Three Faces of Veneto Wine: A Wine Economist Report

Titian’s famous painting Allegory of Prudence  (1565-70) is one of my favorite works of Italian Renaissance art. I stand before this painting and ponder it whenever I visit the National Gallery in London.

The three faces represent three sides of human nature: the loyalty of youth (represented by the dog), the courage of maturity (the lion) and the wisdom (or is it cunning?) of old age (the wolf).

It is a complicated painting that can be read on many levels, but one interpretation is that loyalty and courage much be tempered by prudent wisdom (hence the title). Or perhaps it is that wisdom is the product of loyalty and courage accumulated over one’s lifetime.

Whatever your reading, it seems that all three characteristics exist at once in most people, but since we are complicated folks, they come out in varying proportions at different times.

Wine has many faces, too, and this is especially true of Italian wine. The Veneto region of Italy is interesting in this regard because it is home to the big (it produces the most wine of any Italian region) and the small, the cheap and dear, the … well, you get the idea.

We were fortunate to be exposed to many different faces of the region’s wines during our recent visit. Last week I reported on the Prosecco producers we visited in Conegliano, where I lectured at the famous wine school. This week’s column looks at three faces of Vento wine we discovered on the next leg of our tour.

From Conegliano to Valdobbiadene

Our journey took us from Conegliano to Valdobbiadene, the two poles of a wine zone officially knows as Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG. It would save everyone a lot of trouble if they shortened this mouthful of a name to something simpler such as Prosecco Superiore, but I don’t really see this happening soon.

Someone told us that Conegliano Prosecco has more structure and Valdobbiadene Prosecco more fruit and, when I asked a friend if this is true he just shook his head and smiled. This is Italy, he said, and everyone is loyal to their locality, so everyone must be the best at something. And so  Conegliano-Valdobbiadene it is likely to remain, despite the marketing challenge, reflecting a certain combination of creative tension and political equilibrium.

The landscape of Valdobbiadene is quite stunning, with steep hillsides of vines. No wonder if is being considered for UNESCO World Heritage site status. And the wines are quite stunning, too.

Going Small at Silvano FolladorP1100182

A visit to Silvano Follador presented on intriguing face of Valdobbiadene wine personality. Silvano Follador inherited a few hectares of vineyards from his grandfather and produced wine from those vines and purchased grapes until, in 2004, when he made the choice to go small and to stick to estate fruit.

Now, working with his sister Alberta who met with us at the winery, he makes tiny amounts (about 2000 – 2500  cases) of beautiful wines working as naturally and sustainably  as possible. It takes courage to be small in a business where capital, technology and economies of scale are key factors.

Our interview and tasting with Alberta was conducted entirely in Italian and Sue and I were struck by the elegance of both the wines and the language Alberta used to describe them and the philosophy behind them. Tasting the wines with her was a very personal experience, which I suppose is what these wines are all about. The focus is very intense here — on the land, the seasons, the philosophy.

The wines deserve the global attention that they receive — they were featured in the copy of Slow Wine 2014 where we discovered them — but with production necessarily limited to estate fruit — and the idea of expansion or buying in grapes off the table — only a few of the world’s Prosecco drinkers will taste these wines. If you find them, do not hesitate!

Going Big at Bisol

Is going small the only way to preserve quality and a sense of place? It certainly works for Silvano Follador, but scale and quality are not mutually exclusive as we learned when we visited the much larger Bisol winery just up the road. The Bisol family has deep roots in Valdobbiadene, with evidence of grape cultivation going back as far as 1542. The business today is still all about family and, if the scale has grown the family-oriented philosophy remains.

We had our first taste of Bisol Prosecco from the iconic Cartizze zone last fall when we were in the Veneto on other business. Cartizze is the peak of the Prosecco pyramid, a small mountain covered in 106 hectares of vines that are divided up among 140 owners (Follador has a small plot of very old vines near the base of the mountain).

The Cartizze wines are so special and command such high prices that in the rare cases when vineyards go on the market they are exchanged for as much as 2.5 million Euro per hectare, or about a million dollars per acre. The vineyard scenes in the video above give you a sense of the territory. Given this it is perhaps unsurprising that we wanted to visit Bisol on this trip and learn more.

Bisol is both big and small, local and global, and this, along with the family philosophy, is the key to its success. Thinking big means thinking in terms of a portfolio of Prosecco wines that includes the popularly priced Jeio label and then moving up to Bisol Crede, a larger volume DOCG wine.

Quantity supports and enables quality and the smaller production Bisol wines really shoot for the stars. Here is a list of exceptional Bisol wines we tasted at Venissa in September 2014. We tasted many of these wines again in June in the company of Desiderio Bisol and export manager Stefano Marangon.

 Bisol “Crede” Prosecco DOCG  2013  (“Crede” refers to the marine limestone subsoil of the growing area) that we have tasted before here in the U.S. A premium and traditional DOCG Prosecco.

Next, in a silver-clad bottle, was Bisol noSO2 Prosecco Extra Brut 2012 . NoSo2 — no sulfites — in the “natural wine” style.

