On the Wine Trails of Italy (with the Michelin Man)

Michelin Green Guide Wine Trails of ItalyMichelin Guides, 2013. Cynthia Clayton Ochterbeck, editorial director; Maura Marca and Carlo Vischi (in collaboration with Debora Biona), contributing writers.

I love visiting Italy, meeting the people and trying to speak the beautiful language. I’ve spent more time in Italy than any other country outside the U.S. (thanks in part to a stint teaching at the Johns Hopkins Center in Bologna), so I’ve learned a lot about the food and  wine and always look forward to going back to learn more.

I have accumulated far more than my fair share of Italian touring guides, which I enjoy reading  before, after and during each trip. The publication of Michelin’s new Wine Trails of Italy was the perfect excuse to dig out some of my favorite guides and compare them to this new one.

Bring In the Usual Suspects

Standard operating procedure for a trip to Italy at The Wine Economist office involves collecting together a number of timeless references — the usual suspects. I always start with Burton Anderson’s classic The Wine Atlas of Italy & Traveler’s Guide to the Vineyards, which somehow manages to be informative and relevant more than 20 years after its publication (it was the Veuve Clicquot Wine Book of the Year for 1990).

Anderson’s wine atlas paired with the most recent edition of Gambero Rosso’s Italian Wines guide is usually enough to get me started. Anderson gives the broader context and Gambero Rosso shows me what’s new. Connecting the dots is up to me. The Italian Wine Guide from the Touring Club of Italy is another indispensable (if now somewhat dated) companion.

What is Italy Anyway?

But it is impossible to visit Italy and to taste Italian wines because, well, what is Italy anyway? Mario Batalli once said that there is no such thing as Italian food, there are only the many regional cuisines of Italy and I think that this remark holds for Italian wine, too.

So inevitably I search for regional wine touring guides to match my focused travel itinerary. Hugh Johnson edited a series for Mitchell Beazley called Touring in Wine Country that included handy volumes on Northeast Italy and Northwest Italy (as well as Burgundy, the Mosel and other regions). I love these guides, which focus on wine towns and wine trails, with excellent advice on hotels, restaurants, wine and food shops, and of course wineries. Meaty, but just compact enough to fit into a day pack or car glove box.

I still pull out these Mitchell Beazley guides when I’m putting together a trip, but they haven’t been updated in nearly 15 years and the specific information they provide is now stale, even if much of the general advice remains relevant.

More Maps, Please

So where does the new Michelin guide fit in? Well, the format is attractive as you might imagine from a publisher with so much travel guide expertise.  The volume is narrow, deep (more than 500 pages) and packed full of information. The first 50 pages are filled with Wine 101 information (how to taste, what temperature is best, how to extract the cork, etc.) that does no harm even if it will do little good for seasoned readers.

A general introduction to Italian wine serves as a preface to wine regional wine itineraries, which vary in length from just a few pages (for the Aosta Valley and Liguria regions for example) to about 50 pages for Tuscany.  Obviously it is impossible to provide a truly comprehensive guide to any Italian wine region in such tight quarters, so this is an exercise in leaving things out. If you are OK with the deletions, then you’ll be happy with the guide.

Detailed maps were the first thing left out in the Michelin guide and this annoyed me at first, but then I realized that it would just be impossible to include all the necessary maps in such a brief volume. You’ll need to buy driving maps (Michelin maps, presumably) if you want to follow the routes. But, a few more maps would be useful if only to help see how the various wine routes are related. Better maps would be my #1 request if these books are ever revised.

The Michelin Touch

Each chapter begins with a quick overview of the region, its wines and the grapes the wines are made from. This is followed by suggestion wine route itineraries presented in a format that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever used a Michelin guide. These travel narratives are followed by a data section that lists tourist contact numbers, identifies the regional wine cellars and presents brief but well written  profiles of selected wineries. A very short list of accommodations brings the chapter to an end.

Compared to the other wine tourist guides on my bookshelf, the Michelin guide provides more non-wine information — a fact that puzzled me at first. But I guess you can’t live by wine alone, even in Italy, and knowing more about the cultural tourism elements is surely worthwhile, Indeed, I stumbled across some information that I wish I had known on my last trip to Alto Adige! I suppose that it just makes sense for a Michelin wine tourist guide to draw heavily on the core knowledge base of the main Michelin guides.

