in the process of distilling my work life into a simpler articulation. I no longer have a need for wide swaths, large campaigns. That is for the ascending generation now. I’m looking forward to the next steps. And I hope to dispatch what I find with you, here, on the wine trail in Italy. Thanks for reading.
From the Navel-gazing Observatory on the Italian wine trail
Recently, I peered into the petite armoire of a colleague in wine who passed away a few years back. I was looking in on her husband and had time to dig around the wine collection. What I found was a cornucopia of disparate bottles - some deeply iconic wines, and some which just happened to find themselves ensconced in the little closet along with the rest. There were “unicorn” wines in there by the boatload, and there was a bevy of unadorned wines as well. It sent me down the rabbit hole of wondering, “Why do we long for what we long for?”
There was a 1982 Pape-Clement. A 1994 La Chappelle Hermitage. A 1979 Silver Oak Bonny’s Vineyard. And so on. Next to a youngish Napa Syrah, an aged Charbono and a potentially over-the hill Napa Valley Pinot Noir from the ‘70’s. But for some reason, every one of those bottles in that collection, as well as in one’s own (mine included) were put in the wine closet for some reason. What influenced that? Or who?
What are the metrics for influence? Is it something as basic as bottles sold? I bring this up, because what I define as success might not be everyone’s definition. In the wine trade, a most definite measure of success is how many bottles (or cases) a wine sells, and an essential progression in which a wine becomes a brand. Now I know branding, these days, is thought to be the purview of sole proprietors (and curators) of one’s Instagram feed. But in the evolution of grapes-to-wine-to people drinking and enjoying said wine, there is a cycle that needs to be completed in order for someone to do it over and over again, successfully. And that is the idea behind the building of a brand.
So, was Filippo di Belardino an influencer? Filippo worked as the brand ambassador for Banfi until he died (I can hear the hipstas among you who are initiating the required eye-roll). So, I hear you, Banfi is not your cuppa tea. But Filippo influenced many people to follow him and the wines of his choice. And Banfi sold (and still sells) lots of wine. Filippo was (and still is, from his perch in Heaven) an influencer.
How about someone like myself? If you were to poll some of the wine buyers in my city, I’m not sure you would get the kind of reaction that would indicate that I am not influential, in any way, to them. In fact, I daresay that some of them do a 180˚ when they see what I am interested in, in a commercial sense. Not the unicorns I post on Instagram, but the stuff I’ve represented in the trenches for 30+ years (and for not much longer, by the way). Regardless, at the end of the year, when I look at my numbers, and my team, and all the work we do, the four of us, to move 170,000 bottles of fine Italian wine, well, that isn’t chicken scratch. Is that influence? Or sales?
Well, if you think influence exists in a vacuum, and doesn’t touch sales, then the wine business is just a hobby. But for most of the winegrowers in Italy, it is their lifeline, their way of supporting themselves and their family. It ain’t no passatempo.
What about folks like Antonio Galloni or James Suckling? These gents, wildly different and appealing to radically diverse followings, move the commercial needle, especially in the luxury/premium/highly allocated realms. I don’t know how one can apply a solid metric (although I bet both have an idea of just how “influential” they are). Nonetheless, these guys move their markets and sell wine. So, yes, to me they are influential.
Take someone like Eric Asimov. Eric does write about specific wines, and when he does, those wines move, even in Kankakee. I’ve seen it (in Plano, Texas, not Kankakee), so I know he has “reach.” But what about when he plunges into the arms of the wine god and ruminates, like he did recently in the article, “Everyday Wines: The Most Important Bottles You Will Drink.” I cannot recall any specific wine he mentioned (he didn’t). What I can tell you is that he moved someone like me (and not just me) to drift into the lane of tellurian wines, which many of us can afford, but not in an arid attempt to “settle.” Rather, he wants the reader to embrace the everyday as if it is a pretty special thing. And seeing as that is what we get, every morning when we wake up, is an everyday kind of gift, why shouldn’t we elevate and celebrate wines like that, whatever they may be? Eric is definitely an influencer, in both the concrete and abstract.
What about someone like a Raj Parr? I don’t think anyone would dispute Raj has been a huge influence in fine wine circles. These days Raj is a winegrower, a winemaker and he must sell the wines he makes, n'est-ce pas? And he has a fiduciary responsibility to his investors, his partners, his growers and employees (and his distributors) to make wine that will make goals and sell, over and over again. We’re not talking about posting a rare bottle of 1999 Chevalier-Montrachet from Domaine d’Auvenay or 1955 Barolo Monfortino from Giacomo Conterno. Those are iconic bottles, and we all want to drink them, or at the very least, lust after them as we drool over Raj’s Delectable/Instagram feed. But he is now involved in a commercial drive to succeed. And he has to parlay some of that influence towards his wines and build those brands into his version of a Domaine d’Auvenay or a Giacomo Conterno, while still retaining the aura he has so carefully curated as an influencer. No easy feat, by the way.
Obviously, I am spellbound by all the different ways and places in which wine lovers are influenced, in both objective and subjective processes. And to think this all came from peering inside the petite armoire of a friend’s wine collection. Fascinating, as Spock would say.