Bisol Relio Extra Brut 2009  came next, made from the Glera grape commonly used in Prosecco but using the classic method (secondary fermentation in bottle not tank). Different from the Sorelle Bronco sur lie wine — the Champagne style yeastiness more pronounced.

Following this we were served Bisol “Eliseo Bisol Cuvee del Fondatore” Millesimato 2001 — Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay grapes, classic method. Italian Champagne, you might say (if such language were permitted) with Pinot Blanc taking the place of Pinot Meunier in the grape blend.  Note the vintage date! Quite spectacular.

The last sparkling wine of the evening was the opulent Bisol Cru Cartizze DOCG –– from the prime Cartizze zone. I felt fortunate to taste wine from Cartizze both here and at Mionetto. A friend had warned me that Cartizze would be too sweet but I found both wines dry and well balanced. Prosecco, like Champagne, can be and is made in different degrees of dry and sweet and some styles are more popular than others in particular markets.

The final wine was sweeter but still very well balanced and it came as a complete surprise. It was Bisol Duca de Dolle Prosecco Passita — dessert wine made  with air-dried grapes like a white Recioto, but aged in a modiied solera system you find with some Sherries. A unique experience — different from any of the other wines from this region we tried and not exactly like any other sweet wine, either.

The Bisol website proclaims that the family aims to be at the cutting edge of tradition, and I think this is a wise (or perhaps cunning) approach. They use the capital and technology and take advantage of the economies of scale, but without losing sight of first principles.P1100186The Colli Euganei and Maeli Estate

Loyalty seems also to be a characteristic of the Bisol family and it shows up in unexpected ways. Venissa, the vineyard, restaurant and inn on an island in the Venetian lagoon, is a project of Gianluca Bisol that aims to honor the deepest traditions of Venetian winemaking. At Gianluca’s suggestion, Sue and I drove from Valdobbiadene to Villa Vescovi in the Colli Euganei to visit another project that honors tradition: the Maeli  Estate of Elisa Dilavanzo.

We had never been to the Euganean Hills before and we found the geography quite striking. The hills seem to erupt from the plain in a way that suggests their volcanic origins. So close to Venice that you can see San Marco from the hilltops on a clear day (our day was not so clear, alas), this zone supplied Venice with traditional wines and agricultural products for ceP1100200nturies. Now, however, there is pressure to shift from traditional wines to international grape varieties that are sometimes easier to sell, which is understandable but a loss to wine’s diversity if the trend goes too far.

With Gianluca Bisol’s support, Elisa Dilvanzo has dedicated the hilltop Maeli estate to try to preserve some of the wines and traditions of the Colli Euganei and to develop markets for them, too, since one way to preserve tradition is to demonstrate its value.

We tasted a number of quite fascinating wines and walked the vineyards, too. The wine that stands out in my memory and that I will always remember is the wine shown here: a Fior D’Arancia DOCG made with indigenous Moscato Giallo grapes. The wine really does remind you of orange blossoms. It makes a strong statement that winemakers should be loyal to their heritage even as they reach out to the global markets that can support their efforts.

Maeli’s strategy is to begin by exploring Moscato Giallo in all of its many possible expressions, then continue the journey with other red and white wines that have deep roots in the region. These include Bordeaux varieties that were introduced by the French here long ago. We tasted a delicious wine called “D+” — Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere — and joked about the name. In the United States “D+” is a poor grade — better than D- but worse than C-.  Here, however, it means “even more” and that’s what this wine (and the project) aims for while still staying loyal to the past.

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And so here are three faces of Veneto wine. Are these the three faces of Veneto wines? Oh my, no — just scratching the surface. But they show the rich diversity of this impressive region and, like Titian’s painting, represents three sides of Venetian wine character. Thanks to everyone at Silvano Follador, Bisol and Maeli estate for giving us a taste of their wines and a peek into their worlds. Special thanks to Michela De Bona for all her help. Photos by Sue Veseth.

Wine Wars in Prosecco’s Home: A Report from Conegliano

Sue and I spent 12 days in the Italian Northeast last month and this is the first of an series that reports our experiences in this colorful piece of the Italian wine mosaic.

Conegliano Genesis

We came to  Italy in response to an invitation to speak at the Scoula Enologica di Conegliano,  the famous wine school in Conegliano — which I like to think of as Italy’s equivalent of UC Davis in the U.S. Students come here from across Italy to train in viticulture, enology and also to study the business of wine.

Because of its location and history, there is a special focus on the wines of the Veneto and perhaps especially Prosecco, the famous sparkling wine.  Indeed, the statue you encounter as you approach the school is of the founder, Antonio Carpenè, who is also the originator of the “Italian method” of making sparkling wines (secondary fermentation in autoclave, not bottle), which is used today to make most Prosecco wines and many other sparkling wines around the world.