Bottom Line

Bottom line: Not a perfect wine tourist guide to Italy, but a very good compromise and a useful addition to the day pack. More depth and detail would be great, but obviously impossible given the scope of the guide.  A wine guide that ignores food seems just wrong (especially in Italy), but I suppose there are apps (or other guide books) for that. It’s a good volume to use in concert with other travel resources.

I still nurture a small ray of hope that Mitchell Beazley will revise those old wine touring guides or that the Touring Club of Italy will come out with a new edition of their guida, but until they do this Michelin guide will help fill the void.

Is Craft Beer the Next Big Thing in Wine?

Is craft beer the next big thing in wine? No — not if you’re asking if wineries are going to start putting in tanks for IPA (India Pale Ale) alongside their racks of expensive french oak barrels.

But yes — maybe — if you are thinking about things in terms of market spaces. The wine market space and that of craft beer are increasingly overlapping as craft beers infringe on wine’s turf (and low alcohol wines threaten to do the same for beer). And if the common battlefield isn’t huge at this point, it is certainly growing and warrants attention.

Anatomy of Craft Beer

A Craft beer producer, according to CraftBeer.com, the Brewers Association website, has three essential qualities:

  • Small: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less.
  • Independent: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.
  • Traditional: A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

Although by definition craft beer producers are relatively small, the market category has made a lot of news recently because of its rapid growth, both in terms of number of retailers who carry craft beers and total sales. Rapid growth from a small base — sound familiar?

It’s the growth that gets your attention. Remember Moscato? It surged from a small market niche to become the next big thing and is according to one report is now the third best selling (by volume)  white wine varietal in the U.S. after Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio and ahead of Sauvignon Blanc. Is craft beer the next Moscato?

The Next Moscato?

I put the question this way because the particular beer that provoked this post was actually made with Muscat grapes. It was a 12 ounce  bottle of Midas Touch from Dogfish Head Brewery. that I bought for $3.50 at the Metropolitan Market up the street.

Although Midas Touch probably wasn’t made with wine drinkers strictly in mind, it is certainly being marketed to the wine space as the videos below will show you and I have to say that its complex aromas and flavors (plus wine-like 9% alcohol by volume) made it a beer that can stand up to many wines in a sip by sip comparison.

The brewery says that “This sweet yet dry beer is made with ingredients found in 2,700-year-old drinking vessels from the tomb of King Midas. Somewhere between wine and mead, Midas will please the chardonnay and beer drinker alike,” and I can’t really disagree. I found it very pleasing (and not overwhelmed by the addition of saffron as you might expect), although this is clearly a matter of taste. Sue was less impressed, saying that it didn’t taste like beer and wouldn’t be her choice over wine.

Midas Touch is not a typical craft beer, but it demonstrates pretty well what craft beer is capable of doing in competition with wine.  It is a complex and interesting beverage that pairs well with food — just like wine. It tells a story that draws in the consumer and deepens the attachment — just like wine.

New and Improved!

Innovation is a hot topic in the beverage business these days and craft beer presents more opportunities for innovation and product development than most wines if you are aiming at that market segment. Midas Touch, based on an ancient recipe using exotic ingredients — is an example of how far the innovations can go.

Interestingly, complexity comes at a lower relative price with craft beer than with wine, which is something to consider. The difference between the lowest and highest priced grocery store wines is huge — sometimes a factor of 50 or more — with $2-3 per bottle equivalent for a 5-liter Franzia box at the low end and $100 or more at the top is not unusual at an upscale supermarket.

By comparison, the exotic product premium for craft beers is relatively low. The Midas Touch was a bargain at $3.50 or about $7.00 per 750 ml bottle equivalent in the sense that it was not very much more expensive than basic beers and ales.  I have to admit that it was a lot more interesting to drink that a lot of $7 wines that I have tasted even if, like any particular wine, it is not necessarily to everyone’s taste.

And even the most exotic cult beers (like the locally fabled Pliny the Elder) can often be found for $10-$20. So the Screaming Eagle craft beer equivalent can be purchased for the price of a good but not exceptional bottle of wine. You can see how that might attract the attention of some wine drinkers, especially young ones. And I guess it has.

