Saturday, November 26, 2005

Keeping the Faith: Tales of a Wine Importer

Since last summer Dr. Vino has been running a feature called the Real Wine World, which periodically tells the stories of several people involved in various parts of the wine business. One of the people Dr. Vino has featured is a young importer from Chicago, Greg Smolik. The chronicle of Greg's ups and downs is sobering. Inspiring too, because the guy loves Italian wine and the enormous potential they have to be unique and full of character, as well as correctly priced. I was interested in what made Greg tick and what was going on with him, so I asked if I could interview him at a distance. Here is my take on what he had to tell me. THE LONER IN STORY AND REALITY The loner. The guy who has to follow his own dream, pursue his personal vision. We love him in books and movies; he always prevails in art or at least suffers such a glamorous defeat that it becomes a sort of moral victory. The so-called moral victory. ("Shane! Shane! Come back!") The reality of American life, of modern life, is quite different of course. The loner with a vision often leads a precarious existence. "Dreaming is free," as the song goes. Entrepreneurship comes dear. Enter Greg Smolik, Chicago boy, ex of Sam's Wines, Italo-American. And passionate believer in the worth of "artisanal" wines made of local grape varieties. Seeking that sense of place After eight years at Sam's, Greg decided to go it alone. His vision: seek out small producers all over Italy who make "authentic" wines that exhibit a "real sense of place." In other words, traditionally-made wines from autochthonous varieties. His goal: bring these deserving wines to the US market at reasonable prices. "I used to spend a lot of time with my cousins and my uncle on their farm outside of Rome. As I helped my uncle, he would explain how every region--and regions within regions--made their own wines, with their own varieties and climates. All the possibilities blew me away." Finding those wineries that best expressed their terroir became a driving force in his life while he was still employed by Sam's. Every day he tasted the differences between such exciting wines and the industrial products that sold in vast quantities (backed up by big marketing budgets). The reasons for this dichootmy are several, but Greg puts it succinctly: "Small producers have the ability to devote their attention to everything. It's a lot easier to do like that when you have 10 hectares, as opposed to 100 hectares." Six varieties in search of a champion? The internationalization of wine disturbs Greg, as it obviously does many people. "International varieties have outpublicized the native ones, and the international flavor profile that's resulted is the product of excessive manipulation." Pity. Well-made indigenous wines have "a texture, balance and purity that no international variety can have [outside its own native terrority]. Who knows," he said, "maybe in decades to come such grapes will be pulled up and local ones will replace them." Greg's current portfolio is small (listed below), with an emphasis on Italy's South and Central regions. In any case, the producers fit Greg's criteria: small, well-made, unique in flavor, and competitively priced. He believes that the up-and-coming regions, soon to follow the success of Sicily and lately Puglia at polishing their image and producing sensational wines, are Basilicata (aglianico central) and Umbria, in part because of the tourism that keeps the industry alive there. As to Basilicate and aglianico, he says "this grape will be to Basilicata what Pinot Noir is to Burgundy and Nebbiolo to Piedmont: the quintessential expression of that region." Heartache: the one that got away There are special problems that dog you when you deal with small producers--farmers, really, who still retain something of the desperate/untrusting/guileful habits of the peasant. Greg notes that there's a fear that he will misrepresent them, or cheat them. Out of that fear, or simple greed, they may strike deals with more than one US importer. Or they may just be clueless how to present and market their wines, which affects everything from bottle-to-bottle variations to labels and so on. Greg has some excellent small-producer wines in his portfolio now. But there are always the ones that got away. He mentioned one wine made from the Cesanese grape, which is documented to about 200 BC. "It's a superb red made on a property in Lazio, a little south of Rome." It promised to be a breakthrough for him. Not only a fine wine at a great price, but made in quantities large enough to enable him to build a market for it in the States. So what happened? "The family was untrustworthy." Who ever said it would be easy? For the time being, Greg's hopes for the "big one" are dashed. But only for the time being. He still is "knocked out by all the possibilities that Italy offers. It's hard to wait but the wait will be worth it." Note: Greg travels to Italy five times a year. Email him if you know of any undiscovered gems. Including your own. The Smolik portfolio Greg's current portfolio consists of a few carefully selected wines. Basilium from Basilicata -- featuring Aglianico and other varieties of red and white
DeFalco from Campania Cabanon from Lombardy And a private label Montepulciano d'Abruzzo


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