Interest in the U.S. market is very high these days in Italy (as it is in most winegrowing regions around the world), so I had an attentive audience for my seminars on “Anatomy of the U.S. Wine Market” and “Wines of the Veneto: A SWOT Analysis of the U.S. Market.” Anna Paola Giacobazzi, export manager at Cantina Della Volta, came all the way from Modena for the first seminar, bringing with her a bottle of Cantina Della Volta’s award-winning and distinctive Rimosso,” a Lambrusco made using the classical method and bottled sur lie. Stunning color and distinctive flavor! I’ve never tasted anything like it!

The opportunity to meet with researchers from the wine school and to visit wineries in the Italian Northeast was too good to miss, so we spent several days touring the region visiting a small group of distinctive wineries. Each winery told a different story and I am still working to put them together into a coherent story for a future book project.

Giro [Northeast] d’Italia

The Giro D’Italia is Italy’s elite professional bicycle race (the Italian competitor to the Tour de France). The race, which was won this year by Alberto Contador, passed through the Italian Northeast a few days before we did but sometimes it seemed like we were climbing higher and higher like the racers themselves — not just in terms of altitude but also quality and sophistication. It was an elevated experience to be sure.

We visited four wineries in Conegliano and they presented us with a classic “compare and contrast” exercise. What did they have in common? Prosecco, of course, and the traditional still wines of this region. They all displayed an emphasis on quality and an obvious  rising ambition. With Prosecco’s recent success and the continuing popularity of Pinot Grigio, everyone sensed that this might be the Veneto wine industry’s moment to take the next step in export markets and especially in the United States.

The contrasts were striking, too. These wineries differ so much in their size, scope and history and because of this their strategies are very different, too.  Herewith four brief profiles to illustrate my point.

Paladin: Prosecco and  More (including a surprising Malbech!)

Our wine school hosts first guided us to Paladin, an innovative family firm that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012. Prosecco is the name of the game here, of course, and it came in all of that wine’s many delicious forms. A great beginning.

The Bosco de Merlo line featured many fine still wines, both red and white, in addition to bubbles, with an emphasis on regional grape varieties. At my request we tasted a Malbech (my first Italian Malbec!), a wine with a longer history in this region than I would have guessed and a celebrated part of the Paladin portfolio. Can it be true that Italian immigrants introduced Malbec to Argentina? If so, we owe them a debt of gratitude.

Paladin’s strategy is multi-region: they also owns an award-winning  winery in Franciacorta (Castello Bonomi), which was recently named Italy’s best sparking wine, and a winery and beautiful agritourism facility in Rada in Chianti, Borgo Castelvecchi.  The same team directs winemaking at all three locations, maintaining a consistent emphasis on quality.

We learned that tradition is important at Paladin, but that innovation and imagination are honored and embraced. The whole operation is very analytical and data-driven — but rigor and respect for tradition are not mutually incompatible.  Soon we found ourselves out in the middle of a Paladin vineyard in the company of viticultural scientists from the wine school. Together Paladin and the school are doing research to discover how winegrowing itself might mitigate wine’s big  carbon footprint.

The vines apparently take carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. How? And how much? These are the questions that this rather sophisticated project seeks to answer and the researchers are optimistic that their studies will yield results that will be good news to environmentally-concerned winegrowers and wine drinkers everywhere.

Ponte: A Progressive Cooperative

On the way to Paladin we drove by La Marca, a big Prosecco operation and maker of one of the best selling Proseccos in the U.S. We learned that is a second-level cooperative — a cooperative of cooperatives — with the resulting size and economies of scale. Our next stop after Paladin was different  cooperative, Ponte, which is also quite large (14 million bottle annual production) if perhaps less well-known here in the U.S.

Cooperatives are born in times of crisis — when growers have no choice but to make wine with their own grapes because no one will buy them and so growers band together to share risk, cost, and expertise. Ponte was born in the postwar wine crisis year of 1948. It started with just a handful of growers and now has grown in scale and scope, with 1200 members farming 2000 hectares of vines.

American wine growers please read those numbers again. 2000 hectares (about 5000 acres) and 1200 members. The average vineyard holding is 1.7 hectares or about 4.1 acres per member and, since this is an average, you know there are lots of vineyard plots of one hectare or less in the mix. Making such tiny holdings profitable is a huge challenge and puts a lot of pressure on the cooperative to be efficient in its operatives and successful in marketing the wines.

Ponte makes dozens of different wines at many price points but, unlike some of the old style cooperatives you have heard about, the goal here is not simply to dump plonk into the bulk market. Despite the scale and fragmented ownership, we learned, there is a focus on quality that displays itself most prominently in a line of sparkling and still wines that honor Teatro la Fenice, the famous Venetian theater.

Like the successful cooperatives we discovered in Alto Adige a few years ago, Ponte is very demanding of its cooperative members, who must supply grapes of high quality to get the best prices. Then it is up to the winemakers in the vintage winery (distinctive state-of-the-art architecture when it was built  in the 1950s, state of the art production technology today).  Interestingly, Ponte’s portfolio also includes wines from outside the Veneto:   Champagne de Castelnau from Reims, France, MonteStregone from the Piedmont, and Nuraghe Crabioni from Sardinia.