Wine’s Counterattack?

A lot of the attention has been focused on alcohol levels. Some craft beers are even more potent than the 9% abv Midas Touch, which puts the beer in ballpark of wine.  Certainly high octane beer should be treated like wine and sipped (wine glasses are often recommended) not gulped.

But not all craft beers are this boozy and in fact I think that their lower alcohol levels (compared with wine and spirits)  can be a competitive advantage when you look at the market that way.

The trend towards lower alcohol wine (like the 5.5% abv line of wines that Gallo recently launched in the British market)  might be seen as wine trying to capture some of the beer market through product innovation.

Craft beer drinkers often display the same sort of insane devotion and geeky attachment that we see in wine enthusiasts and there are even interesting beer tourist destinations like Bend, Oregon — an old mill town that is home to 14 craft breweries within easy walking (or stumbling) distance of each other along the Bend Ale Trail, which attracts some of my university students as a Spring Break destination.

Midas Touch

So craft beer has a lot in common with wine and maybe a couple of advantages. With these products more widely available and a growing customer base that is ready and willing to experiment, I think it is plausible and wine and craft beer will increasingly share market space and must take that competition into account.

Will some wineries take the next logical step and start brewing small lot beers? Well, it isn’t a crazy idea where regulations permit it. Compared to wine with its single annual harvest, beer is a Chateau Cash Flow business. Breweries can operate pretty much year round as one batch it bottled and another fills the tanks.

Cash Flow Ale? Maybe that’s how beer-drinking Midas got his golden touch!

Red Mountain: Think Global, Drink Local

Red Mountain is Washington’s smallest AVA and perhaps its most distinctive. This compact patch of dirt (see larger map below) has produced the grapes for some of the state’s most celebrated red wines. There’s a real sense of place in the wines according to critics, so the “drink local” part of this post’s title makes sense. But think global?

Well, yes. The wine world is very interconnected; international influences are surprisingly common and take many forms. A visit to Red Mountain (Sue and I were joined by research assistants Bonnie and Richard) revealed two of globalization’s many local faces.

The Italian Job: Col Solare

You might not expect to find one of the legendary names of Italian wine here on Red Mountain, but as you motor up Antinori Drive towards the beautiful winery at the top of the road the association becomes clearer. Col Solare (Italian for Shining Hill) is a joint venture of Tuscany’s Marchesi Antinori and Washington State’s Ste Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE). There has to be a story. Here it is.

It must have been about 20 years ago that Piero Antinori came to America, looking for a wine-producing partner. He wasn’t interested in making an American super-Tuscan. He wanted to do what he thought America did best: Cabernet. So, as the Ghost Busters used to say, “who ya gonna call?” if you want to make great Cabernet? The answer was obviously André Tchelistcheff, the legendary wine maker at Napa Valley’s Beaulieu Vineyards and consultant to many important wineries (including Chateau Ste Michelle).

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Where in America can I make distinctive Cabernet? Tchelistcheff knew what advice to give because in fact he had already given it to his nephew Alex Golitzin who founded Quilceda Creek winery, which makes some of Washington’s highest-rated Cabernets. Tchelistcheff’s advice to Antinori was much the same and resulted in the partnership with Ste Michelle Wine Estates and the Col Solare winery we see today.

The first wines, starting with the 1995 vintage, were made with grapes sourced from several Columbia Valley vineyard sites and produced at a nearby SMWE facility, but eventually the focus on Red Mountain grew stronger and the showcase winery was finished just in time for the 2006 crush. The estate vineyards radiate like the rays of the sun on the hillside below the winery.

The partnership has grown since that first step. SMWE is now the sole importer of Antinori wines into the U.S. market and in 2oo7 the two partnered again to purchase the Judgment of Paris champion Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Quite a successful partnership — you’ve got to believe that Tchelistcheff earned his consulting fee.

Col Solare is interesting to me because of the global-local connection. The wine is Cabernet-based, as Antinori wanted, but with a distinct Red Mountain twist, which means that it includes a little bit of Syrah in addition to the usual Bordeaux suspects since Syrah does so well here.

