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

Novita' virginiane: Italia nelle montagne Blue Ridge

Sono appena ritornato da un corto viaggio sentimentale in Virginia--due giorni per la festa di Thanksgiving--e ho "esportato" una bottiglia di un "Toscanello" virginiano, composto di Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese e Primitivo. (Uvaggio fuor dell'ordinario, no?) La cantina, di nome Villa Appalaccia, produce solo 3000 casse all'anno, e i vitigni sono Aglianico, Primitivo, Corvina, Sangiovese, Malvasia, Pinot Grigio e il vitigno "signature" dello stato, Cabernet Franc. Il sito web e' interessante per altre informazioni. L'azienda cerca di produrre ulive in un clima ostile (molto umido, freddissimo d'inverno), e possiede una villa nei pressi di Lucca. Enoturismo transatlantico, redditi by every means possible. Presentero' la mia recensione entro poche settimane. Ho comprato un'altra bottiglia alla River City Cellars a Richmond: un Cabernet Franc di Veritas, azienda piuttosto reclamee del Commonwealth of Virginia. Sara' interessante assaggiarla.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Four Days in Barolo Country: Italy's Wine Crisis Up Close by Franco Ziliani

Franco Ziliani is one of Italy's most respected and widely read wine writers. Known as "il franco tiratore" (the Straightshooter), he combines encyclopedic knowledge with trenchant commentary. With his permission I have translated this article from his recent blog entry on Virgilio. If you feel moved to make your own comment, send it to him at this site. His English is excellent. I have just come back from four intense days in the magnificent Barolo area, and I have a great deal to share with you--impressions, emotions, states of mind. To travel at this time of the year around Barolo and neighboring towns such as La Morra, Monforte d'Alba, Castiglione Falletto, Verduno and other wine-making communities is wonderful. As it is to meet with many of the key wine people, especially the producers who are well-known, and the others who are more locally renowned. It's given me another glimpse at the things that make Barolo unique, and it's shown me the region at a crucial stage in its existence. This is a particularly delicate time in the Barolo region, which is riven by a sense of crisis and self-examination. Dreams and nightmares abound. To better understand what's actually happening, I'll engage the help of Nico Orengo, author of a recent, wonderful novel entitled Di viole e liquirizia (Of Violets and Liquorice, a perfect Barolo title if there ever was one). Set in and around Alba, it provides a lucid, critical look at what's happened there over the past fifteen years: the mistakes, the lack of strategic vision, the killing ingenuousness. In the novel, Orengo uses a taxi driver as a mouthpiece and narrator, a critical conscience who asks: "Want to buy a vineyard? You can't buy anything anymore. Nobody's selling. If you got land, you hold onto it. The last bunch that sold it, back in the Seventies, to go to work at Fiat in Turin, they got 17 million a hectare. Now you can get seven, eight hundred million lire a hectare. Look around: they're all millionaires now. Well, as long as it lasts..." It didn't last. And not just because, as Orengo writes, "we've become the Ferrari of wine--and the Ford." Or because "everything here in the Langhe is invented--we've always invented. We created ourselves a paradise for vineyards and wine tourists," where people are dominated by an unexamined, grandiose "rhetoric of wine." Above all, in Orengo's novel, things have changed there because "people don't look you in the eye," and "what really matters is your [wine] portfolio," and "there aren't any fruit trees--all the orchards were cut down to make room for more vineyards, hillside after hillside of them, all the same," so that the very landscape has been stripped of memories and it "seems like we were all born lords of the manor ever since, some time, this land lost its memory of its old hardships." The transformation of the Langhe has been complete, according to this author. "The old peasant ways are gone, with a few rare exceptions. The rest is all chemicals and machinery, hand in glove with oenologists, technicians, PR hacks, and international sales reps," all of which together have "made the wine into an industry, like manufacturing sports cars," with its new-style people and a new economic paradigm. In light of these enormous changes, it's easier to understand how, in 2005, Barolo is in trouble. This despite an unprecedented parade of stunning vintages in the 1990s, and an international reputation that's never been more illustrious. Some of the mistakes people there have made can be attributed to the simple fact that they weren't used to success, to vast amounts of money. It's understandable that they've become a bit engorged with it. But there is another reason Barolo has lost its way: gone are the great leaders who once had the integrity and strength to guide the region, such as the Ratti family, who were able to rise above mere self-interest; and the Consorzio Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe Roero, which would have condemned the suicidal rush to plant more and more vines, to produce more and more bottles, and increase prices year after stellar year. "As long as it lasts," indeed. The Consorzio might have acted as a brake on those who have tried (and succeeded) to alter the style and identity of the wine, all to please the overseas wine writers and importers. Today, after the first great euphoria and the illusion that the golden years of growth were endless, the world of Barolo is back to its old fear and uncertainty. The cellars are full to bursting with unsold wine, business has shifted to low gear...and the investors still want their pay-out. No wonder there's a certain lack of enthusiasm among the region's players regarding the future of their lands and the denomination, along with a fear that their lovely toy just might be broken. To put it another way, there's a sense that the unique and beautiful wine of Barolo could be replaced by other wines that are somehow better able to stand up to the brutal winds sweeping every market. There are plenty of doubts, too, in the producers' minds. They wonder if they will be able to find a market for their 2002, a vintage that's wrongly been talked down. This in spite of their experiments and costly investments to appeal to a global market--often aided and abetted in this by a smarmy and uncritical wine press. Many questions remain. One thing is certain: the indisputable greatness of many of these wines. (I tasted two extraordinary ones at the marvelous new restaurant in Alba, Piazza Duomo: Barolo Bricco Rocche Ceretto 1990 and 1982.) The fascination of these wines seems to come right out of the air, the bewitching air of these bricchi (hilltops) and sori` (slopes), where, despite all the changes, things seem to become as they were in certain magical moments. How can you not feel a powerful attraction to these lands, these hills and hills of vineyards where, Orengo writes, in winter "the mist rises and everything comes to a halt but the damp: a spider's web of water drops glimmers everywhere you look and it seems as though you're inside a giant chandelier. No sound but some branch that somehow finds the strength to break itself in two or some stone splits in the frost. The frost paves the roads and as you travel down them you feel as if you're on the keyboard of an out-of-tune piano."

