Mostosa the Debt-Slayer: Exploring the Native Wine Grapes of Italy

Ian D’Agata, Native Wine Grapes of Italy. University of California Press, 2014.

I really didn’t think there was much left to be said about wine grape varieties after Jancis Robinson and her team published Wine Grapes, their magisterial analysis of 1365 different grape varieties. (There’s a nifty Kindle version of this 2012 volume available now for you e-Book fans.)

Been There, Done That?

So I was skeptical when this big book arrived in the mail — it looked like a lot of pages and text given that the subject is just one country, even one as viticulturally complicated as Italy. Was there really enough new and interesting to justify adding a volume like this to my already-groaning wine bookshelf.

Well, I am pleased to say that I was wrong to be such a skeptic and that I find Ian D’Agata’s just released book to be detailed, interesting and original and I recommend to anyone interested in Italian wines or the topic of native wine grapes generally. It is a seriously fascinating read.

The book begins with two chapters that set the stage then drills down through the layers  starting with major grape groups and families (familiar names to most of us), moving on to major native and traditional grape varieties (less familiar names here), “little known” (not lesser or minor) grape varieties, and then by a brief chapter on “crossings.”

Italy Beyond the Usual Suspects

Suspicious of how much there might be to learn, I started with three grape varieties that I know pretty well and have written about, Pignoletto from Emilia-Romanga, Lacrima from Marche and Piedmont’s Ruché. Reading through the entries was a humbling experience because there was so much more to know about these grapes and the wines produced from them than I ever imagined.

The grape variety entries are detailed and very personal, which makes them a pleasure to read, with notes about specific producers and occasional specific wine recommendation. The notes on the major grape varieties such as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo are particularly detailed and informative, as you would expect, but what about the less-known grapes?

Well, there are dozens of them analyzed here, so I decided to try to narrow the focus be reading only the entries for grapes from Emilia-Romagna —  I am somewhat less ignorant of this region than other parts of Italy because I lived for a time in Bologna when I taught at the Johns Hopkins center there.

Mostosa the Debt-Slayer

The list of little known grapes from this area was still very long and in some cases just a few rows of vines remained.  D’Agata treats each carefully and occasionally pleads for someone to step in and save a promising grape variety from extinction. Obviously one purpose of the book is to raise awareness of these grapes and the wines made from them and to support those who seek to preserve them.

My favorite “lesser known” grape variety? It has to be Mostosa, so named it is said because of the large quantities of must (mosto) that it produces and the large quantities of wine that result. A productive grape, you might say, and perhaps for that reason is sometimes associated with a wine known as Pagadebit (debt-payer).  Fine wine or Chateau Cash Flow? I’ve gotta get back to Bologna to find out.

D’Agata’s book caught me by surprise and has earned a place on this skeptic’s wine book wall. I can’t wait to take it with me to Italy and let it guide me to some fascinating new experiences.

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If you find this interesting you might want to check out De Long’s Wine Map of Italy – beautiful and informative.

Anatomy of Australia’s New Wine Strategy

Click on the image to view one of the Restaurant Australia videos.

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In my last column I talked about Australian wine’s plans to re-brand itself on the global market through an integrated food-wine-tourism campaign called “Restaurant Australia.”  Delegates to Savour Australia were treated to four specially produced videos  (click on the image above to see one of them) that introduced the concept and, not coincidentally, also introduced the chefs and purveyors who would be providing some of our (delicious) meals over the next few days.

Beyond Sensory Overload

The audience seemed to pause, slightly stunned, after each video. At first I thought that it was just sensory overload. And it was. The stunning images presented on the big screen with rich surround sound was an intense experience, to be sure. The fact that we experienced it all again later, meeting the chefs, tasting the produce– that was intense too.

But now that I am back home and reflecting on the experience, I think that perhaps we also paused for a different reason. The whole purpose of our gathering was wine. We had journeyed long miles to Adelaide to see and hear Australia tell its wine story. But where’s the wine?

Yes, wine and a winemaker appeared in each video, but they seemed a bit of an add-on rather than the featured element of the message. What would happen if you left out the wine ? Nothing much else would change. Is that the way we want people to think about Australian wine — an afterthought in the grand “Restaurant Australia” concept?

Now There’s Your Problem

Obviously not — and it would be a mistake to judge the marketing campaign by a few introductory videos. But, as I thought about it, I began to recognize that it was related to a bigger problem.