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Col Solare is an impressive achievement. Everyone we talked with on Red Mountain seemed glad to have them there. SMWE and Antinori are good neighbors, good customers for the local growers and good advocates of Red Mountain and its wines.

Red Mountain isn’t a first class wine tourist destination yet — the infrastructure needs further development and another couple of winery tasting rooms wouldn’t hurt either — but Col Solare is already a destination winery and worth the trip.

The Swedish Solution: Hedges Family Estates

Another destination Red Mountain winery, Hedges Family Estates, shows a different aspect of the local-global connection. Tom Hedges is a local boy, who grew up in the Tri-Cities area before the region became known for wine. He studied international business at the University of Puget Sound and then at the Thunderbird grad school in Arizona. I guess you could say that he got into the wine business through the side door — through the business side. Here’s how the Hedges website explains what happened next. 

In 1986 … Tom and Anne-Marie created an export company called American Wine Trade, Inc., based out of Kirkland, Washington State; they began selling wine to foreign importers. As the company grew, it began to source Washington wines for a larger clientele leading to the establishment of a negociant-inspired wine called Hedges Cellars. This 1987 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot was sold to the Swedish Wine and Spirit Monopoly, Vin & Sprit Centralen, the company’s first major client.

So you could say that Hedges Cellars was created to satisfy a global demand. Soon Hedges was breaking ground on his Red Mountain estate. Today Hedges is the largest family winery in Washington and was instrumental in establishing the Red Mountain AVA.

It really is a family operations. Tom and his French-born wife Anne-Marie are proprietors, brother Pete Hedges makes the wines, Tom and Anne-Marie’s daughter Sarah is assistant winemaker and son Christophe is director of sales and marketing. The wine portfolio ranges from the Hedges Red Mountain estate wine (a Bordeaux blend, but with a bit a Syrah) to the popular CMS blends and the House of Independent Producers wines.

Taken together I think Col Solare and Hedges Family Estates show the local-global nexus at its best, bringing international attention and expertise  to local wines and taking those wines to global markets. We are often told that globalization suffocates local enterprise, but these wineries show that it can, in the right circumstances, breathe life into them.

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I can’t leave Red Mountain without mentioning two other stops we made that day. It was about time for lunch when we finished our visit to Col Solare and that can be a problem since I don’t think there are any restaurants on Red Mountain.  But we had planned ahead for a picnic and so we headed to Fidélitas, where we bought a bottle of Charlie Hoppes’ delicious Semillon and dined out on the patio overlooking the vineyards. Turns out we didn’t need to bring food — Charlie had arranged for a local barbeque food truck to be available for weekend visitors like us — nice touch!

Our next stop was the world’s best vineyard tour. Michael and Lauri Corliss (of Corliss Estates) had arranged for us to meet Mike McClaren and James Bukovinsky, who were working in one of  the Corliss Red Mountain vineyards just up the road from Fidélitas  supervising  the mid-October harvest. We spent the best part of two hours with Mike and James, visiting every nook and cranny of the complicated site, learning about the careful matching of grape variety and terroir and tasting the perfectly ripe fruit. A real taste of Red Mountain.

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Thanks to Bonnie and Richard for their able assistance. Thanks to Wysteria Rush and Marcus Notaro at Col Solare and Tom Hedges and Deborah Culverhouse at Hedges Family Estates. Thanks to Michael and Lauri Corliss and Mike McClaren and James Bukovinsky for their hospitality.

Photos: (1) Col Solare winemaker Marcus Notaro (in his  classic Inter “Roberto Baggio” jersey), (2) the view down Red Mountain from Hedges, and (3) Mike, Tom and Richard in discussion at Hedges. You can see how tiny Red Mountain is on the map below.

Story Hour at the Wine Bloggers’ Conference

We are just back from the 2012 Wine Bloggers’ Conference, which was held this year in Portland, Oregon. It was a big event, with a sell-out 350 registered participants and about 40 more on the wait list hoping to get in. Randall Grahm gave one of the keynote addresses and Rex Pickett (author of Sideways and Vertical) gave the other. I was a moderator in a wine blogging workshop.

It was great to meet so many wine bloggers and to get a personal sense of the vast virtual community of wine enthusiasts who read, write and comment on the web.