In Tune with the Times at Borgoluce

One of my themes in speaking about marketing wine is the importance of seeing wine as consumers do, as part of a life experience that often includes food, travel and culture. The fact that Americans think about Italian wine in this way gives the Italians a big advantage over wines from other regions. Borgoluce understands this holistic message and has embraced it to a degree that frankly caught us  off guard.

Borgoluce is all about wine  — Prosecco of course and also red and white still wines —   but wine sometimes faded into the background just a bit (except at lunch) when considered alongside the bigger enterprise: a large family estate with vines but also pigs, beef and buffalo (raised for both their milk and their meat). Sustainability and accountability are watchwords here and key to the experience whether in the shop, where wines and other products of the estate are sold, the osteria up in the hills where farm-to-fork is the name of the game or in the farmhouse holiday venues.

Ludovico Giustiniani showed us around, taking obvious pride in the environmental accomplishments and “triple bottom line” approach and the opportunity that Borgoluce presents to those who want to reconnect with the land, nature and ultimately I suppose themselves. But, having said earlier that wine sometimes seemed in the background, it is actually the foundation of it all since from an economic standpoint wine makes possible the tremendous investment in agriculture, hospitality and tourism. The Borgoluce wines we tasted were great, but Sue and I will always remember the values they stand for, which seemed to us to be entirely in tune with the times.

Past, Present and Future at Carpenè

Our final winery visit in Conegliano completed the circle — from the wine school that Antonio Carpenè founded to the winery he built: Carpenè Malvolti, the original Prosecco producer. Brand manager Roberta Granziera was in the audience for my lectures and arranged for us to meet with global sales and marketing manager Domenico Scimone at the historic downtown winery.

Once upon a time Carpenè was synonymous with Prosecco (you asked for a Carpenè not a Prosecco much as someone might ask for a Kleenex not a tissue) and this is still true in some places. Carpenè is number one in its category in China, we were told. But Prosecco’s rapid growth has weakened both this brand identity and the identity of the wine itself. To many consumers who have just discovered this product it is not clear that Prosecco is a product of place rather than the name of a grape variety.

Carpenè’s intent is to reestablish Prosecco’s identity, connecting the history and the territory. They are confident that once consumers really understand Prosecco’s history and appreciate it is a product of a particular region (not a generic grape designation), then they will reach for wines that represent these ideas, including especially Carpenè Malvolti. One project that got our attention was a very limited production luxury wine called PVXINUM after the first reference to Prosecco (as a still wine) found in Pliny the Elder’s works.

Carpenè aims to lead from the front and we were impressed with the wines, the people and the strategies we discovered here. Very different from our other Conegliano visits, but that makes sense since each of these wineries is so distinct in history and personality. A good foundation for the next stop on our tour.

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Thanks to everyone who met with us during this quick trip and extra special thanks to our hosts at the Conegliano wine school: Professors Vasco Boatto and Luigi Galletto, Luigino Barisan, Gianni Teo, Tanja Barattan and Michela Ostan.

Broccoli, Batali’s Law & Deconstructing Italian Wine at Vino 2015

Last week I wrote about Batali’s Law and how it applies to Italian wine in general and to Vino 2015, the recent Italian wine event in New York, in particular. Batali’s Law, for those of you who had too much Opus One and were napping along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, holds that there is no such thing as “Italian food,” there are only the diverse regional cuisines of Italy. Complicated things are best understood in complicated ways.

The application of Batali’s Law to wine is straightforward. We talk about “Italian wine” all the time, but what is it? Show me a bottle of wine that defines Italy. No, Italy is too big and diverse from a wine (or food) standpoint to be summed up so simply. There is no such think as Italian wine, only the diverse regional wines of Italy.

The seminars at Vino 2015 explored this theme very effectively. Two in particular stand out in my mind.

Italian Sparklers: Zraly Flips Out

One of the highlights (for me) of Vino 2015 was the opportunity to see Kevin Zraly, author of Windows on the World Complete Wine Course 30th Anniversary Edition. in action. (You can read my enthusiastic review of the book here.) Zraly was invited to moderate a panel discussion on the topic of “Italy Outsparkles the Competition — from Prosecco to Franciacorta and Beyond!”

The only problem (according to Kevin) was that the organizers never bothered to invite anyone else to speak at the session! I don’t think it was an oversight, either. I think they wanted Kevin Zraly to work his magic unfettered, which he did magnificently. He “flipped” the seminar, as we say in academics, making the audience the panel. And thus a room full of wine industry and media professionals were led by Zraly to make their own examination of Batali’s Law applied to Italian sparkling wines. What fun. Bravo Kevin!

We began, as you might expect, with Prosecco, which is so very popular these days. We only tasted one Prosecco, the Tre Venti 2013 vintage from Zardetto, but we could have drilled much deeper — I have written about the huge variety of distinctive wines that exist under the Prosecco umbrella. Then we moved from white to pink (the Belcanto Cuvee Rosé Brut from Bellussi) to deep dark red (the remarkable sparkling Vernaccia Nera by Alberto Quacquarini, made with 60 percent dried grapes according to my  notes).