One of the chapters in Extreme Wine is about wine and modern media — I call it Extreme Wine Goes to the Movies — and it concludes in part that wine’s inherent sensuousness seems to be difficult to translate to video. Yes, wine famously unlocks all the physical senses and a few of the mental ones, too. But it is an experience good. Like fly fishing and some other things you might be able to think of, its more fun to do than to watch someone else do.

That’s why there are surprisingly few films where wine plays a really central role. There are a few excellent ones (Sideways fans please put down your pitchforks!) but you’d really expect there to be far more than I found in my research. Food, on the other hand, seems to be something that video can capture very well. Does watching someone drink wine in a movie make you thirsty? Maybe. Does watching a celebrity chef eat a delicious dish make you hungry? You bet it does!

Hungry?

No doubt about it. Wine’s magic is difficult to capture on the silver screen (or that little screen on your tablet or smartphone). That’s why we have Master Chef but not Master Enologist.  There are rock stars in wine, but they don’t generally transcend the wine category the way the foodie celebrities increasingly do.

Wine Porn versus Food Porn

My foodie friends are always taking X-rated “food porn” photos of the the plates they are served at fancy restaurants. But my wino buddies generally don’t bother to snap “wine porn” images of their glasses (although I admit to some G-rated bottle/label shots myself).

Assume that I’m correct about this for a moment (or, better yet, grab a copy of Extreme Wine and read a more detailed account, which uses Sideways to show why really powerful wine films are so rare). Given video’s undeniable importance in communications today, what is wine to do? Well, one answer is to do what Australia wine seems to be doing, which is use what works (the foodie side of the campaign) to drive the message.  They call it “Restaurant Australia,” but I have a better name.

Strongest Brand in the World?

I call it The Italian Way. What region has the strongest generic wine brand? Well, here in the United States I would say that it is Italy (although France can make a claim because of Champagne’s powerful brand). Americans love everything about Italy — the food, the people, the art, the scenery, the food again, and now with the new Fiat 500, even the cars.

Americans love Italian (or sometimes Italian-style) coffee. And they love Italian wine. Just the fact that it’s from Italy gives it an automatic advantage at supermarkets, restaurants and wine shops.

It seems to me that “Restaurant Australia” aims to get Americans to love warm, friendly Australia in the same way that they have always loved warm, friendly Italy. A good idea? Yes. But not easy to do. If it was easy to achieve Italy’s reputation, everyone would do it. But it is worth trying. Australia has authenticity in its favor — it really is warm and friendly and the food and wine you can find there really are great– and that’s worth a lot.

Is it the only way to re-brand Australian wine? No — tune in next week for my report on another approach to this problem.

Grape Transformations: Piemonte’s Twin Tornados

This is the second in a series on people who have revolutionized the way the world thinks about wine or a particular wine region. This post takes us to Italy’s Piemonte region, famous for its Barolo and Barbaresco wines.

Two winemakers stand out here. Many of you have probably already guessed the first name: Angelo Gaja, who is associated with the transformation of Barbaresco. The second name? I’ll leave you in suspense for a few paragraphs. See if you can figure it out.

Gaga for Gaja

Angelo Gaja changed the way the world thinks about Piemonte wine (and to some extent Italian wine in general). Joe Bastianich (writing in his book Grandi Vini) says that Gaja is “the most famous Italian wine producer in the world” (this may come as news to the Antinori and Frescobaldi families, but I’m sure Joe knows what he is talking about). Barbaresco was seen as the plain little sister of sexy Barolo until Gaja changed everything.

Exactly what Gaja changed and how is a matter of opinion, although the achievement is clear. Bastianich looks to the vineyard, the development of particular vineyard sites and the production of “cru” single vineyard “terroir” wines. He also praises Gaja’s efforts to travel the world promoting his wines and the other wines of the region. The power of Gaja’s personality is clearly part of the story here.

Matt Kramer, writing in his book Making Sense of Italian Wine, tells a different story. For him Gaja’s contribution was in the cellar even more than the vineyard, where he introducing an international style to the wine by using small French oak barrels (Gaja also controversially introduced international grape varieties to the family’s vineyards).

Gaja’s second and perhaps even greater achievement, Kramer suggests, was to charge outrageous prices for his wines. “While few people know about wine, everybody’s an expert on money: Could this Gaja … really be worth that much money? The sheer chutzpah was captivating and so, too, it turned out, were the wines.”