Beyond Hegemony?

The conventional wisdom is that the days of traditional media’s hegemony in the world of wine are numbered (if not already passed) and that younger wine enthusiasts will increasingly draw their influences from social media (blogs, Facebook, Twitter and so on) and not Robert Parker or Wine Spectator.  The future of wine media might not be blogging, according to this viewpoint,  but wine blogs are part of the evolutionary process.

No one really knows if this is true or not, of course, and many wine bloggers secretly suspect that their readership is made up mainly of other wine bloggers. But the theory is just plausible enough to make wine blogging and a big conference like this difficult for the wine industry to ignore. So I was interested to see who would show up to try to develop relationships with the wine bloggers and how they’d go about it.

The list of wine industry groups in Portland is quite long. Here, for example, is a list of the official sponsors. And then there were other industry groups, wine producers, public relations firms and individual  Oregon wineries who had hospitality suites or organized pre- or post-conference events.

Grand Sponsors

Premier Sponsors

International Wine Night

Event Sponsors

Partners

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Story Hour: High Oregon Art

Why did all these industry groups converge around the bloggers? Well, people might think that the wine business is about bottles and corks (and it is to be sure), but it is really about relationships and, more than that, it’s about story-telling. The wineries, wine businesses and regional wine groups were in Portland to tell their stories to the story-tellers and then hope that the message would spread. The fact that they would invest not insignificant resources to be at the conference says something about the importance of relationships and narratives in the wine business.

There are lots of ways to tell a story and some were certainly more successful than others. The Oregon wine industry did an excellent job by embedding their wines firmly in the culture of the region, giving the bloggers a sense of the values that the wines are meant to represent.

I’ve inserted above the short video that King Estate produced to be shown at the awards banquet, which they sponsored. It gives a good impression of the Oregon story generally as well as the particular philosophy of the King Estate family. Take this as an example of the high art of wine story telling (even though the wine itself plays only a cameo role in the video).

You can only imagine how effective it was when the video, which introduced the faces, places and values, was followed by the actual food and wine and the real people who made them. It and the other messages that Oregon producers and the Oregon Wine Board scripted cannot but have left a strong impression on the attendees. Bravo.

Rich Narratives: Wine Story Tasting Notes

Winebow, an important wine importer and distributor, also showed great story telling skills. Winebow’s sessions showed off two faces of their import portfolio very effectively.

The first program focused on the wines of Argentina (they import several brands including Bodega Catena Zapata and Bodegas Nieto Senetiner). Each wine was paired with a tasty bite and a story about the wine and food of the region. The variety of Argentinean wine was showcased along with the food and even the culture (we were treated to Tango dancers). The combination encouraged us to slow down and listen, think and talk about the wines and the country. If the story is that yes, Argentina is Malbec and steak (and this is a wonderful combination), but it is also much more, then I think it was told very well indeed.

The second Winebow session was about “Off the Beaten Path” wines and it showed off the depth of Winebow’s portfolio. I think it was my favorite part of the conference. Sheri Sauter Morano MW led us in a tasting of  seven wines that most of us had never tasted before and that many consumers would hesitate to try because of their unfamiliar names or place of origin. As I have written before, wine is ironically one of the least transparent everyday products and the uncertainty about what is in the bottle is a limiting factor in wine sales and wine enjoyment.

Sheri focused on the story-telling aspect. She had us taste the wines “blind” and asked us to think about how we would describe them and tell their stories to readers. What reference points (in terms of more familiar wines or other qualities) could we use and how might we distinguish their signal qualities? The “reveal” provided additional information about each wine and challenged us: How could we tell the wines’ stories in a way that would resonate with readers and allow them to have the same interesting and enjoyable wine experience? I thought this was a brilliant approach and I hope some of the bloggers embrace it to introduce their readers to new wine varieties and regions.

Food Truck Wine?

Wines of Chile is another skilled story-teller. I have worked with them on several projects and have always been impressed with their commitment to developing their brand message and their focus on social media strategies. They invited us to a participate in a pre-conference tasting that was a sort of moveable feast. About 20 of us boarded a double-decker London bus and visited three local venues (including an iconic Portland gourmet food truck cluster) where small plates of food were paired with particular Chilean wines. It was a very effective way to feature the wines and an opportunity  to provide detailed and relevant information.

