Viva Italian wines Italy showcases its wine in effort to capture, keep Americans’ attention
NEW YORK — Snow-covered streets turning to gray mush under endless traffic were forgotten under the warm Mediterranean glow spreading through New York’s Palace Hotel.
It was the New York opening of the Italian Trade Commission’s Vino 2009, a week of wine seminars sweeping the Right Coast starting Jan. 24 at the Boston Wine Expo and ending Jan. 30 in Miami.
In the middle were three days of tastings and seminars in New York City, the East Coast epicenter of wine retail in the United States.
The Italian Trade Commission used this first-ever Industry Convention of Italian Wine in America to showcase Italian wines and rarely missed the opportunity to mention that for the first time in 10 years Italy has surpassed France as the world’s foremost wine producer.
And in what might be an even bigger mark of Italy’s rise, Il Bel Paese last year outsold France in the U.S. wine market.
For a nation that’s committed to holding to tradition while moving up in the international wine scene, that’s a terribly big deal.
“This is the biggest marketing campaign ever done in the U.S.,” announced Aniello Massella, Italian Trade Commissioner in New York. “Because of the current (economic) situation, it’s important we support the Italian wine industry as well as the individual wineries.”
Ah, yes, the current economic situation, that elephant making itself comfortable in the living room.
Just as Italy makes a run at the world wine market, the rug is pulled and $10 becomes the upper price point, a fact not lost on a country that makes beautiful $20 and up wines.
It also makes great wines under $20 but now must explore that end of the market.
Italy is enjoying an unprecedented string of great and near-great vintages (with the possible exception of 2003, which proves no one is immune to the whims of Mother Nature).
According to the Italian commission, the growing influence of Italian wine was aided by a bountiful 2008 vintage that saw Italy bump up its production by 8 percent while French wine production decreased by 5 percent.
The Italian version of a Bronx cheer greeted this news.
Last year, Italy produced 17 percent of the total global wine production. According to Trade Commission numbers, that was worth more than $4.09 billion worldwide.
The United States represents more than 27 percent of total exports of Italian wines, adding up to $1.256 billion.
So what’s to complain about?
“People don’t know enough about Italian wines,” lamented wine writer and critic Fred Plotkin, who led the opening seminar focusing on the 2008 vintage.
Plotkin, a renowned opera critic whose books include “Opera 101: A Complete Guide to
Learning and Loving Opera” and “La Terra Fortunata: The Splendid Food and Wine of Friuli Venezia-Giulia,” noted Mozart was fascinated by Italian wines.
And just as people “know” about Mozart, they “know ‘about’ Italian wines,” Plotkin said. “But there is so much to learn, and with all the changes in Italy’s wine production methods, it’s really very hard to keep up.”
Last year, said Plotkin, required “a bit more personal touch” for Italian winemakers in spite of generally favorable growing conditions.
Most of the country enjoyed mild temperatures and well-balanced precipitation, although Plotkin said the weather generally will be remembered as “varied,” with north-central area (think Milan to almost Verona) having a “bizarre” spring with lots of rain, although the summer recovered and saved the vintage.
The southern wine regions saw “near-perfect’ conditions, and winemakers already are excited about what they are seeing with this year’s young wines.
This initial Italian wine conference focused on five of Italy’s 20 wine regions — Calabria (the toe of the Italian “boot”), Tuscany, Abruzzo, Veneto and Lombardy.
Giuseppe Martelli, president of the Italian Wine Commission, said Italy’s 15 other regions based their lack of presence on the economic uncertainty of the day.
The opportunity to meet face-to-face with wine producers wasn’t lost on Jason Luca Chietti, the son in the father-son business of Siena Imports of San Francisco, which specializes in traditionally made Italian wines.
“As one of the West Coast’s largest dealers in Italian wine, it’s important for us to have personal contact with the winemakers,” said Chietti, California-born but speaks fluent Italian.
“This is a great time to meet people and to cement friendships and contacts.”
Among the contacts was Tuscan winemaker Barbara Tamburini, who isn’t quite 30 and already consults for 24 of Italy’s top wineries, from Valtellina in the far north to Sicily in the far south.
After a seminar on Tuscan wines, Tamburini talked to Chietti about what she called the “quattro fattori importanti,” the four important factors of good winemaking.
“L’uomo, la terra, l’uva e il terreno,” she said, counting on her fingers, reciting the people, the earth, the grape and the terroir.
Many of the 270 winemakers at Vino 2009 were looking for a U.S. distributor, and David Pinzolo of Winebow Imports wondered aloud how all that wine would be absorbed into the U.S. market.
The key, he suggested, would be to “sensitize and educate” American wine lovers to some lesser-known varietals such as marzemino and raboso, the latter a deep-red wine grown in the Veneto region of north-eastern Italy.
Several speakers noted Italian wine has improved greatly in the past decade or so, although it was said that “improved” sometimes means a loss of tradition as winemakers try to appeal to the U.S. palate.
“It can be a problem working with tradition but with an eye on the market,” Martelli conceded.
Tamburini, who in 2007 received the Luigi Veronelli award for best up-and-coming young Italian winemaker, is among the new breed of winemakers bringing new methods and new philosophies in a tradition-bound industry.
This new generation isn’t dismissing the importance of tradition but are melding that tradition with stainless steel, new oak, better vineyard design and modern marketing.
“It’s not enough to repeat that the wine begins life in the vineyard,” she said. “You have to follow up, competently and seriously.”