Gaja became a role model for Piemonte and perhaps for aspiring winemakers throughout Italy.

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Barbera, Bologna, “Braida”

As much as I admire Angelo Gaja, enjoy his wines and respect his innovations, he is not alone on the Piemonte “grape transformations” podium. The second “tornado” is someone who did for democratic Barbera what Gaja did for aristocratic Nebbiolo. The achievement may be even greater.

Nebbiolo, the noble grape that is responsible for the great Barolo, Barbaresco and Langhe Rosso wines, is far from the most planted Piemonte grape. It has the best reputation, but perhaps because it ripens so late and requires specific site characteristics to excel, it is not as widely planted as you might imagine. There is 15 times more Barbera than Nebbiolo in Piemonte.

Barbera! Making this humble everyday wine respected  and even fashionable today is a signal achievement. This is the claim to fame of the late Giacomo Bologna of “Braida” winery in Rocchetta Tanaro, just a few miles from Asti.

Barbera is not finicky like Nebbiolo — it will grow pretty much wherever you plant it in Piemonte, both where it produces outstanding grapes and where quality is not so high. There was not much of a premium for quality grapes in the early postwar era when wholesalers would buy indiscriminately and lump them all together. Giacomo Bologna thought he could do better and set out to achieve excellence beginning in the 1960s, when Gaja was also picking up steam.

The old Barbera was nothing special, but focusing on specific sites with old vines and low productivity, engaging in aggressive cap management and aging the wines in small French oak, Bologna was able to create both a new Barbera wine and a new image of Barbera wine. The top wines, including the famous Bricco dell’Uccellone, redefined the region and jumpstarted the quality wine movement.

Another “Braida” Revolution?

We visited Braida in June when were in Italy for the wine economics conference in Bolzano. Nadine Weihgold led us on a tour of the winery, pointing out the many ways that Giacomo Bologna’s vision and plans have been fulfilled since his untimely death by his wife Anna and his two children Raffaella and Giuseppe (both of whom are enologists).

We tasting the single vineyard wines and then Ai Suma, an extreme version of Bologna’s idea of Barbera that is only produced in special years. These are wines of distinction and reputation and so popular in Italy that a surprisingly small amount leaks out to the rest of the world.

Giuseppe Bologna happened to pass through on his way to the barrel room and, hearing the wine economics conversation, sat down to join us. “Is there anything else you’d like to taste?” Nadine asked? Embarrassed and apologetic, I confessed I wanted to follow these great wines with their vivacious but less prestigious little sister – La Monella, the frizzante Barbera that was the company’s first success. A simple wine, but with style and quality.  Were they offended? No, just the opposite. Grinning with obvious pleasure, Giuseppe went to work, corks started to fly and soon were we chatting away in mixed Italian and English.

Ai Suma might be literally the summit of Giacomo Bologna’s mountain, but his son Giuseppe has his own dreams and plans — and they include Pinot Noir. Pinot is a blending grape in this part of Italy, but Giuseppe has hopes that it might some day learn to stand on its own as Barbera has. He called for a barrel sample and the wine was very interesting — not an imitation of Burgundy, Oregon or New Zealand, but something different, still developing, full of potential.

Pinot Noir in Barolo-ville? Giuseppe Bologna must be nuts. But then they probably said that about Giacomo Bologna and Angelo Gaja back in the day.

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This video has nice images of Giacomo Bologna and family and tells the winery’s history very well (I think you can catch the gist even if your Italian is a little rusty). The first video features Angelo Gaja telling his own story. Cheers!

Invisible Wine … Revealed

The main theme of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man, according to one plot summary, “is the invisibility of the underdog. As the title suggests, the main character is invisible because everyone sees him as a stereotype, not as a real person. While the narrator often bemoans his state of invisibility, he comes to embrace it in the end.”

If we think of invisibility this way (and not the more literal  spooky H.G. Wells way) then I suppose that Kerner is an  Invisible Wine.

Son of Frankenwine?

Kerner is a hybrid wine grape – a cross between noble Riesling and very humble Schiava Grossa, also known as Trollinger in Germany and Vernatsch in its native Alto Adige region of Italy, where it mainly produces inexpensive everyday  red wines for local consumption.  Kerner is a relatively recent invention, first bred in 1969 according to the Oxford Companion to Wine, and named for Justinius Kerner, a 19th century poet and song-writer with a particular affinity for wine.

