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.

Money, Power, Memory, Taste and Wine

A review of Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters by Jonathan Nossiter (FSG, 2009). Original French edition published in 2007 as Le Goût et le Pouvoir (Taste and Power).

Jonathan Nossiter is famous for his 2004 film Mondovino. Love it or hate it (or love to hate it), Mondovino has given Nossiter standing in the world of wine and he takes advantage of this fact in Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters.

Remembrance of Terroir Past

Although it is not intended to be a supplement to or continuation of Mondovino, I certainly learned quite a bit about the making of the film and its characters and about Nossiter, too. Indeed, the book is really about Nossiter and how wine inspires his memories and provokes his emotions just as a small cake, a madeleine, famously provoked Marcel Proust. It’s not my favorite book because I guess I’m not that interested in Nossiter’s memories, or at least not as interested as he is, but I did find things to like in it.

In one of my favorite scenes from the book, Nossiter and a film-making colleague are driving back from a day of Mondovino pre-shoot research in Burgundy and they talk about why they are so attracted to terroir. Members of a somewhat rootless transnational artistic class, they recognize that perhaps terroir is so precious to them because it is something they feel they have lost. Nossiter, the American raised in Paris, now lives in Brazil, well you can see how he would feel nostalgic for the authentic home terroir he maybe never had. That’s an emotion many of us can appreciate.

The Bland Taste of Peace?

Another passage subtly probes this same feeling in a different context. Why is terroir and regional identity so important now? Because sharp divisions have caused so much pain and hardship in the past (think Europe and the two World Wars).  Suppressing differences and rounding off sharp corners to create a more peaceful whole has been the agenda of the last 50 years.

Now we find that universalism has gone pretty far, creating the terroir-free transnational world of the European Union and we start to value what we have lost. Sharp edges seem pretty desirable now that we’ve lost them, even if they  sometimes bruise or cut.

I tasted both sides of this problem when we visited Friuli in the Italian Northeast a few years ago. We stayed outside of Cormons with the Venica family at their winery estate and the Sirk family at La Subida.

The land and people of this area where brutalized by the two Great Wars and so, when postwar peace appeared, they gathered grape varieties from around the world and planted them all together in one serene vineyard. The wine from these grapes, Vino della Pace (wine of peace) isn’t especially distinctive on the palate as I recall, but is memorable nonetheless for its optimistic symbolism.

We longed for the taste of peace when we didn’t have it. Now that we do, we find it a little bland. So we seek out terroir, even if it threatens to divide us once again.  Interesting, isn’t it?  Even in Friuli it is the intensely distinctive local wine of long memory – Pignolo, Schioppettino, Ribolla Gialla – that attracts our attention today, not the wine of peace.

Wine and Money

Although this is a book about cultural politics (if you believe the French title) and social philosophy (if you consider the American one), it seems to me that a great deal of space is actually given over to wine economics. The business of wine with its commercial pressures, and especially the ethics of wine pricing get a great deal of space.

“It occurs to me,” Nossiter writes, “that it is impossible to talk about wine without talking about money” and I think he is right. “Wine is inextricably linked to money like all objects of desire in a capital-driven world.”

Though a given bottle’s price varies even more peculiarly than the price of fine arts, a given bottle’s price is supposed to be a reflection of its intrinsic values. Whether it is the producer who sets the initial price, or the importer, distributor, or end seller, each time the price of the wine is set an ethical decision has been made in relation to the wine’s origins and contents.

Nossiter is disgusted by the religion of money, but in this passage he seems instead to be seduced by it, to accept the premise that market prices are moral judgments even as he protests their verdict. I think the premise is wrong and that intrinsic worth is measured by a different scale.

But that’s just the economist in me talking, I suppose.

A review of

Breaking In

I’ve written before about the British wine market, the most important marketplace in the world of wine.  Everyone wants a place on Britain’s Wine Wall, but breaking in isn’t easy to do, as a recent Decanter article and a conversation with one of my former students makes clear.

Decanter Discovers Washington Wine.

