Pocos, Locos, y Mal Unidos: The Paradox of Sardinian Wine

cervoPocos, locos y mal unidos. This description of Sardinia and its people (often wrongly attributed to Charles V) is a useful way to think about Sardinia’s wine sector and the headwinds it faces today.

Sardinian wine is a relatively small (pocos) player in Italian wine with perhaps 20,000 hectares of vines out of Italy’s vast 750,000 hectare total. The winemakers are crazy (locos), but that’s a given and not meant as an insult. I think we all agree that you’ve got to be at least a little crazy to try to make a living growing grapes or  making wine.

Small (and Crazy) can be Beautiful

Being small and a little crazy is not an insurmountable disadvantage in global wine. In fact, it can be a good place to begin. Take New Zealand as an example.

New Zealand’s wine sector is big in terms of its global reach and reputation, but pocos in other ways. There are more than 35,000 hectares of vines today (data from the Oxford Companion to Wine), but that’s after a couple of decades of rapid growth. Flash back twenty years and Sardinia had more grape vines than New Zealand and produced more wine.

I think the first Kiwi producers to take their wines to international markets (people like Ernie Hunter, who I wrote about in Wine Wars) must have been more than a little nuts to think that wine from a tiny faraway island could ever make an impact. But they brought their distinctive wines first to the UK and then the world and they found a ready audience. Now New Zealand is a wine export machine with market growth every year at premium price points. Being small and crazy worked for the Kiwis.

Is Sardinian Vermentino the next Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Well, as I suggested last week, the wines are excellent and distinctive, too. They deserve to be better known than they are. The next New Zealand? No, that’s too big an ask if only because times have changed and that gap in the market has been filled. But there is certainly potential for Sardinia to grow.

surrauVigne Surrau Case Study

Sue and I learned first hand about Sardinia’s potential when we visited Vigne Surrau, an ambitious 400,000 bottle producer located just outside of Porto Cervo in northeast Sardinia.

Surrau’s first vintage was 2004-2005 and it has been part of the recent move from quantity to quality in Sardinian wine. Growth has been so fast they they are now operating in their second-generation winery and tasting facility with room to grow to perhaps 700,000 bottles in the future. Sardinia itself (60%) and the rest of Italy (20%) are the biggest markets, with 20% exported. Demand is strong and export sales are carefully allocated so that the home market can be accommodated.

Wine tourism is a significant focus at Surrau with about 12,000 visitors per year. The beautiful tasting area, which looks out over the vineyards and the mountains beyond, has room for seated tastings, with food pairing if you wish, as well space for local food and crafts and an art gallery. A small conference center provides space for corporate events. Very well designed. Nothing remotely locos about it.

Vermentino di Gallura DOCG, elegant and complex, accounts for 65% of production. Red wines, especially Cannonou but also some Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, fill out the line.  Tasting the Branu (Vertmetino di Gallura DOCG), Sciala (Vermentino di Gallura DOCG Superiore from a different terroir than Branu) and Sciala VT (late harvest, but not a sweet wine with only 4 grams per liter of residual sugar) was a delightful introduction to the potential of Vermentino in this part of Sardinia.

Surrau highlighted the positive qualities we found in many of the best wines we tasted in Sardinia. Focus and commitment to quality on the business side. Balance, finesse, and distinction in the glass. They may be small and crazy, but there is great potential here. What could hold them back?

The Mal Unidos Syndrome

That’s where Mal Unidos comes in.  Almost everyone we talked with bemoaned the lack of unity and teamwork in Sardinia. Sue and I were skeptical. Disfunctional wine sectors are not that unusual. We see them all the time in our wine  travels.

No, you don’t understand, people told us. It is much worse here. It’s not just wine. It’s everything. Factions. Dialects. Everything. We have met the enemy and it is us. It is a real problem.  Regional consortio organizations are weak, they say, which is unfortunate since they are one way that reputation is built and sustained, and cooperation of all sorts is limited.

Small and crazy — that’s not necessarily a problem in wine. But discord and fragmentation can be barrier to greater success. Sardinia might not be able to match New Zealand’s tremendous growth, but it has unrealized potential that it would be great to see unlocked.