Franciacorta was next (Bellavista 2008 Brut) and an unexpected wine from Alba in the Piedmont, a 100% Chardonnary Rocche dei Manzoni di Valentino Brut Riserva 2001.  And we finished up on a sweet note with the Rosa Regale Brachetto d’Aqui.

It was quite a tour of sparkling styles and regions and since there were just six wines I think we really didn’t scratch the surface. So many more wines and styles, so much more diversity.

 Drilling Down into the World of Sicilian Wine

The second seminar could not have been more different from the first and yet it served to further reinforce the Batali’s Law theme. Bill Nesto MW (author with Frances Di Savio of The World of Sicilian Wine — see my review here) led the discussion of “Sicily from Myth to Reality — A Unique World of Wine Tradition, Variety, Terroir.”

The focus was clear: drilling down into one region rather than highlighting the diversity among regions of a particular style and Nesto was the perfect guide for Sicily. His quick survey captured key elements of the geography, geology, history, economics, vineyards, wines and wine people. Bravo Bill!

But Batali’s Law appeared again in a difference context because if Italian wine is the wine of its regions, then Sicilian wine presents the same multi-local diversity.  What exactly is Sicilian wine? Nesto deftly showed us that it is many things not just one, in terms of grapes, styles and winemaking approaches. Some of the wines were links with history and others distinctive variations on an international style.

It was a study in contrasts, especially between the Portelli Riesco Cerasuolo di Vittorio DOCG 2012, made of equal parts of Nero D’Avola and Frappato, and the Quignone Petit Verdot IGT 2011. My favorite of these wines was probably the Pietracava di Comenico Ortoleva “Maanar” Nero d’Avola Terre Siciliane IGT 2013.

A Fractal Image of Italian Wine?

I’m starting to think that Italian wine is really a fractal phenomenon. Fractal? That’s an image that retains its complicated properties at every possible scale.

Think of a stalk of romanesco broccoli, for example (see the image below). Imagine its shape. Now cut off a broccoli flower and look closely. Same characteristic  shape. Now take a piece of that and you will see the broccoli  design once again.

Italy is incredible diverse among the regions and, like my fractal broccoli, equally diverse within each region. Or at least that’s what I hope because that makes my terroirist soul happy. It’s that diversity that makes wine in general and Italian wine in particular really special.

If and when wine loses this characteristic (and it may have happened in some places), it becomes commodified, like industrial beer, and vulnerable to competition both from within the wine world and from more interesting products (craft beer? craft cider? innovative cocktails?) outside it, too. Cheers to Vino 2015 for celebrating Italy’s wines and reminding us of what makes them great.

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I am a big fan of DeLong’s wine maps, especially the wine map of Italy shown above.

Batali’s Law, the U.S. Wine Market & Vino 2015 Italian Wine Week

batali3Sue and I had a wonderful time at Vino 2015, the Italian Wine Week celebration in New York City. Besides speaking on the opening panel I was asked to write the Foreword for the conference program. The organizers have posted my essay on their blog. I will paste the first few paragraphs below. You can read the whole essay on the Vino 2015 website by clicking on this link. And here is a link to a story that emphasizes how my ideas about Brand Italy relate to Stevie Kim’s work at Vinitaly International. Enjoy!

BATALI’S LAW AND VINO 2015 ITALIAN WINE WEEK

Vino 2105: Perspectives on the Italian Wine Renaissance in the U.S. Market

vino2015

Wine Economist readers who fall into the “trade and media” category should set their map-app coordinates for the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City during the first week in February because that’s where Vino 2015 will happen. This celebration of the wines of Italy is being billed as the “grandest Italian wine event ever held outside of Italy!” Do I have your attention now?

Vino Italiano Renaissance

Italy is the number one source of imported wines in the U.S. market and sales are on the rise. I would call it an Italian Wine Renaissance except that many would counter that Italian wines have no need to be reborn in the U.S. — they have long been popular here. Still there is something to the Renaissance metaphor, starting with Prosecco, which I wrote about in 2014, and continuing up and down the boot-shaped peninsula.

Prosecco’s popularity has invigorated the whole sparkling wine category in the U.S. and is part of a growing interest in Italy beyond the usual suspects. There is much more to Italian wine than the famous names and best-selling styles and varieties, as important as they are, and Vino 2015 is coming to New York to tell that story.

I’ll be there to speak at about Italian wines in a rapidly changing U.S. market. Here’s the description of my session. Click on this link to see the entire agenda.

Trends in the World’s Largest Wine Market : US’s Growing Global Relevance

In 2013, the United States  became the world largest wine market, in terms of absolute consumption. Despite economic headwinds, the market grew again in 2014, and is expected to add to these gains in 2015. What segments of the U.S. market are doing especially well—even outperforming? What opportunities lie ahead for Italian wines in the U.S.? This is the ideal discussion with which to kick off Vino 2015.