Many Washington winemakers are keen to try to get their feet in the door of European markets.  They figure that the time is right: the dollar is cheap and their wines are excellent. They cannot help but be pleased, therefore, with the July 2008 issue of Decanter magazine, which features an article about Washington wine by regional wine critic Paul Gregutt.  Three pages of text, maps, photos and wine reviews – it’s a nice package.  Several of the wineries mentioned even backed up the effort with two pages of advertising.  A really good display for Washington wines in the world’s most influential wine magazine.

But there’s a problem. British buyers know about these great wines now (more than ten wineries are mentioned including Columbia Crest, Seven Hills, L’Ecole 41 and Reininger), but only one (Columbia Crest) has current British distribution.  Want one of the other nine?  Call the winery in Washington State, the Decanter listing says. You’ve got to wonder how many buyers will do this and how many will just turn the page to the next New World wine – one that is actually available in Britain. You need publicity to get distribution, I know, but publicity without distribution doesn’t make the cash register ring.

On a different note, I have to wonder about the quoted price for the Columbia Crest Horse Heaven Hills Chardonnay.  Wine Spectator gives it 91 points and lists the price at $15.  The British price is apparently £19.53 or about two and a half times as much in dollar terms.!  It’s not going to be easy to break into European markets under these circumstances,

When Gallo Went to Europe

Gallo today is a classic American integrated wine multinational.  Although it is based in Modesto, in the heart of California’s Central Valley, and the bulk of its business is U.S. market, Gallo has complex international linkages.  Gallo sources wine from Italy, France, Australia and New Zealand and sells wine in Europe, Japan, and Latin America.  But it wasn’t always that way.  Gallo’s was drawn into the global marketplace in the 1980s, attracted by the markets in Britain and Germany.

I asked my former student Steve Emery to tell me what happened when these American wines (and American wine ideas) invaded Europe.  Steve is CEO of Earth2O, an Oregon company that bottles and distributes water from pristine Opal Springs near scenic Bend, but in the late 1980s he was Director of Sales for Gallo’s program to establish its varietal wines in England, Ireland and Germany.  His experiences say a lot about the nature of global wine then and now and the problems of breaking into new markets.

Getting Gallo into Europe was difficult, Steve told me, although ultimately successful.  Even though Gallo is a huge presence at home, it was an unknown quantity abroad.  I remember seeing Gallo wines on the shelf of my local wine shop when I taught in England in 1989 and I was surprised at the price point.  Gallo wines seemed expensive to me, about the same price as the most popular French and Italian wines on the shelves.  I expected Gallo to be a cheaper brand like it was at home.  But the advantage of lower price wasn’t really possible in the British market, given such obvious barriers as transportation costs and not-so-obvious hurdles such as the British wine tariff.

Many countries tax wine imports, whether to collect revenue, protect domestic winemakers, or try to shift consumption to other commodities such as local beers and spirits.  Britain is not unusual in this regard.  What makes Britain different is that the tax is relatively high and levied on a per-bottle basis (and only on non-EU wines, of course).  Britain collects more than $2 on each bottle of imported. (£1.29 according to a recent Rabobank report).  The flat per-bottle tax has a way of shifting the demand for wine towards more expensive products.  A $2 tax on a $2 wine represents a 100 percent tax. For a $4 wine, a $2 tax increases the price to $6, a 50 percent rise.  For a $10 wine, the tax raises the price to $12, only a 20% increase.  So the tariff falls heaviest on lower price goods and shifts the market upscale towards better or at least more expensive bottles and wines produced in the EU, not the New World. The cost advantage that Gallo enjoyed  in the United States was partially offset by the British tariff regime.

But that wasn’t the main problem, Steve told me.  The British supermarkets were savvy retailers – some of the wine buyers were highly trained Masters of Wine – the highest designation in wine education.  But they were organized to purchase and market wines based on geographic region rather than brand or type of wine.  As Steve says, they didn’t think in terms of brands (apart from the obvious fact of their own store brands).  This is true even today.  If you go into a Marks and Spencer store in Britain, you will find a world of wine available, but the wine is mainly organized and labeled according its place of origin rather than a US-style brand.  The wine’s “pedigree” (Friuli D.O.C. Grave Merlot, for example, or Macon Rouge, appellation Macon Rouge contrôlée) is listed in big letters, but the maker’s name and the brand – custom bottled for Marks and Spencer – are tiny by comparison.  The wines that Gallo sent to Europe were California wines, a useful geographic designation, but Gallo was the brand that defined the wine, not California.