The new world of quality Sardinian wine has yet to be discovered in many markets. I hope the people who complained to us about the lack of cooperation are either exaggerating the situation or will find a way to work together to solve this problem and raise both regional reputation and the quality standard even higher.

In the meantime, put Sardinia and its wines on your personal radar. You would be locos to pass them by.

First Impressions of Sardinian Wine

porscheSue and I travelled to Sardinia at the invitation of Alessandro Torcoli, editor of the quarterly journal Civilta del Bere (where Wine Economist columns, translated into Italian, sometimes appear). Alessandro organized a series of trade and press workshops and a wine competition to accompany the Porto Cervo Wine & Food Festival this year.

We were delighted to attend to speak about global trends and opportunities, help with the judging,  and to learn more about Sardinia and its wine sector.

Porto Cervo, on the beautiful Costa Smeralda in the northeast of the island, is more luxury resort than sleepy village, so there was a lot going on besides the wine, including an international press launch event for the new Porsche 911 Speedster sports car. I’ll bet the corkscrew island roads made for exciting driving. I admit that I was distracted a bit by that blue Porsche pictured here.

We only visited this one corner of Sardinia over just a few days, so a comprehensive report is impossible. But we met many winemakers and tasted their wines both at the festival and the dinners, so we have some strong first impressions to share. Here they are.

Sardinia at a Crossroads

The idea of a crossroads applies to Sardinia in several ways. As the second largest island in the Mediterranean (after Sicily) it has been an important economic and political crossroads for centuries and the local culture and even the cuisine reflect this fact.

torbatoSardinian wine features a treasure house of native grapes plus many international varieties that have been grown here so long that they are firmly part of the tradition. Sue and I enjoyed tasting wines that we will probably never find outside of Sardinia, such as the Torbato from Sella & Mosca. The origins of Tobato are controversial, with some arguing that it was introduced from Spain in the 14th or 15th century and others insisting just the opposite. It’s that crossroad thing.

The most important red varietal is Cannonau, which you probably know as Garnacha. Sardinians claim ownership of this varietal and we tasted many fine examples. I am not going to wade into the debate as to whether it is native or introduced by the Spanish, but I will say that it is a shame that people don’t take more of an interest in these wines.

Garnacha and Grenache are having a well-deserved moment and Cannonau should share the love. But, one winemaker said with a deep sigh, Cannonau isn’t generally included when Garnacha and Grenache wines are put in the spotlight. That needs to change.

Very Vermentino (and a Surprise)

Vermentino, the most important white grape variety, makes a lovely wine in Sardinia and I think this might be the island’s best opportunity for attention on international markets. Vermentino di Sardegna is pretty much consistently tangy and delicious, with some outstanding examples such as the wines from Pala. Sauvignon Blanc drinkers should give Sardinian Vermentino a try — I think they will be surprised and delighted.

jankaraVermintino di Gallura DOCG, from the northern region near our location in Porto Cervo, takes the quality up a notch, adding complexity driven by terroir. We tasted wines from sandy zones near the beach and rocky soils at higher altitude. We even tasted a vertical that showed the influence of different vintages and an ability to age.

Such an interesting wine with so much to offer! Favorites included Surrau, Siddura, and Jankara. Worth searching out.

Every wine region holds a surprise and for me Sardinia’s surprise wine is its Carignano di Sulcis DOC — Carignan grapes grown on sandy soils on the island’s south-west coast. The best of these wines are simply fantastic, with impressive body, balance, and flavor.

We tasted outstanding Carignano di Sulcis wines from several makers including Cantina Santadi, Cantina Mesa, and Cantina Giba.  The Sulcis region is high on my list of places to visit if/when we return to Sardinia.

Another Crossroads

Sardinia is at a crossroads in another way.  It has long produced wines for export and been whip-lashed by shifting market conditions much like its sister island Sicily (with which is it often confused by the geographically challenged). (See The World of Sicilian Wine by Bill Nesto MW and Frances Di Savio for a comprehensive analysis of Sicilian wine market twists and turns.)