Taking all of the events together, including pre- and post-conference events and the chaotic “live-blogging” tasting events, I think most  New World and Old World wine regions were represented in one way or another. Who has missing? I’m not sure I saw any wines or literature from either Austria or South Africa but I admit they could have been there and I just missed them. And of course if would be impossible for all the different wine regions of France, Italy  or Spain to be present, but the national industries were well represented by the groups that did attend.

Bloggers need stories to tell and the wine industry needs story-tellers. No wonder everyone got on so well together at this conference.

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Thanks to all the sponsors who made the Wine Bloggers’ Conference possible. For more information I recommend Tom Wark’s  assessment of the conference. I agree with Tom about most things, especially the value of real person-to-person face-time versus Facebook and Twitter.

Wine Tourism á la Français

My colleague Pierre has returned from visiting his parents in Toulouse and he brought with him the May 2012 special wine tourism issue of La Revue du Vin de France,  which features “Les 35 meilleurs circuits du vin.” Since I’m working on the wine tourism chapter of my next book I couldn’t wait to dig in.

So what are the 35 best wine tourism destinations? Well, given the French readership of La Revue it should be no surprise that 29 of them are in France itself. I’m sure that if Wine Spectator were to pick out the best wine touring routes there would be an American bias (out of practical concern if nothing else) although it might not so extreme as this French case.

Tour de France

I sensed a diplomatic hand at work in making the selection as virtually every important wine region in France is singled out in one way or another. I think you could organize a Tour de France-style bicycle race from these wine tourism suggestion (Le Tour typically touches every corner of France). If you did, I suppose you’d want to stock up on Boisset’s Yellow Jersey wine, made in tribute to the great race  — the plastic container fits neatly in your bicycle’s water bottle cage.

Even Paris makes the wine tour list. You might wonder at this because vineyards are not frequently seen on Parisian hillsides, but that’s not why wine tourists go to Paris. It’s the shops and wine bars that are the attraction here. 

So La Revue directs you to visit Galeries Lafayette in the IX arrondissement to see the magnificent collection (“12000 bouteilles en cave”) of Bordeaux wines there.  Other shops are recommended for unrivaled access to wines from Burdundy, Champagne and Languedoc and imported wines, too, from Germany, Hungary and Spain.

Follow the Wine

Although the idea that Paris is a wine tourist destination felt wrong at first, I can see the attraction. Follow the money, Deep Throat said. Follow the wine is good advice, too, and sometimes the best collections of wine are far from the sunny vineyard slopes (but close to where the money resides).

I am particularly interested in La Revue’s selection of wine tourism destinations outside of France. I expected to see Napa Valley on the list; Napa is the second largest tourist destination of any kind in California (after Disneyland) and so certainly the largest wine tourism center in the United States. But it didn’t make the La Revue cut.

Easy to understand, I suppose. When the French visit the United States they may not be thinking of wine. New York, Miami, Los Angeles and maybe Los Vegas — these are the most common European tourist targets I have heard. American wine country is a bit off that map. Or at least it is off La Revue’s map for 2012.

Porto in Portugal did make the list, however, along with Tuscany, Vienna, Geneva, the Rhine Valley and Cape Town, South Africa. Cape Town is a spectacularly good choice for wine tourism, of course, and any list of the top global wine destinations would have to include Tuscany and Germany.

But the competition for the final spots must have been pretty fierce and it would be interesting to know how Vienna and Geneva beat out New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Argentina (not to mention Napa and Sonoma). There are many amazing wine tourist destinations and choosing just six outside of France (or choosing just 29 inside France) is necessarily difficulty and controversial.

Economic Impact

Wine tourism is a big industry here in the U.S. The Wine Institute estimates that 20.7 million tourists visited California wine regions in 2010 and spent $2.1 billion.  An economic impact statement prepared in 2008 by Stonebridge Research for the Napa Valley Vintners association estimated that wine tourism accounted for more than 10,000 jobs in Napa Valley alone (about as many workers as in all the wineries and vineyards combined) with total payroll of more than $250 million.