Moderator:

  • Anthony Dias Blue, Editor-in-Chief, The Tasting Panel & The Sommelier Journal

Panelists:

  • Jon Fredrikson – Gomberg Fredrikson and Associates

  • Cristina Mariani-May –  Co-CEO, Banfi Vintners

  • Angelina Mondavi – Partner & Winemaker, Dark Matter Wines

  • Mike Veseth – Wine Economist and University of Puget Sound

Piazza Conversations

I was asked to write the Foreword to the printed program, which gave me an excuse to think about how the many parts of the event come together and what the trade and media attendees might take away from it all. There’s a lot to consider!

Start with the Grand Tasting “Italian Wine Exchange,” featuring over 200 Italian wineries. This, as the name suggests, is a traditional arena for tasting the wine, making contacts, doing deals, renewing relationships, seeing and being seen.

Trade tastings like this always remind me of when we lived in Bologna and would hang out at the Piazza Maggiore just a few steps from our apartment. Everyone came to the Piazza, or so it seemed, and you never knew what new opportunity would present itself through a mixture of purposeful design and simple fortune.

An ambitious series of seminars explores several broad themes. Wine business and economics comes first — the characteristics and dynamics of the U.S. market for Italian wine with its shifting demographics, and the state of the wine industry in Italy. The second theme examines the Italian South — Puglia, Sicily, Calabria and Campania. Italy is too big and diverse in terms of wine to focus on everything, so shining a spotlight on the South — as big and diverse as it is by itself — is a great strategy.

Other seminars take a compare and contrast approach to Italian sparkling wines and to rosés from different regions.  A final set of programs looks beyond wine to food (of course!), music and culture,  global climate change, Italian craft beers and more. As I explain in my Foreword, I think the formal program parts tie together very well. Lots to share, learn and discuss.

And of course that’s what is going to happen in the hallways, lunches, bars, cafes and so forth when everyone gathers to socialize, do a little business and talk about Italian wine. Just like the Piazza Maggiore!

Creative Tension

Years ago I wrote an essay about the economy of Renaissance Italy that was titled “The Creative Economy” and one element of creativity is tension. I will be interested to see how the many tensions in the wine market are addressed at Vino 2015. What kinds of tension? Some of the typical ones, I suppose. Old and new. Modern and traditional. Local and global. North and South (because this is Italy and regional identities are always important).

Add to the list particular tensions in the dynamic U.S. market. The strategies that have been successful for Italian wines in the past may not be the best plans for the future as new demographic groups become the focus of attention and as new parts of the country are targeted for growth. Add new competitors to the mix — new wine regions, new craft beers, spirits and cider rivals — and the situation becomes more complicated.

This tension between stability and change that was at the heart of the Creative Economy 500 years ago is central to the wine market today. I’m interested to see what my creative  Italian friends will do with it! Italian wine Renaissance? You be the judge. Ciao, everyone. See you in New York.

Valpolicella Revisited: What’s the Story?

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So, what’s the story? That’s a question that Sue and I frequently ask each other after a tasting or winery visit. We’ve learned a lot, tasted interesting wines, met fascinating people. But what’s the takeaway message?

Sometimes it’s a fairly straightforward choice but to be honest I think we live for the complicated narratives– the experiences that really make us sit down and think. What is the story!? Our recent visit to the Valpolicella region was like that. We didn’t find a story — we found a lot of them and the other members of our merry media band — Mauro Fermariello, Michelangelo Tagliente, Michelle Williams and Mads Jordansen — who shared the same experience with us, found many different stories, too, and different ways of telling them.

(Click on the names above to see our colleagues’ work. Mauro Fermariello’s video, which I have embedded above, is a particularly striking account of our journey.)

We’ve already told several of the stories we found in earlier columns and  I’m using this final post to fill in some gaps and sum up. What are the stories? Here are three of them chosen to say something about the winery business models we encountered.

The San Rustico Story

Let me start with San Rustico, a winery with a long history that it wears proudly and gracefully. As you can see in Mauro’s video, the tasting room is decorated with artifacts that give a sense of the past. Touring the cellar we were struck by the wooden grape drying racks, key to Amarone production, that spoke to us of time and tradition. Great atmosphere.

A visit to the winery is a warm and friendly experience here — very personal. Sort of like tasting wine with a family friend in a farmhouse kitchen. And while the wines honor tradition they do not seem especially  trapped in it. Wines are made in two ranges and Amarone in particular in several styles.

One wine we tasted for example was made to appeal to new world export markets, a bit sweeter and with more new oak  (60 percent of the winery’s 170,000 bottle annual product is sold outside of Italy). The premium Gaso Amarone, on the other hand, is made in the traditional style. It was delicious — our favorite glass in the line up.

The two brothers who are responsible for San Rustico (one works in the vineyard and the other in the cellar) have purposefully focused on their traditional production base, limiting output while looking outside the region for sales.