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Confessione

Lo ammetto: mi piace bere non de-gu-sta-re. Si beve per bere. Per essere ubriachi qualchevolta, o almeno un po' e dolcemente forsennati. No? Sei troppo raffinato, troppo elegante, perfino possiedi una superiore moralita'? Beato te. Ecco, e' colpa di Bacco. 'Sto dio m'ha fatto fare. ("The devil made me do it!") Stasera ho bevuto, si', ma non tanto. (Vermentino sardo e poi Pinot Noir della North Coast californiana, vino assai buono ma niente persistente.) Ma mi stufano le sciocchezze autoesaltanti che leggo sulle riviste e sui blog, come se fossimo noi, amatori dell'uva, sacerdoti di un sommo buono. Ci piace prendere una sbornia, no? Ed e' questa la verita': The good life has its down side--hangovers. Gueules de bois. Uffa, che miseria, che utile promemoria delle vere condizioni della vita umana. Eccomi, a Parigi, avec la gueule de bois: laissez les bons temps rouler!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Zaca Mesa Syrah 2001: Tell Me What It Cost

My brother-in-law gave me a bottle of Zaca Mesa's 2001 Syrah, a souvenir of his recent trip to the Santa Inez Valley of California. He asked me to taste the wine and guess at its cost, without researching it on the Internet. Well, OK. We had it tonight with meatloaf, baked potato and squash. An American comfort meal, if I ever ate one. The wine went perfectly with it--full-bodied and fruity, with perhaps a little too much oak for my taste, lending it an additional layer of sweetness. But a nice wine that I didn't at all mind drinking. What did it cost? I wonder. I really haven't snooped on the Net...maybe $15-16? By the way, a wine of this complexity and depth from the south of France would cost, what, $8-10? Somebody help me out, spill the metaphorical beans! And I do really wish I had something with more depth and character to drink right now...maybe some of that sensational Australian semillon, Miranda Botrytis, which is a hell of a bargain at $20 a half-bottle.