Justinius Kerner

Hybrid grapes have the same reputation as movie sequels. They are frequently profitable and sometimes very enjoyable, but never as good as the original. There are exceptions to this rule (both for grapes and for films) but in general the stereotype holds. Kerner is often viewed as a Riesling sequel, having many of the qualities of Riesling, but with higher yields and better frost resistance.

Critic reactions to Kerner are mixed. Jancis Robinson, like me a big Riesling fan, writes that “The large white berries produce wines commendably close to Riesling in flavour except with their own leafy aroma and slight coarser texture.” She calls it a “great success story.” Oz Clarke is less enthusiastic, writing that “It is one of the better modern crossings … which perhaps is not saying a great deal.” You see what I mean about stereotypes.

There are about 3700 hectares of Kerner in Germany, far behind Riesling (22,000 hectares), Muller Thurgau (13,000 hectares) and Sylvaner (5000) among white grape varieties but still a considerable amount. While varietal Kerner wines are made in Germany (some quite good, according to Robinson), I suspect most of the grapes are destined for “invisible” inclusion in various blends, which is what happens to hybrids.

A Different Story in Italy

Peter Baumgartner

The story is quite different in Alto Adige, that part of Italy that was Austrian before the First World War and exists today as a semi-autonomous region with both German and Italian (as well as Ladin) as official languages. This is the home of Kerner’s parent, Schiava/Vernatsch, and Kerner is embraced here for what it is, not as a Riesling sequel or substitute. The Valle Isarco (or Eisachtaler in German), which follows the Isarco river up into the Alps,  is the main Kerner region and here, freed of stereotypes, it achieves something quite special.

We were fortunate to have a private tasting of the wines of the Cantina Porduttori Valle Isarco (a.k.a Eisacktaler Kellerei) in Chiusa. Peter Baumgartner, a local banker who is the cooperative winery’s president, explained the winery’s business side (look for an upcoming post on cooperatives in this region) and guided us as we tasted the wines.

Cantina Valle Isarco specializes in white wines (Baumgartner plans to phase out the remaining reds in the portfolio): Sylvaner, Muller Thurgau, Veltliner, Traminer Aromatico, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Riesling and of course Kerner. Production is about 1 million bottles a year and the market is mainly local: 50% in Alto Adige, 40% in other parts of Italy with most of the remaining 10% exported to Germany and Switzerland. Wines are produced to hit several price points starting about about €6 for the entry level and moving up from there.

The Cantina makes four Kerner wines starting with the entry level wine (which we did not taste) and moving up through the premium Artisos series, a limited edition Sabiona Kerner (made from grapes from the Sabiona Monastery vineyards) and ending with a deliciously sweet Kerner Nectaris Passito made from late-harvest grapes left to dry and concentrate their flavors on straw mats in the manner of Amarone.

Wine Wisdom from Charles Barkley

I once heard the sports philosopher Charles Barkley say that a particular basketball player was successful because “he plays like himself” instead of trying to be someone else.  I think the Kerner wines made by the Cantina Valle Isarco are interesting (and apparently successful, too) because they “play like themselves” — they seem to be made to be themselves and not an imitation, substitute or sequel for something else.

In fact, they are among the very best white wines of Italy. Or at least that’s what the editors of the Gambero Rosso guide seem to think. My 2007 Vini d’Italia guide lists three Kerner wines (from Cantina Valle Isarco, Manfred Nössing-Hoandlhof and Abbazia di Novacella) among the 282 wines from all of Italy receiving the highest “three glasses” (tre bichierri) award. That’s a disproportionate achievement for an invisible wine from a tiny Alto Adige valley.

Kerner shows that local wines can excel if local markets embrace them and that even invisible wines can sometimes shine in the spotlight if they follow Charles Barkley’s sage advice.

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Cooperatives have a bad reputation in the wine business. Some of the worst wines in the world are made by cooperatives that favor quantity over quality. But, as we have seen here, some of the best wines are also made by cooperatives. High quality cooperatives are unusually prominent in Alto Adige. Why? How? These are questions I’ll try to answer in my next post.

Thanks to Peter Baumgartner for his generous hospitality during our visit to Cantina Valle Isarco and also at the opening reception of the AAWE meetings in Bolzano.

Against the Tide: Globalization vs Italy’s Indigeneous Wines

The tide I’m talking about is the globalization of the wine market and I frequently hear that its ebb and flow bring in the main international wine grape varieties and the styles associated with them and wash out unique local wines. There is a grain of truth to this — one winemaker explained it to me this way. If I make poor but distinctive local wine and can’t sell it, I can blame international market forces (and not my own lax wine making) and just plant Merlot. Classic cop-out, he said.