Twenty years ago Sardinia was more or less defined by the commercial quality bulk wine production of large cooperatives. As demand has shifted and new competitors appeared, the market for these wines has suffered. Sardinian wine grape acreage has fallen dramatically and the momentum has shifted from quantity to quality.  That’s a difficult transition to make, especially since reputation generally lags the reality.

As you can tell from this quick report, we were looking for quality in Sardinia, which is the key to success today, and we found plenty of it. But there is still a lot of work to be done before Sardinia can confidently put this crossroads behind it and move forward into the future.

Come back next week for a case study of success and analysis of headwinds.

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Thanks to Alessandro for inviting us to Porto Cervo and to everyone we met there for their help and hospitality. Special thanks to the staff at Cervo Hotel for making our stay so enjoyable. Now if only I had found a way to disguise myself as an auto journalist to get a shot at driving the new Speedster!

The Future of Italian Wine is in Good Hands

awardDeborah Gelisi wiped the tears from her face, took a deep breath, and continued with her presentation on the importance of sustainability for Italian wine producers. It wasn’t an easy thing to do.

Deborah’s audience was in tears, too. Her classmates and teachers at the Scuola Enologica di Conegliano.  Her winegrower parents.  Even her 12-year old brother, the fearless goalkeeper of his youth soccer team. Over at the head table the city’s  mayor was misty, the school’s director was teary, Rai Uno journalist Camilla Nata was a little choked up, and I was a pretty emotional myself. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Stories about rooms full tearful people don’t usually feature on The Wine Economist, so you probably have some questions about what was going on and how this relates to this column’s optimistic title. I’ll try to answer the questions one by one.

Who is Deborah Gelisi?

Deborah Gelisi is an 18 year old student at the Conegliano Wine School, which is Italy’s oldest enology and viticulture school and, according to our friend Paul Wagner, probably the largest wine school in the world. Founded by Antonio Carpenè in 1876, it provides education and training for young students who have chosen to work in the wine industry. The school has a long list of distinguished alumni including notable Romeo Bragato, who was instrumental in the development of wine industries in Australia and New Zealand in the 19th Century.

Deborah comes from a wine-growing family. She gets up early each day to work at Podere Gelisi Antonio, then takes the train from Pordenone to Conegliano for classes, reversing the commute in the afternoon for more work and, of course, study. I don’t know when she sleeps.

Why Was Everyone Crying? Bad news?

Deborah was being honored as the first recipient of the “Etilia Carpenè Larivera International Scholarship,“ which will provide her  with the opportunity to expand and deepen her wine knowledge through international travel  and study and jump-start her career in wine.efx-s

The scholarship was inaugurated this year to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of Carpenè Malvolti, one of Italy’s most distinguished wine producers. Its founder, Antonio Carpenè was the inventor of the process of secondary fermentation in autoclaves that gives us Prosecco.

Carpenè Malvolti honors its past in many ways, which you will discover if you spend some time at the new visitor center in Conegliano, but as a family wine business it is all about building for future generations. That’s why the photo above shows Deborah with Rosann Carpenè Larivera, the fifth generation of the famous family, along with her daughter Etilla, the rising sixth generation, for whom the scholarship is named.

What’s the Significance of the Award?

It is good to honor students and to provide valuable educational opportunities, of course, but it is important to see this award in broader context. Deborah’s award was part of a project called Generazione DOCG, which aims to invest in the future of the region through its  young people. Everyone was crying (and then celebrating) because this isn’t an ending but a beginning, both for Deborah and for the region.

The next generation of Italian wine producers will face many challenges, as we discussed at the VinoVIP meetings in Forte dei Marmi in June. The industry is fragmented, lacking the strong brands that could build help open markets and build margins. It won’t be easy to make progress given intense competition everywhere.

But there is real hope. Rising wine professionals like Deborah Gelisi and her student colleagues can make a difference in the vineyards, cellars, and markets. If Deborah is an indication, they have the knowledge, drive, determination, and entrepreneurial spirit that will be  needed.