The direct wine tourism impact on the county was estimated at more than $700 million for 2008. The economic impact is spread over hundreds of small businesses — wineries, of course, wine tour companies, hotels, restaurants, wine and food shops and so forth.

Although it doesn’t make the French magazine’s list, Napa Valley is the industry leader in many ways. Surely many wine tourism programs around the world have been inspired by Robert Mondavi’s example, which from the start aimed to create an experience, not just a wine tasting or buying opportunity. It’s all about story-telling. Wineries use tourism as an opportunity to tell their stories, which visitors weave into their lifestyle narrative.

The Accidental Wine Tourist

The 2006 Oxford Companion to Wine’s “wine tourism” entry suggests that Old World wine tourism development has been quite uneven. Wine tourists were long welcomed and accommodated in Germany’s Rhine and Mosel River Valleys, for example. But in France …

In France, wine tourism was often accidental. Northern Europeans heading for the sun for decades travelled straight through burgundy and the northern Rhône and could hardly fail to notice vineyards and the odd invitation ‘Dégustation–Vente’ (tasting–sale). (And it is true that a tasting almost invariably leads to a sale.) Wine producers in the Loire have long profited from their location in the midst of châteaux country, and within an easy Friday night’s drive of Paris.

Bordeaux was one of the last important French wine regions to realize its potential for wine tourism. The village of St-Emilion has had scores of wine shops and restaurants for decades but it was not until the late 1980s that the Médoc, the most famous cluster of wine properties in the world, had a hotel and more than one restaurant suitable for international visitors. Alexis Lichine was mocked for being virtually the only classed growth proprietor openly to welcome visitors.

Now, as this issue of La Revue indicates, the French are catching up!

There Must Be 50 Ways

So what is my bottom line? Wine is good, I tell my friends, but wine and a story is better. Wine tourism is about finding that story and making it first-person. There must be fifty ways to do this (La Revue gives us at least 35) and while visiting vineyards and wineries is the most obvious form of wine tourism I guess it isn’t the whole story.

Soaking & Poking: Italian Wine Tourism Fieldnotes

Wine tourism is a big business and an interesting one, too, because there are so many variations. Sometimes it seems like the choice of wine touring experiences is almost as big as the choice of wines themselves. Here are fieldnotes from two wine tourist venues in Northern Italy that illustrate different approaches.

Soaking and Poking in the Asti Hills

When we visit wine country I like to stay with winemaking families when I can rather than in upscale commercial establishments. I find that I can learn so much more about the local wine industry talking informally with the people who farm the grapes and make the wine.

This approach corresponds to the social science research method of  “soaking and poking.” You immerse yourself in a topic (or wine region), soaking up as much detail you can,  and poke around, asking a lot of questions. Pretty soon the really important questions start to reveal themselves and that’s when the magic happens.

There are many vineyard agriturismo options in Piedmont and we decided to stay at Il Milin, a farm house agriturismo just seven minutes drive from Asti but a world away from the bustle of the city.

Il Milin sits on the Rovero family farm, which includes 20 hectares of vines, 5 hectares of orchards and vegetables, a winery, a distillery, a restaurant and even the little chapel shown here. Il Milin sits halfway up the hillside, looking across the valley and up to scenic San Marzanotto. There are comfortable double rooms and two small apartments, good food and of course the friendly people who always are the key to success. Michela Rovero was our genial and helpful hostess who looked after us when she wasn’t herding her lively three-year-old triplets; her husband Enrico is the winemaker for this multi-generational family business.

Rovero produces about 100,000 bottles of wine each year from estate-grown grapes. Italy is the principal market, but Germany and Switzerland are important, too. The quality of the wines is recognized in Italy — Rovero is typically awarded “two glasses” out of three in the Gamberro Rosso guide, which is a very good grade indeed. I don’t think they are distributed here in the United States. The distillery is very active, producing an extensive range of grappa and brandy.

One highlight of our stay was a meal at the family restaurant, which is generally open only on weekends. Enrico’s mother prepared a menu of regional dishes that Enrico paired with Rovero family wines. It was the perfect way to learn about the wines — tasting them with the local Monferrato cuisine while talking with the winemaker about wine, wine markets and his plans for the future.  So you want to know what we ate, of course. OK, here’s the menu.