This maybe true, but it isn’t the whole story. There is also the pipeline effect. Global markets create big pipelines that need to be filled and sometimes it is easier to fill them with a few standard wine varieties and styles than with hundreds of different small production wines. (The current movement to ship wines in bulk — in big 25,000 liter containers — and bottle in the consumer market reinforces this trend.)

And of course the demographic of wine consumption is changing, too (the who, what, where, when, how and why) with more new consumers who face a steep learning curve that sometimes works against wines that lie outside the mainstream. There are lots of pressures on winemakers today and globalization is certainly one of them.

Arguable Premise

But I’m not sure that the premise of the argument is correct. Although the wine market is much more global than in the past, it is still surprisingly local compared to many other industries, with most production sold in the country of origin. And although it is easy to spot increasing consolidation within the wine industry, it remains remarkably fragmented compared to most other international businesses.

And, to keep the momentum going, while it is easy to look at the wine wall and see acres of Cab and Chardonnay (and other “international” varieties) from all around the world, it is just as easy to note how very many distinctly local varieties are present.  It is sort of a macro-micro thing. If you look at the wine industry in terms of Rabobank’s very cool map (above) of international wine trade, it is easy to see the world defined by those big international flows, but if you look at it in terms of DeLong’s even cooler Wine Map of Italy (below), for example, the persistence of local wine markets becomes clear.

Like a Coat of Paint

We explored this global-local tension during our recent trip to Italy to attend the meetings of the American Association of Wine Economists in Bolzano. Italy is far and away the world’s largest wine exporting nation according to Global Wine Markets Statistical Compendium data, with average exports of 1,861 million liters during 2007-2009 period. France and Spain are second the third with 1,379 million liters and 1,292 million liters respectively. Australia is a distant fourth in the data set with an average of 782 million liters for the two year time period.

So, if the global tide argument holds, you would expect Italy to be covered like a layer of paint with endless hectares of international variety wine grapes. And, of course, there is a lot of Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay to be found in Italy along with other international standard varieties like Sauvignon, Riesling and Pinot Noir. But what stands out when you think about Italian wine is the success of indigenous wine  varieties and styles. Italy makes and sells international varieties, but the indigenous wines are what define it as a wine country.

Support Your Local Winemaker

Sometimes this success is driven by export markets (think about the popularity of Chianti and Sangiovese) but there are many successes that are really quite local in scope and stand as delicious counterexamples to the the incoming global tide theory. Let me give you three examples from our Italian fieldwork (Pignoletto, Lacrima di Morro and Ruché) saving a fourth case study (Kerner) for  a more detailed treatment in my next post.

Pignoletto is a dry white wine grown only in the hills outside of Bologna. “Lively, crisp, aromatic” is how Jancis Robinson describes it in her Guide to Wine Grapes. Pignoletto is distinctly Bolognese — grown there, made there and I think that every last drop of it is consumed there, too, since it goes so well with the rich local cuisine (almost as if they evolved together … which I guess they did).  It would be hard to beat the simple meal of salumi, cheese and bread that we had with a bottle of Pignoletto frizzante at Tamburini‘s wine bar in the Bologna central market.

Lacrima di Morro d’Alba is a distinctive red wine from the Marche region. Robinson describes is as “fast maturing, strangely scented.” Burton Anderson says that it is a “purple-crimson wine with … foxy berry-like odor and ripe plum flavor.” Apparently it fades very quickly, but it is distinctive and intense while it lasts.  It sure stood up to the very rich cuisine of Ferrara when we visited our friends in that city. We were fortunate that the restaurant owner guided us to this wine from the Mario Luchetti estate.

Ruché comes from the Piedmont and we stumbled upon it by accident (which I guess is how we usually stumble …). We were attending the annual regional culinary fair in Moncalvo, a hill town half an hour north of Asti. Thirteen “pro loco” civic groups from throughout the region set up food and wine booths in the central square and sold their distinctly local wares to a hungry luncheon crowd.