Sartori di Verona

History is also a strong theme at  Sartori di Verona, but the business strategy is much different. Andrea Sartori is the fourth generation of the Sartori family to lead the winery and he has taken it in a different direction from San Rustico. Actually (and this fits into the theme of this column), Sartori’s strategy involves moving in several directions at once.

Go big or go home is one part of the story. Seeking the resources needed to expand production, Sartori entered into an agreement with the Cantina Colognol cooperative in 2000 that gave it secure access to 6200 acres of vineyards in the Valpolicella and Soave regions. This base allowed a three-fold expansion of production necessary to fill an increasingly export-oriented pipeline. About 80 percent of production is exported today. The well-regarded Banfi firm imports Sartori into the U.S. market.

At about the same time that the volume push began a super-quality brand was also established. Sartori partnered with consulting winemaker Franco Bernabel, who began to work with both vineyards and cellar practices, raising quality and drawing out the characteristics of the different vineyard terroirs. Four years later, in 2006, the I Saltari line of super-premium wines was launched. Sartori has also expanded its reach beyond the Veneto, establishing relationships with Cerulli Spinozzi in Abruzzo and Feudo Sartanna in Sicily. There’s also a partnership with Mont’Albano, a pioneering organic estate in Friuli.

Sartori reminds me a bit of the Mondavi strategy of years past. Mondavi moved upmarket with Opus One and also mass market with the Woodbridge wines. The story did not end happily for everyone, as Mondavi went public to raise expansion capital and eventually lost control of the business (wine giant Constellation is the current owner).  The stories differ here: there’s no indication that the Sartori strategy will have anything other than a happy conclusion.

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The Cesari Story

One of our favotie stops was at Cesari. We loved the wine, the people and the story.  The fact that we like the wines is perhaps not an accident. The U.S. is a prime export market for this winery and it is not impossible that the style was evolved over the  years with American tastes in mind — rounder, fuller wines, but still striking the authentic classic notes.

The Americans in our group were all familiar with the Cesari brand so I was a little surprised when someone told me that it is not as well-known within Italy. The strong export focus makes it different even among wineries (like those above) who sell more than half their production abroad.

Cesari was founded in 1936, during a particularly turbulent period for wine in Italy and Europe. Many private firms failed and cooperatives went bankrupt. Some of the wineries that emerged (or simply survived it) were led by supremely talented entrepreneurs. This sprit in part drove Cesari to push dramatically into global export markets in the 1970s and guides them today to produce the distinctive wines that are needed to attract discerning customers.

I’ve embedded a Cesari video above to give you a sense of the winery and its vision and also to show you how effective they are in telling their own story. Story-telling is almost as important as wine-making when it comes to the business of wine today. Fascinating that the global market’s demands appear here, don’t you think. And I agree with the narrator — all kidding aside, the wines really are good.

Eight Million Stories?

Years ago there was a U.S. television series about life in New York City called “Naked City” that closed each week with the line “There are eight million stories in the Naked City — this has been one of them.” (Scroll down to see a video clip.) There may not be eight million stories in Valpolicella but there are sure a lot of them. Some, like the three above, about different business models and different historical evolutions. Others, like my earlier posts, are about wine tourism, weather problems and  the difficulties of establishing and maintaining a luxury brand for the region in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

There are very personal stories too, like two of my favorite wineries (Zyme and Secondo Marco) that exist today more or less because of family issues that caused a younger generation to start out in a different direction. Reminds me a bit of the story of Robert Mondavi and  the family disagreements that led to the founding of his eponymous Napa Valley winery.

Lots of stories and not enough time or space to tell them all. Maybe that’s what makes a wine region really great. I realize that wine marketers are attracted to the idea of a silver bullet story — a signature grape variety, an iconic brand or rock star winemaker — that can make a region’s reputation in a single stroke. There are good examples for each of these strategies, but I have my doubts about this as a general theory. Maybe real strength comes from diversity and not from a monolithic approach?

I’m glad there are millions of stories to tell and not just one because that means a world of different and distinctive wines … and job security for story-tellers like me! Thanks to everyone who made our Valpolicella visit so rewarding.

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Here is a list of the wineries we visited during our Valpolicella tour. See if you can identify each one of them in Mauro’s video. At the end of the list I have embedded a bit of the old “Naked City” television show for those of you too young to have seen the original. Cheers!

Wineries we visited in Valpolicella:

Valentina Cubi, Fumani

Scriani, Fumani

San Rustico, Valgatara

Terre di Leone, Marano di Valpolicella

Villa Cordevigo and Villabella, Cavaion Veronese

Casa Vinicola Sartori, S. Maria di Negrar

Cantina Valpolicella Negrar, Negrar

Monteci, Pescantina

Cesari, Cavaion Veronese

Zýmé, San Pietro in Cariano

Santa Sofia, Pedemonte

Secondo Marco, Fumane

Salvaterra, San Pietro in Cariano

Bisol’s Venissa: A Golden Wine of Venice

venissaLots of images come to mind when you think of Venice — the art, the architecture, and canals and gondolas. Vineyards? Not so much. Can’t imagine vineyards in Venice, although historians tell us that they were there — some even in the San Marco quarter — in earlier days when the city was less crowded and more concerned with self-sufficiency.