  • Two types of typical Piemontese salami crudo
  • Small puffed pastries stuffed with local cheese
  • Fried zucchini flowers
  • Soft herbed cheese
  • Salad of shredded chicken and radicchio in balsamic dressing
  • Zucchini and basil flan in an intensely rich Parmesan cream
  • Torta di fagiolini (green beans)
  • Tagliolini (thin, flat pasta) with peas and zucchini
  • Veal and roasted potatoes in a Barbera sauce
  • Panna cotta, bonet (chocolate panna cotta), and hazelnut cake

And the wines that complemented the meal:

  • Rovero Baptista (Riesling Italico)
  • Rovero Villa Drago (Sauvignon Blanc)
  • Rovero “La Casalina” (Grignolino D’Asti)
  • Rovero Spanase’ (Barbera D’Asti)
  • Rovero Nebbiaia (Nebbiolo Monferrato)
  • Rovero “Gustin” (Barbera D’Asti Superiore)
  • Rovero Rouve (Barbera D’Asti Superiore aged in French oak)
  • Rovero Brachetto (frizzante red dessert wine)
  • Rovero Calasaya (fortified Barbera D’Asti)
  • Rovero Ampolo Reserva 1998 (grappa made from Barbera)
  • Rovero Brandy (aged in barrel for 10 years)

I enjoyed the fact that the Rovero wines are the wines that people make to drink in Piedmont and not just the wines they make to sell abroad. It was especially interesting to taste the five variations on the Barbera theme that you will find on this wine list. Barbera is an amazingly versatile canvas for a creative winemaker like Enrico Rovero to work with.

Il Milin was low key and intimate, the perfect wine tourism experience for the enthusiast who wants to become immersed in a local culture, with opportunity to digest the day’s wine activities and reflect upon how past and present connect. It represents my favorite model of wine tourism. But there are alternatives.

Valle Isarco Highlights

Room with a View

We only had one day for our visit to Valle Isarco in Alto Adige, so the Asti methodology of “soaking and poking” wasn’t really feasible. We went for “highlights,” which is a good strategy when time is limited. I guess we took this to an extreme this time, staying at Ansitz zum Steinbock, an historic hotel and restaurant perched high above the valley in the village of Villandro, a short but steep and winding drive from Chiusa, where we were visiting the local wine cooperative (another highlight).

Elisabeth was our hostess and guide (her family owns the inn). She told us that many guests return year after year, staying for a week enjoying the comfortable facilities, the beautiful Tyrolean scenery and the food and wine. It was easy to see why.

Because the hotel had just opened for the season, the restaurant’s selections were limited. The full menu wasn’t available, only a set meal for guests. As you can see below, we did not suffer. (Much gasping was heard as each course was presented and consumed; the high elevation had nothing to do with it).

  • A melon foam (spremuta) with culatello (local prosciutto)
  • Lasagnette with fresh vegetables and pesto
  • Roast lamb, green beans with speck, celeriac puree, and bok choy
  • Millefoglie with raspberries and blueberries, yogurt cream, and house-made apple sorbet
  • A selection of local cheeses with dark honey and very intense mustard jam

Elisabeth knew that I was especially interested in Kerner, the region’s “invisible wine,” so she brought out a fantastic bottle of Abbazia de Novacella Kerner Praepositus 2010, one of the best white wines in Italy according to the Gambero Rosso guide. Walking the village, talking with people and enjoying the food and wine turned out to be good preparation for our meeting the next day with Peter Baumgartner, the President of the Valle Isarco cooperative (who happens to live in Villandro).

I must say I enjoyed this experience quite a lot, but in a different way from our Asti immersion therapy. Not everyone has the luxury of time that we had with the Rovero family. Going for the highlights isn’t the same as soaking it all in, but it is a way of learning. Perhaps one reason wine tourism is so popular is that there are so many ways to approach it.

I’m going to keep working at this wine tourism thing until I figure out the perfect way to do it.  Yes, I know. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.

For a more comprehensive comparison of wine tourism strategies, see George M. Taber’s 2009 book, In Search of Bacchus: Wanderings in the Wonderful World of Wine Tourism.

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Full disclosure: we were not “comped” our stays in Italy nor was I paid to write about these experiences.

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.

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