And they have the backing of their families, communities, and forward-looking wine firms such as Carpenè Malvolti. With this team supporting and encouraging them, it is easy to see that the future of Italian wine is in good hands.

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Congratulations to Deborah Gelisi. Special thanks to Carpenè Malvolti for inviting me to speak at this awards ceremony. It was an honor and a pleasure.

 

Is the Prosecco Boom Sustainable?

Is the Prosecco boom sustainable? Or is it a bubble that’s eventually going to pop? That’s roughly the question that an Italian journalist asked me a few weeks ago and it is easy to appreciate the concern behind it. The market for Prosecco has blossomed, especially in the U.K., U.S., and Germany, the three largest export markets, and Prosecco producers are both excited and anxious about their future prospects.

U.S. Sparkling Wine Imports January-June 2018

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A quick glance at data for U.S. sparkling wine imports January-June 2018 as reported by Wine-By-Numbers (see above) shows strong growth. Italian sparking wine (mainly Prosecco) imports grew 16% by volume and 28.3% by value in the first six months of the year despite rising average dollar import price. Only the Rosé import category is growing faster than Prosecco.

Beyond Bubbles for Birthdays

I am a wine-glass half-full kind of person, so my answer to the journalist’s query was optimistic. The question isn’t so much why U.S. and U.K. consumers are drinking more sparkling wine (and especially Prosecco) now — it is why they didn’t embrace bubbles more ardently in the past? Sparkling wine has always been an attractive option, but for some reason it became associated with special occasions. Bubbles aren’t just for birthdays and New Year any more.

But booms often contain the seeds of their own demise — either in the form of bust, fizzle, plateau, or something else. Prosecco may be no different. Having just returned from a quick visit to Prosecco-ville to speak at an award ceremony in Conegliano (see next week’s column), I can report that there is concern about this possibility within the industry.

Most of the Prosecco on the market is DOC Prosecco produced by makers that range from the very large such as La Marca, which is distributed by Gallo, to the relatively small. There are economies of scale in Prosecco-making, so bigger can be better from a profit standpoint. La Marca, for example is a second level cooperative — a cooperative of cooperatives — and its many members keep its pressurized tanks, used for the secondary fermentation, efficiently supplied with a river of base wine.

Pretty in Pink?

When quantity is the driving force, the focus can easily become one of chasing the market to increase sales, raise production, increase scale economies, and lower cost. Thus there is an incentive to look for incremental sales wherever they can be found.

This might be part of the movement to certify DOC Prosecco Rosé.  Bubbles are hot. Pink  wine is hotter. Pink bubbles should set the market on fire. The Glera grape that is used to make Prosecco is white, not red, but production rules allow the use of up to 15% of other approved grape varieties. If  those grapes are Pinot Noir, which is grown in this region,  the result is a pink sparkling wine. Pink Prosecco isn’t a thing yet, since the rules don’t allow this designation, but it might be permitted very soon.

Pink Prosecco — who could object? Well, many people, actually. The concern is that Prosecco’s identity is not well established — many consumers think Prosecco is the grape name and others are not certain exactly sure where it comes from. Prosecco’s success may come in part from the fact that consumers don’t fret about these things and simply enjoy the experience.

No One Laughed

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But some producers worry that by broadening the Prosecco category with a pink wine, winemakers will further dilute the brand identity to the point where it is just a generic sparkling wine, one of the ingredients in Aperol spritz, unable to command a price premium. The slope that runs down the commodity wine hill can be slippery.

At one point during our visit I joked that, since blue wines are getting some attention these days, maybe some Prosecco producers would move in that direction. Pink, Blue, White — all colors of Prosecco for all occasions. No one laughed. I guess blue Prosecco is nothing to joke about. It’s part of that slippery slope.

The concern that Prosecco’s brand may be undermined seemed particular strong in the Prosecco Superiore DOCG zone between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. Supply is more limited in the DOCG zone and costs are higher because, unlike the valley vineyards where much DOC Prosecco is grown,  the hillside terraces aren’t all suitable for mechanical harvesting or as easy to maintain generally.