I had never heard of Ruché and honestly didn’t know what it might be until I happened upon the stand of the Castagnole Monferrato group. They were cooking with Ruché, marinating fruit in Ruché and selling it by the glass — they were obviously very proud of their local wine. I had to try it and it was great. Suddenly I saw Ruché everywhere (a common experience with a new discovery) and enjoyed a bottle at dinner in Asti that  night. “Like Nebbiolo,” Jancis Robinson writes, “the wine is headily scented and its tannins imbue it with an almost bitter aftertaste.” An interesting wine and a memorable discovery.

I think we all have these great “ah ha!” wine experiences when we travel so why am I making such a big deal about these three wines? Well, that’s the point really. Distinct, truly local wines are commonplace in Italy. What is in some ways the most global wine country is also perhaps the most local. Global and local exist side by side and if they don’t entirely support each other all the time, they aren’t necessarily constant, bitter enemies, either.

The key, I think, is local support of local wines and wine makers. That’s why these three wines have survived and sustained themselves.  I don’t think “me too” wines are capable of gathering local support.

Why does this come as such a surprise to us in the United States — why do we so easily swallow the idea of the unstoppable global tide. It is, I suppose, a legacy of prohibition, which destroyed many local wine cultures in the U.S. Wine today continues the difficult task of recovering from prohibition’s long lasting effects.

Are There Really Local American Wines?

So are there American wines that are local in the same sense of Pignoletto and Ruché? Sue asked that question as we drove out of the Asti Hills and headed north. I don’t know, I replied. Maybe. Petite Sirah is kind of a California cult wine, but it isn’t local in the same way as these Italian wines.

Here in Washington State we seem to have a thing for Lemberger, which sells out in the tasting rooms of the wineries that make it and seldom shows up outside the region. It’s an Austrian grape, but it has made its home here. Can you think of any other wines like this? Please leave a comment if you have a suggestion!

Perhaps we buy the global tide argument because it is so foreign to us? I think it would be interesting if we imported more than Italy’s wines — perhaps we could share their idea of really local wine, too.

Grandi Vini (or Joe Bastianich is Nuts)

Joe Bastianich must be nuts.

The food business is crazy; you have to be nuts to own even a single restaurant in today’s market much less the twenty that Joe owns in partnership with the equally insane Mario Batali.  The wine business is maybe even crazier; Joe owns three wineries in Italy and several food and wine shops, too,  just in case he ever has a moment of free time with nothing else to do!

And now there’s this book, Grandi Vini.  You don’t have to be nuts to write a book (although I think it probably helps), but I’m not sure a really sane person would write this book, which aims to identify the 89 best wines in all of Italy and tell their individual stories.

Nuts? Oh, Yes.

Why is this nuts? Well, Italy is maybe the the most complex and varied vino terrain in the world. Here in the U.S. we often talk about “Italian wine,”  but really there is no such thing. Mario Batali once said that Italian food doesn’t exist, there are only the regional cuisines of Italy. It’s the same with Italian wine.

Just take a look at De Long’s nifty wine map of Italy shown below — what a crazy quilt! Local wines in Italy evolved from (largely) indigenous grape varieties and co-evolved with the local cuisines.  Common threads, to the extent there are some, are few and far between. 

Some of this complexity is hidden, submerged by regional wine appellations. Soave, for example, is a very familiar name — so familiar that we don’t always recognize it as a wine that comes from a particular place (the Soave zone outside of Verona), is a blend of grape varietals with the very unfamiliar indigenous Garganega playing the leading role and is made in a number of distinct styles (including Soave Classico and the exquisite Recioto di Soave).

The more you drill down into Italian wine, the more complicated (and interesting) it becomes and the more you start to understand how crazy Joe Bastianich must be to attempt to identify the very best wines.

Yes, yes, I know that Gambero Rosso’s famous annual guide Vini d’Italia has done this for many years now, bestowing their “three glasses” tre bicchieri designation on the year’s very best. (Receiving three glasses is like getting three Michelin stars.)

But their team tastes and rates thousands of wine (16,000+ in my dog-eared copy of the 2007 edition) from hundreds of producers (2,206  in 2007) and in the end bestows scores (262) of top prizes.

For Joe to try to do this all himself, despite his intense relationship with Italian food and wine (which now includes Eataly in New York — another Joe and Mario production)  and to narrow down the list even further than Gambero Rosso is … well, audacious at least if it isn’t actually insane.

What Joe Says … and Doesn’t Say

So what about the book? Well, it’s a great read (just because Joe is crazy doesn’t mean he can’t write). Wine is good, I tell my audiences, but wine and a story is much better and the 89 stories that Joe tells here make great reading, both individually and taken as a whole. I am fascinated by what he says … and what he leaves unsaid.