Would you be surprised if I told you that there are still vines and wines in Venice today? Not on the cluster of islands that we think of as the city of Venice proper, but out in the busy lagoon? The photo above shows the island of Burano (the island of lace-makers to distinguish it from Murano, the island of glass-makers) and just below it, connected by a short bridge, is the island of Mazzorbo and the one hectare vineyard of Venissa.

Golden Grape

Dorona di Venezia is a grape of the Venetian lagoon. — its natural resistance to fungal diseases is a plus in this humid place.  Known since the 15th century, it is a natural cross of Garganega and Bermestia Bianca (according to my copy of Wine Grapes) that is popular as a table grape  because of its big sweet golden (D’oro) grapes.

You can find Dorona here and there in the Veneto (easy to mistake it for Garganega, the grape most associated with Soave) but until recently not so much in Venice and its lagoon islands, the challenges of maritime grape-growing being what they are. But Gianluca Bisol, of the famous Prosecco house, discovered a few vines on the island of Sant’Erasmo and used them to establish a Dorona vineyard on the old ScarpaVolo estate property on nearby Mazzorbo.

Golden Wine

Golden grape, golden wine. The wine really is golden due in part to fermentation on the grape skins to give it special character. The bottles of hand-crafted glass display rich decorations of hand-beaten gold foil (thus honoring two traditional Venetian crafts). The name Venissa and a number are carefully hand-etched on each bottle.

What does it taste like? The note in Wine Grapes talks of minerality and dried peach and apricot.  Only two vintages have been released so far — 2010 and 2011 — and Ian D’Agata writes in his excellent Native Wine Grapes of Italy that he prefers the freshness of the 2011. Winemakers Desiderio Bisol and  Roberto Cipresso apparently pulled back from some of the extreme cellar practices after the first vintage, yielding a fresher wine, although not something that you would ever mistake for Soave!

We loved the color of the wine and were surprised by its delicate aromas. I found a certain saltiness very appealing, although maybe that was the power of suggestion since we were tasting the wine with Matteo Bisol looking out at the vineyard and the lagoon just beyond. If there really is a salty character, the wine comes by it naturally. Salt water floods the vineyards during periodic tidal surges and a good deal of effort goes into drainage. I preferred the more intense 2010, but maybe that’s to be expected of the author of  a book called Extreme Wine.

Venissa has just released a red wine, Rosso Venissa, its handcrafted bottle suitably adorned by copper, not gold. It’s a blend of Merlot and Carmenere from 40-year old vines located on an island near Torcello.  Sworn to secrecy, we tasted this wine prior to its official release and noted its richness, intensity and, well, salty personality.

soup

 Golden Opportunity

Not everyone would have seized the opportunity that those few stray Dorona vines presented, but Gianluca and now Matteo Bisol have done so and it is interesting to see the extremes that have resulted. The vineyard is a bit rustic, for example. Not the vines but the landscape, surrounded by stone walls, cut by drainage ditches and featuring a large rambling  garden where local senior citizens grow vegetables that they sell to the Venissa restaurant.

The restaurant and inn are as luxurious as the wine and present a strong contrast to the natural element that is appropriate for Venice. We dined at the restaurant and our waiter made the point that what came out of the kitchen (he pointed to the busy glass-walled show kitchen to our left) first came from the island and the lagoon to our right. This locavore idea appeared in each plate we were served, perhaps most of all in a soup of sea-snail (garusoli) and sea fennel in what tasted like the rich reduced essence  of the lagoon itself. Another extreme experience.

Making a Statement

On the ferry ride back to San Marco with the full moon above us, Sue and I talked about Venissa. I was suspicious at the start that it was a platform to promote the Bisol brand, but my hypothesis didn’t hold up. It really seems to be a sincere attempt by the Bisol family to honor the history and traditions of Venice and Venetian wine.P1090289

What makes Venissa so interesting is the ambitious approach. It would be possible to draw attention to Venetian wine culture with a museum exhibition of some sort — many wineries display collections of  winemaking implements, historical documents and wine and vine art. They are always interesting, but it seems to me that they usually lack the lasting impact that I see at Venissa. Why?

One factor is that Venissa is a living exhibition — the actual vineyards are right here in the lagoon, not just dots on an old map and the actual wine is in your glass not a just label on the wall. This obviously creates a more intense sensual experience. And the total project reinforces this by drawing on all the senses through the packaging, the location, the inn and restaurant and so forth.

Matteo told us that there are plans to further extend the experience through a sort of deconstructed hotel project on the neighboring island of Burano. The “hotel” would actually be a collection of rooms scattered around in various of the buildings that line the colorful canals of the little island, giving visitors an opportunity to intimately experience a different side of Venice and of course to enjoy the short stroll over the little bridge to Mazzorbo, then on through the vineyard and to Venissa itself.

Venissa is a wine, a destination and a statement, all made with impressive clarity and commitment. Congratulations to the Bisol family on this achievement.

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