What a Mouthful!

Prosecco Superiore is therefore about value more than volume and maintaining product differentiation — of Prosecco versus generic sparkling wine and of DOCG Prosecco versus DOC production — is very important.  Wine marketing guru Paul Wagner, who led our small press tour, never got tired of pointing out what a challenge the DOCG producers set by branding themselves as Prosecco Superiore Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG . What a mouthful!

Prosecco Superiore suggests a premium product and is probably the right brand to try to build, although Americans have little experience with the Superiore designation for wines generally. The Conegliano-Valdobbiadene reference is meant to indicate that these are wines of origin — grown in a particular place, but most consumers don’t know what that place is or exactly how to pronounce the place names either.

Glass by Glass by Glass

I have done Prosecco tastings for non-profit groups and I note that consumers are often surprised when they taste the DOCG product, especially DOCG Brut. They like Prosecco a lot, but think of it generically as defined by DOC Extra Dry wines. They are surprised when they can taste a difference. (I’ve had the same reaction in tastings of Argentina Malbecs from different production zones).

Based on my very limited personal experience, it seems to me the key to differentiating Prosecco from other sparkling wines and DOCG Prosecco from the DOC wines is going to involve a lot of hard work. Consumers won’t understand the differences if you just tell them. You can’t tell people how something tastes. You have to show them, and let them experience it for themselves one glass at a time.

Is the Prosecco boom sustainable? Yes, I think it is, but it will take work to shore up its foundation and simply chasing market share, as tempting as that it, may not be the best long-term strategy.

The IKEA of Italian Food & Wine? Welcome to FICO Eataly World

eataly1If you have ever visited an IKEA store I’m sure you have vivid memories of the experience. The stores are huge (30,000 square meters on average, I’m told, although there’s one in South Korea  that’s almost twice that size).

Each store is organized around a journey that customers take from room to room, space to space, category to category, pausing only at the restaurant for Swedish meatballs before passing through the check stands, their bags and carts filled with Scandinavian-inspired home goods.

IKEA of Food and Wine?

FICO Eataly World, located just outside of Bologna, Italy, reminds be a bit of IKEA, especially because of the journey its visitors take. But there are many differences, too. Eataly World is much larger than an IKEA store. At 100,000 square meters (over 1 million square feet!), it is more than three times the size of your typical IKEA and almost twice as large as that Korean super-IKEA. Food (and wine) are at the center of the experience. And Italy, not Sweden, is the guiding star.

Sue and I visited  FICO Eataly World during a recent stop in Bologna, where we lived for a semester some 20  years ago when I taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Center there. We’ve visited other Eataly locations in the past — New York City, Milan, and the much smaller Eataly Bologna located in the historic center’s famous market, just steps from our old apartment on Via Pescherie Vecchie. But this one was different in more ways than scale.

FICO (Fabbrica Italiana Cantadina) Eataly World is located outside the city core, close to the convention centers that draw thousands of visitors to Bologna each year. Lots of free parking and regular bus service from the train station makes it easy to access. But the location on the outskirts changes things a bit — Eataly World is a stand alone culinary theme park destination where the other Eatalys we’ve visited have been more integrated into their neighborhoods.

The Eataly stores in New York and Milan bring a whole Italian market, with shops, restaurants, and vendors of fish, cheese, salumi, fruits and vegetables and so forth, all under one roof with all the hustle and bustle you would expect. The central Bologna Eataly is a little different — the bookshop is the main feature that I remember — but that’s because it is embedded in a historic bustling market just off Piazza Maggiore and does not need to recreate one. The food court, located across the alley from the main store, is a fine addition since our last visit.

Eataly World’s vast scale suggests a grander vision. There are dozens of shops and stalls featuring distinctive foods from all over Italy, and 45 “eating points” — kiosks, cafes, restaurants — serving regional cuisine. There are 20 acres of small demonstration farms and vineyards, so you can meet the pigs and squeeze the grapes, and some of the final products are actually produced on site. We ran into a group of small children who watched in fascinating through a glass wall as a robotic baker made batch after batch of tasty cookies.