The unsaid is quite striking. Joe’s family is from Istria and he calls Friuli in Italy’s northeast corner his Italian home. That’s where you’ll find his wineries including the eponymous Bastianich. (The Bastianich Vespa Bianco is Wine Economist household favorite.) I consider Friuli one of Italy’s great wine regions, so I was surprised to see just three wines listed here (versus five for nearby Alto Adige and six for the Veneto).

Mind you the three are stunning wines (from Josko Gravner, Edi Keber and Silvio Jermann), but I think there are more Friulian wines that deserve to be raised to the vino Italiano pantheon.  Just sayin’ that Joe shouldn’t short change the home team in his attempt to be objective.

What Bastianich says is significant, too. As I have read through the various entries I find one strong theme: change. Joe is constantly recognizing winemakers who bring new ideas to Italian wine, especially “modernist” ideas. He wants his readers to understand that Italian wine today is not your grandfather’s rather flat raffia-clad Chianti. By implication, I think, he is saying that many “traditional” producers became lazy and let quality slip.

The best producers today are bringing new ideas and technologies to the vineyard and cellar and are making really distinctive wines of quality that honor tradition but are not slaves to it. These are the wines that are showcased in Grandi Vini.

It’s All in the Timing

The best Italian wines find a way to express their unique terroirs while also meeting international standards for quality. The worst Italian wines — and there are many of them — fail utterly and are part of Italy’s enormous overhang of unsold wine.

Italian wine is in a slump right now. U.S. off-premises sales of Italian wines have actually declined in the last year, although they have picked up a bit in the last few months. This is a good time to seek out the better wines. Hopefully Joe’s book will inspire many wine enthusiasts to take the plunge.

I still think Joe Bastianich is nuts for writing a book like this, but I hope he stays nuts for while.  I’d like to see his crazy vision of Italian wine develop and its consumer market grow.

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Grandi Vini: an opinionated tour of Italy’s 89 finest wines by Joseph Bastianich. New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2010.

Olive Garden and the Future of American Wine

How an investigation into trends in restaurant wine sales leads to an unexpected discovery.

Reading Down the Wine List

Everyone knows that restaurant wine sales are down as the recession has reduced both the number of diners and their willingness to spend a lot of money on wine. One of the best sources of news on restaurant wine sales is the Wine & Spirits magazine annual restaurant issue, which surveys selected wine-friendly restaurants and reports sales trends.

The W&S data give only part of the picture, however, since they tend to survey restaurants with more sophisticated wine-enthusiast customers. What’s happen to wine sales a bit further down the food chain?

Two studies by Ronn Wiegand (publisher and Master of Wine) in the current issue of Restaurant Wine report that US restaurant wine sales were off by 5.5 percent by volume  in 2008 while sales of the Top 100 wines fell by just 3.5 percent. This suggests some consolidation in this sector, which will make sense once I tell you what the best selling wines are.

The drop in restaurant wine sales overall is less than the numbers I’ve seen for upscale restaurants. One reason for this discrepancy as I understand it  is that Wiegand’s figures come from distributors, who report sales to all restaurants and on-premises establishments, not just purchases by select restaurants. So this gives us a picture of the broader market.

America’s Best Selling Restaurant Wines

Upscale restaurants of the sort that receive Wine Spectator awards get the most attention in the press, but casual dining restaurants are where the volume of wine sales is greatest. The top ten individual wines (by volume not value of sales) in 2008 were (drum roll) …

  1. Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay
  2. Cavit Pinot Grigio
  3. Beringer White Zinfandel
  4. Sutter Home White Zin
  5. Inglenook Chablis
  6. Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio
  7. Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio
  8. Copper Ridge Chardonnay
  9. Yellow Tail Chardonnay
  10. Franzia White Zin

None of these is an expensive wine and the #1 K-J is probably the costliest of the lot. The best selling restaurant (“on-premises”) wines are high-volume, widely-distributed inexpensive wines – just the sort that recession-ravaged consumers who want to trade down (in terms of price) and switch over (to a more relaxed view of wine) might find appealing.

Using the rule of thumb that a glass of restaurant wine sells for about the wholesale price of the bottle, these wines would sell from about $5 (for the Sutter Home) to maybe $8 (for the K-J Chard) per glass — and I suspect that a lot of this wine is sold by the glass. An affordable luxury, as they say.