British wine marketing was also different in other ways.  Steve told me that the British weren’t applying the basic Wine 101 lessons he learned with Gallo in the U.S. – lessons about where to put the most profitable wine (right at eye level on the shelf), where to position your target products in a wine cooler (on the right, where most people will look and reach first) and the many strategies of point-of-sale merchandising. They also introduced print advertising to the wine market successfully.

Gallo had to adapt, Steve said, to be successful in the foreign environment, even replacing the practical screw caps on its least expensive wines with more traditional cork closures (creating a shortage of corks in the process).

The German Problem

Germany was even more difficult, Steve said.  That’s easy to understand given the focus on bargain basement wines.  It doesn’t seem like most German buyers are interested in paying for a brand.  Low price seems to be the main factor and cheaper wines were readily available, Steve said, from Germany, Italy and France.  The supermarket wine buyers didn’t want to talk to him, Steve said, so Gallo resorted to guerrilla  marketing.  They got into the stores through the meat department, using a technique called cross-merchandising.  They sold the wine as the perfect accompaniment to beef, chicken and fish rather than wine alone.  Every meat purchase was therefore a potential wine sale as well.  You are probably familiar with cross-merchandising yourself, even if you’ve never heard the work before.  It is the process that has placed small displays of wine all over your supermarket, so that you never miss an opportunity to pair up wine with whatever you actually came to buy.  The Germans seem to understand cross-marketing very well now.  I visited my local Trader Joe’s this morning and found wine everywhere. I think there was probably more wine spread throughout the store than in the wine section itself.

The wine business is very competitive and Gallo found that the “rules of the game” were much different in Europe.  Wine is regulated as an alcoholic beverage in the U.S., so every aspect of its sales is subject to federal or state regulation.  In Europe, however, Steve said, wine is just another product and the competition is much freer.  That’s why he was able to bargain with the meat department managers in Germany rather than go through the wine buyer department.

Gallo was very successful in Britain and in Europe and many other American wine companies have followed them, but that hasn’t eliminated the challenge of breaking into new markets.  I wish our Washington winemakers good luck in their well-timed assault on the Old World markets. It’s not going to be easy.

Wine Critics Reviewed: Gambero Rosso

The first in a series on the actors and institutions that shape the wine world.

gambero.jpg

I’m interested in the role of wine critics (and their publications) in shaping the global wine market. This is the first of several entries that will examine a few of the most influential publications. I’m not entirely sure where this process will take me, but I’m pretty interested to find out what I will learn. So let’s begin.

I want to start with Gambero Rosso, which is a very influential Italian publication. It is the Italian equivalent of Wine Spectator, but it goes well beyond WS in its coverage of food and wine culture and tourism. It publishes a number of important guides to Italian regional restaurants, food and wine that I have found to be extremely useful when I have lived in or visited Italy. The Italian monthly magazine is physically imposing – the issue that appears in the photo above weighs in at more than 400 pages and was filled with ads. I subscribe to the much thinner abridged quarterly English edition, but my comments here concern the Italian original.

Birth of the Red Prawn

The name Gambero Rosso means red prawn, so it is easy to imagine that the magazine started out with a focus on seafood and expanded from there. The true explanation is a bit more Italian and a bit more political (I wrote about it in Chapter 7 of my book, Globaloney.) A group of young revolutionaries found themselves working on a Northern Italian newspaper called il manifesto in the 1970s. They formed a social club, which later evolved into the Slow Food movement, on the theory that political revolution needed to have deep social roots and to draw upon important economic sources in order to succeed (the status quo they opposed, after all, was political, social and economic, too). It is hard to imagine a better way to bring people into a political movement than through food and wine. And so their project thrived.

Gambero Rosso first appeared as a slim culinary supplement to il manifesto, so I imagine the name made reference to both its “red” politics and its shrimpy size. The magazine grew to become an independent publication, spawned a number of books and guides, and now even includes a television network. It is no shrimp any more.