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You can make of Eataly World what you like — a place to shop or hang out, a place to eat and drink, or even an opportunity to exercise (you can rent bikes to shorten your journey time inside the big building). But education is an important function, too, both the organized classes that are always on offer and the one-to-one conversations with staff at each stand.

What About the Wine?

One of our goals in visiting FICO Eataly World was to see how they dealt with Italian wine. This is a big task as Italy is home to hundreds of grape varieties and thousands of wineries. I nearly went crazy trying to narrow the wine list down to a few important wines in my book Around the World in Eighty Wines. It would take an IKEA-sized facility to do real justice to the diversity of the wines of Italy — and that is more space than even Eataly World has to spare.

That said, the wine program we found was very good. There were 2000 wines for sale, organized by Italian region as they should be, ranging from modest to noble. More to the point, there were 100 different wines available by the glass or in flights.

A knowledgeable young staff member ascertained our interest in learning about Lambrusco and arranged a small tasting of two completely different ideas of the wine, both quite dry but one dark and powerful and the other lighter and fruity (see photo below). It was a good experience and a good way to learn about the wines and have fun, too.

Wine calls for food and there was a nice Bolognese restaurant attached to the wine shop — one food/wine option among many at Eataly World. We had lunch at a foccacia shop (we saw the foccacia being made in front of us). I had a sandwich with Mortadella and a glass of that dark Lambrusco — great combination.

So What?

So what should we think of FICO Eataly World and its ambitious wine program? Well, what do you think of IKEA? Personally, I find it kind of bewildering with the crowds, noise, and its cornicopia of products, most of which are irrelevant to my life. But I like to go there — yes, for the meatballs — because it isa place where I can get ideas and stumble upon things that I didn’t know I would like. It surprises and delights more than it confuses, I guess.

I kind of like FICO Eataly World in the same way I kind of like IKEA. Based on our single visit, it seems full of stuff that overwhelms but gives me ideas and a chance to stumble on something I wasn’t looking for (the Sicilian shop and its great cannoli and espresso).

But there is a big difference between IKEA and FICO Eataly World. Ultimately IKEA succeeds when it allows its visitors to find their own voice, in a way, through the designs that they choose and the products that they bring into their homes. That’s a big challenge and it says something about IKEA that it is so successful.

But Eataly World sets even a bigger challenge. It wants to tell the story of Italian food and wine and that topic is so vast and complex that it makes IKEA seem simple by comparison. I am not convinced that Eataly World really does justice to its mission, but how could it? It was fun to visit and see which elements of Italian food and wine culture stood out and which ones did not.

Sue’s take on Eataly World was quite positive. It was like a giant first-class IKEA food court where you wanted to try everything even though that would be impossible to do. She especially appreciated the educational components and loved the family-friendly animal exhibits. She thought that, taken on its own terms in both the food and wine components, Eataly World represents Italy very well.

Will we go back to Eataly World on our next visit to Bologna? I dunno. We were there on a quiet Friday morning. I’d like to visit the place when it is busier just to see if it feels like the Bologna market when it is crowded, which is pretty much all the time. But that Bologna market neighborhood is fantastic — Italy World — and I’m not sure Eataly World can compete with it!

If I had to choose between Eataly World markets and the real markets in the centro storico of Bologna, there is no question where I would go. I’d be having a glass of Pignoletto frizzante wine and a plate of Mortadella at Simoni’s  Laboratorio on Via Pescherie Vecchie every time rather than taking the red bus out to the fiera district.

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Here is Sue’s photo of two very different ideas of Lambrusco. Enjoy!

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Wine Economist World Tour Update: Italy, Napa, Moldova, Romania

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The Wine Economist returns to the road in a few weeks. Here are some of the stops we plan during the summer months.

June 2018

  • I’ll be speaking about “Around the World in Eighty Wines” and leading a wine tasting as part of the University of Puget Sound’s Summer Reunion Weekend Alumni College. June 8-9, 2018. The good folks at Carpenè Malvolti, the famous Conegliano Prosecco house, have kindly donated some of their fine wine for a tasting. Lucky alumni students!