Who Sells the Most Restaurant Wine (and How)?

If you are someone who dines mainly at three star restaurants where the wine list is really a leather-bound book that is handled with biblical reverence (and White Zinfandel must be a typographical error), the facts I’ve just stated about what America drinks when it dines out are probably pretty discouraging. But don’t give up hope just yet.

If you want to see the state of the art in American restaurant wine programs, follow your nose in the direction of the local shopping mall and get in line for a table at Olive Garden. Olive Garden’s 691 restaurants sell more wine than any other restaurant chain in the United States and its sales and education programs are a positive part of the transformation of American wine culture. Olive Garden is the optimistic future of American restaurant wine.

How does Olive Garden, a chain best known for its bottomless salad bowl and endless supply of tasty bread-sticks, sell so much wine (half a million cases in 2006, according to one source, probably much more than that today)? The short answer is education. Americans like wine and enjoy having it with food, but they are intimidated by everything about wine and need education before they are comfortable embracing wine. You’ve gotta learn ‘em before you can turn ‘em (into mainstream wine consumers).

The educational process at Olive Garden starts with staff, the people who are best placed to influence customer choice. Early on, Olive Garden established a relationship with the family that owns Rocca delle Macie winery in Tuscany. Specially selected staff travel to Italy each year to live, shop, eat, drink, cook and in general soak up knowledge and experience that can be used and shared back home — a  nice employee incentive that pays off in higher wine sales.

Back home, in partnership with several California wineries, Olive Garden has established a similar institute in Napa Valley.  Many restaurants expect that their wait-staff will pick up wine knowledge – Olive Garden really works at it by providing literally hundreds of thousands of hours of training. Of course, it has the chain-wide scale to make this investment pay off.

Selling Wine By Giving It Away

So Olive Garden staff are likely to know their wine list (37 wines from Italy, California, Washington and Australia, 35 of which are available by the glass) and which wines match well with different dishes, but how to you get patrons to try them – and especially to move out of their comfort zone and try something new?

The answer is … wait for it … to give away free samples! Patrons at many Olive Garden restaurants (this is America — local regulations vary) are offered small samples of different wines along with advice on menu pairing. The Italian house wines are the Pincipato brand made by Cavit that sells for $5.35 a glass and $32 for a 1.5 liter bottle meant to be shared family-style. Bottle prices of other wines range from $21 for the Sutter Home White Zin on up to $110 for Bertani Amarone. Most choices are in the $24-$34 range.

Olive Garden takes the free sample idea seriously, giving away 30,000 cases of wine in 2006 and presumably more today. That’s about 3-4 million tastes, according to my back-of-the envelope calculation. And it’s worth it, both in terms of wine sales and customer satisfaction. Customers like the wine, once they’d had a chance to try it, Olive Garden says, and it helps them enjoy the whole family dining experience more. No argument here — I can see how having one of those 1.5 liter bottles on the table would help a family relax and enjoy their meals.

The Olive Garden website continues the education process for customers who develop an interest, with basic Wine 101 information along with an interactive guide to pairing specific wines with particular menu items.

Confidence Game: Olive Garden, Costco and Trader Joe’s

The Olive Garden system sells wine, obviously, and it sells the idea of wine in a very healthy way. Olive Garden customers are more likely to try new wines and have fun with wine, I think, because they trust the Olive Garden brand.

Olive Garden has obviously invested a lot in its wine program and in research about what will appeal to its customers. There is less perceived risk in trying something new at Olive Garden. This is perhaps especially  important in selling some of the Italian wines, where both the producer (Mandra Rossa, for example, or Arancio) and wine name (Fiano or Nero d”Avola) would be unfamiliar to most diners.

In a way, Olive Garden has the same advantage when it comes to selling wine as Trader Joe’s and Costco. The seller’s trusted brand gives buyers confidence in making an otherwise uncertain purchase.

Olive Garden is big enough and smart enough to make the investment required to pursue this wine strategy. It’s a good thing in terms of the development of a healthy American wine culture, but it does contribute to the consolidation of the industry noted at the start of this post. Olive Garden needs large, reliable supplies of each wines to make its system work (minimum quantity 7500 cases, I think), which rules out smaller producers.

But Olive Garden doesn’t have to be everything to everyone and there is plenty of room in the marketplace for other types of restaurants and wine programs. If Olive Garden helps introduce middle America to a healthy idea of wine, it will have done a great service.  And I think that’s exactly what’s happening.

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