Gambero Rosso is unique among the wine critic publications I am examining here in that it is almost entirely focused on the wines of a single nation, Italy. Although other publications may emphasize one country or region over others, all attempt some form of international coverage (this is even true of Wine Press Northwest, which covers the Washington, Oregon and British Columbia wine industries). In this as in many other things Gambero Rosso is different.

Mario Batali has said that there is no such thing as Italian cuisine, there are only the regional cuisines of Italy. Gambero Rosso takes this view of Italian wines, locating each wine within its particular region and quietly seeking to reinforce regional wine identities and to resist the industrialization and homogenization of wine. It thus holds true to its Slow Food roots. Gambero Rosso has an agenda, as its il manifesto origins might suggest, and it promotes it effectively by identifying the very best regional products and local producers. Other wine critics have agendas, too, I think, but are not always so transparent as Gambero Rosso.

The Italian Way of Wine

Each monthly issue of Gambero Rosso features a major section on wine, usually devoted to a particular regional wine. Winemaker profiles and interviews are accompanied by ratings and tasting notes. The ratings use the usual 100-point scale, although it is applied a bit more rigorously than in U.S. publications, I think, judging by the relatively small number of 90+ wines that appear. A surprisingly small number of wines are rated each month given the thousands and thousands of Italian wines produced. This is because the most important ratings appear in an annual guide called ViniD’Italia (one word), which is the bible of Italian wine. You can purchase an English translation, ItalianWines. The 2004 edition that I have here ran 864 pages and rated 14,208 wines from 1,937 producers. The new 2008 edition (due out later this month) is probably even bigger.

Several features of ViniD’Italia are noteworthy. First, it eschews the 100-point rating system in favor a simple scale of zero, one, two or three wine glasses. The three glass or tre bicchieri wines are the best in Italy. There were only 254 of them in 2004, so this really is a high distinction and I am sure it is a tremendous market advantage to receive the highest rating. I admit that I think the wineglass rating system is refreshing and usefully informative. Tasting wine is not really rocket science at my level of (un)sophistication. Robert Parker probably really can tell the difference between an 88-point merlot and one rated 87, but I’m not sure I can. Good, better and best ratings meet my needs pretty well.

ViniD’Italia is noteworthy in other ways in comparison with other wine guides I have seen. It is organized by wine region (and then by wine town) rather than wine type, producer or some other system. The idea seems to be that regional identity really counts and so you should be thinking about comparing wines based on their terroir and the qualities of the people who make them rather than just grape varietal or brand name (there is no emphasis on brands here at all). Within regions, each important producer gets a single page. Terse but data-packed text evaluates the winemaker’s progress since the last publication and surveys briefly the changes the tasters perceive. Then a small number of wines are rated and compared to some of the same wines from the same producer in previous years, with relative cost noted to provide a quick index of value.

(The focus on identifying quality producers (and not just exceptional wines) reminds me of the winery rating system that Paul Gregutt developed in his recent book about Washington wines. Click here to read my book review.)

If you want to know about the wines of Venica & Venica, for example, you turn to the chapter on the Friuli Venezia Giulia province, find their town, Dolegna del Collio, and learn that their reserve Tocai Friulano, the Ronco delle Cima, received three glasses for the 2002 vintage. Venica & Venica are quality producers, according to the text, and their wines are reliably good — you really cannot go wrong. One or another of their wines usually receives the highest rating and they generally receive several two glass ratings as well. This is useful information. (By the way, because of its geographical organization, this guide is a great resource if you plan to do any wine touring in Italy.)

A Critical Agenda

The book is frankly hard to use if you are standing in a wine store, flipping back and forth trying to find out how different wines (from different provinces and cities, made in different vintages) come out in the ratings. But I doubt that the editors really care. You are supposed to learn to use it their way, not your way. They want you to stop thinking about wines except in terms of their regional and local identities and to make more disciplined and informed choices, taking the long term development of quality producers into consideration.

The Gambero Rosso publications want you to think about wine in a particular way that reflects its original political agenda and distinctive Italian roots. In many ways it is exactly the opposite of the wine guide I’ll consider next, Decanter.