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  • Sue and I will be in Forte dei Marmi, Italy on June 18 for VinoVIP. I will talk about money and wine in the global market context. I am very excited to join a group of Italian wine luminaries on the program and to meet everyone at this great event at the famous Italian seaside resort. We will stop briefly in Bologna on our way to VinoVIP to see old friends (I taught at the Johns Hopkins/SAIS Center in Bologna many years ago) and to visit Eataly World.

Here is the VinoVIP program:

Money & Wine: A Global Perspective (Mike Veseth),

“Italian challenges” (Angelo Gaja),

“how to manage a wine company: the basics” (Ettore Nicoletto, CEO Gruppo Santa Margherita),

“routes of wine – main markets: what are they buying?” (Denis Pantini from Nomisma wine research unit),

“SWOT of Italian wine industry” (Piero Mastroberardino).  Quite an all-star lineup!

July 2018

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  • I’m happy to speak at a private program featuring “Around the World in Eighty Wines” to support the  Northwest Sinfonietta music organization on July 29.

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  • Sue and I are tentatively planning to participate in the 3rd global wine tourism conference sponsored by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) The conference will be held on September 6-7 in Chisinau, Moldova.

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Flashback Friday: Can Wine Tourism Take Center Stage in Valpolicella?

Sue and I have wine tourism on our minds these days because we are getting ready for the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s global wine tourism conference in Mendoza, Argentina later this month.

We were in the Veneto at this time three years ago and wine tourism was on our minds there, too. Here is a Flashback Friday column from 2014 about wine tourism in Valpolicella.

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Valpolicella is well known for its great wines — Valpolicella Classico, Valpolicella Superiore, Ripasso della Valpolicella and of course Amarone. (It should also be known for its sweet wine, Recioto della Valpolicella, but that’s another story.)

But what about wine tourism? Sue and I were guests of the Valpolicella Consorzio earlier this month and one of our tasks was get a sense of Valpolicella as a wine tourist destination using a new wine tourism app (available as free download for Android and Apple mobile devices).  Here is a brief report.

There’s an App for That!

Whenever I asked the winemakers we met if wine tourism was an important part of their business the answer was “yes!” but I think it is fair to say that for many of the actual tourists wine is at best a secondary reason for their visit.

The fact is that most tourists come to this part of Italy for non-wine reasons — for the history, culture and opera of Verona to the east, for example, or the resorts of Lake Garda to the west. Lying between these two attractive poles, Valpolicella is the perfect “day out” diversion (especially if it is a rainy day as has too often been the case in 2014) but not always the primary destination.

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Come for Opera, Stay for Wine

Come for the beach or opera, stay for the wine! That could be Valpolicella’s wine tourism motto, but it would be selling the region short. What do dedicated wine tourists look for? Well, these days they want the complete experience — the wine and wineries, of course, plus beautiful scenery, great food, comfortable lodgings and that something extra to tell their friends back home about. Valpolicella would seem to tick each of these boxes.

The vineyard scenery is certainly spectacular — I really wasn’t prepared for the beautiful vistas.  What a stunning setting! A great opportunity for fit cyclists with a nose for good wine or anyone willing to pull off the road and take in the panorama.

The wineries we visited using the Consorzio’s app showed the great variety of experiences available, which ranged from the super-modern architecture at Monteci to the classic and traditional at Valentina Cubi (one of our favorite stops).  The sense of history was particularly strong at Santa Sofia, which is located in a villa designed by Andrea Palladio in the 16th century.  You cannot dig much deeper into the soul of the Venteo than that!

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Zymé, Celestino Gaspari’s  ambitious winery in Pietro in Carlano  deftly balanced the very old and the very new. The winery building features cutting edge architecture — see the photo taken looking out from the structure towards the nearby hillside vineyards. Wow!

The Zymé  cellar and caves are carved into the hillside and touring them gives a sense of both history and nature. One of the best surprises was in the cavern than has become the working part of the winery. A spring that was discovered during construction was incorporated into the design and you can actually look down dozens of feet into the crevasse that the water has carved out over the years. A stunning sensory experience (and great for the humidity needed for barrel storage).

Beyond the Wine

Wine tourists need a place to stay and there seem to be many attractive options (this part of the Consorzio  app is still under development). Although we stayed in a basic business hotel on this trip, we encountered a number of options, including very appealing apartments at Valentina Cubi.

If you want luxury, well there seem to be a number of five star experiences available. SalvaTerra’s beautiful estate includes vineyards, the winery, a small hotel and what must be a fine restaurant (judging from the number of chefs we saw working the kitchen as we passed by).

We have no doubt about the food at Villa Cordevigo  since we were fortunate to have dinner at this estate that includes the Villabella winery, its vineyards, a fantastic hotel and spa and the sorts of amenities that make you want to linger forever. Or at least that’s how it seemed to us as we looked out over a garden to the pool and the vineyards jvust beyond with a full moon in the distance.

It’s the Food, Dummy

People talk about coming to Italy for the art and architecture, but let me tell you the truth. It’s the food! And we were fortunate to sample many typical dishes of the regional cuisine and they are worth the effort to seek out. Typical is an interesting word in this context — you see it everywhere in Italy and that’s a good thing. Here in the U.S. “typical” is sometimes a term of derision — Big Macs are “typical” fast food, for example. Ordinary. Unexceptional. Nothing to write home about. That’s typical for us.

In Italy, however, typical means “true to type” or authentic. And that’s why we Americans go gaga over Italian food — the authenticity just blows us away. And the authentic or typical dishes of Valpolicella, many prepared with the wines themselves, are enough to make any foodie go gaga. We enjoyed great meals at the Villa Cordevigo,  Ristorante La Divina  (overlooking Garda from high on a hill), Locanda 800 and the Enoteca Della Valpolicella.

We also appreciated the lunches that several wineries put together for us including a wonderful (typical!) meal of local meats and cheeses with polenta  at Scriani, a satisfying buffet at Santa Sofia and a rather elaborate multi-course feast of typical dishes at the Cantina Valpolicella Negrar.  All the food was wonderful — the meats and cheeses at Cesari  and the completely addictive “crumb cake” we had with Recioto at Secondo Marco. Foodie paradise? You be the judge. And great wines, too.

That Something Extra

Valpolicella seems to have all the elements of a great wine tourism experience and I think the Consorzio’s  app ties things together into a functional package.  It will be even more useful when it has time to fill out with more wineries, restaurants and hotels.

Is the app alone enough to bring Valpolicella to center stage? Of course not. Some of the wineries obviously embrace wine tourism more completely than others, for example. It is important that three or four true “destination” wineries emerge that will make it easy for wine tourists to see that a two-day or longer visit can be fashioned that will sustain their interest and enthusiasm —  with dozens of other wineries providing rich diversity (and reasons to return again and again) as happens in Napa, for example. And finally there must be even closer ties among the elements of the hospitality sector — wine, food, tourism and lodgings — which is not always easy to achieve.

It takes a village to build a wine route. But all the pieces are there and the app is a good way to bring them together.

But what about that “something extra” I mentioned earlier.  What does Valpolicella offer that will push it over the top? Well, the towns and villages have the churches, squares, museums and villas that Italian wine tourists expect — it takes only a little effort to seek them out and I must confess that I actually enjoy the “small moments”  more than the three-star attractions, so this suits me very well.

But maybe I am making this too hard. What’s that something special? Maybe it’s the chance to tack an evening in Verona or a day on Lake Garda on to your Valpolicella wine tour experience?  Perhaps its time for the wine tail to wag the Veneto  tourist dog and not the other way around! (Gosh, I wonder how that will sound in Italian?) Food for thought!

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Here’s a musical tribute to the merry band of wine bloggers on our Valpolicella tour.

Mauro Fermariello has created a beautiful video of our Valpolicella wine blogger tour, which can be found in his website, www.winestories.it .