NEW YORK – Romano Baruzzi took a breath and looked out at the sea of faces in front of him.
“Buona sera a tutti, welcome everyone,” said Baruzzi, deputy trade commissioner for the Italian Trade Commission in New York City. “Welcome to the biggest event promoting Italian wines in the U.S.”
It’s opening night for Italian Wine Week/Vino 2016 and the featured panel discussion is titled “On the Bright Side: What’s Ahead for 2016.”
This first-night talk offers the attending producers, importers and the occasional journalist insights into what lies ahead for the next two days of concentrated immersion into Italian wine.
More than 160 Italian wine makers and their representatives are here, some of them plying their wares to almost that many importers and buyers while other winemakers, nearly one-third of those present, simply are seeking someone trustworthy in whom to entrust their wines. Read more…
As sure as the swallows return each spring to the old mission at San Juan Capistrano, Italian winemakers each spring pack up their road show and head to Verona for the annual return of VinItaly, which bills itself as the world’s leading wine trade fair.
This year’s event (April 10-13) marks VinItaly’s 50th anniversary and understandably the buzz has been in the air for months, since no one can outdo the Italians when it comes to celebrating big events, especially one that attracts an international audience (last year more than 150,000 attendees from 30 countries) of wine buyers, importers, critics and wine lovers.
It can be a bit overwhelming – this year’s fair is expected to feature more than 4,100 exhibitors covering an impressive 100,000 square meters (that’s about 1.07 million square feet) of exhibition space. That’s big.
The plane had barely lifted out of La Guardia, headed west over the snow-covered country of upstate New York, and I already was thinking about the wines I missed during my brief stay in New York City.
Three days of Italian Wine Week/Vino 2016 in New York City’s Midtown Hilton with a brief interlude at the Tre Bicchieri 2016 International Tour tasting simply wasn’t time enough to do justice to all the wines and winemakers at the two events.
One of the expected drawbacks to having 160-plus winemakers and about 1,000 different labels in one room, as was the case with the two Vino 2016 Grand Tastings, is you simply can’t meet every winemaker even with an afternoon to do so.
Undoubtedly many gems went untasted or there simply wasn’t time to return to re-taste some of the more-interesting wines. I’m certainly not complaining, given the breadth and depth of the wines I did taste, and there are many worse places to be than surrounded by talented and ambitious winemakers.
The wine-cup-runneth-over was something I mentioned at the Vino 2016 tasting to Marco Funiati, owner and general manager of Agricola Messapica in Salento.
“Yes, there are many (winemakers) here trying to attract the American market,” said Funiata. “We don’t have much time to make an impression, and the American market is so big.”
He was pouring his 2014 Salento Chardonnay, an 80/20 blend of Chardonnay and Verdeca. Crisp, fresh and bright, available in the U.K. but still seeking a U.S. importer.
I stopped a few tables away to try Alex Polencic’s Pinot Grigio and although it hadn’t been in bottle long, was impressed by the rich mouthfeel and velvety apple/pear fruit, far different (and way better) than the sea of plonky Pinot Grigios now flooding the U.S. market.
“2014 was one of the most difficult years in the last 15,” Polencic said. “But 2015 was much better” with late-summer rain softening the earlier heat.
Over at the Tre Bicchieri International Tour tasting at the Metropolitan Pavilion, I slipped through the crowd to find Elvira Bortolomiol pouring her family’s 2014 Brut Prior Prosecco Superiore, the 2014 Brut Lus Naturae and the 2015 Extra Dry Bandarossa. Prosecco sales continue to climb and it’s no wonder after tasting the outstanding wines from Bortolomiol and those Maria Luisa dalla Costa was pouring for Graziano Merotto, both from the rugged hills of the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG.
This, by the way, was Merotto’s fifth-consecutive Tre Bicchieri, honoring his Cuvèe del Fondatore.
Also of note were the 2014 Lugana Molin and 2014 Lugana Prestige from Cá Maiol on the southern end of Lake Garda. The wines, not surprisingly, were delicious, reflective of the area’s complex history and geography.
And all too quickly the weekend was over.
Looking out at a well-lit seminar room on the second floor of the midtown Hilton Hotel, at tables laden with wine glasses and lined with eager listeners, McCoy informed her audience that “It couldn’t be a better time for wines from southern Italy.”
It was a theme to be repeated, although never again quite as succinctly, throughout the all-too-short run of this year’s Italian Wine Week presented by the Italian Trade Commission. Subtitled “The Grandest Italian Wine Event Ever Held Outside of Italy” and focusing this year on wines from Calabria, Campania, Puglia and Sicily, the event (this year was its fifth edition) brought together about 200 Italian wineries (not all from the south and about a quarter of which were looking for a U.S. importer) and countless importers and distributors and other wine-trade people.
Among the many memorable remarks from the week’s speakers and guests:
“This week there is a peaceful invasion of Italian producers and wine experts.” – Maurizio Forte, Trade Commissioner and Executive Director for the Italian Trade Commission.
“The U.S. market is the most-important market for Italian wine; we export almost $1.5 billion per year.”– Maurizio Forte
Wines from southern Italy are largely unknown to the U.S. market because “most American tourists still do not visit Southern Italy.” – former wine director Charles Scicolone.
“They are a ‘hand-sell, meaning that it often takes talking about these wines and explaining them to the customer in order to get them to try a bottle or two.” – Charles Scicolone
“People want to know who you are, not just your wines.” – Chad Turnbull, president of New York-based importer Savorian, Inc., told the producers. “One of the most fundamental things you can do is to introduce yourself to your market.”
“Puglia and Calabria are at the edge of the western world.” – blogger/importer/Italophile Jeremy Parzen. “They just needed a small nudge to enter the modern world of winemaking.”
“When you taste (the wines of southern Italy), it’s hard to imagine what the wines were like 20 years ago.” – Elin McCoy. “These were wines you didn’t want to know about.”
“Sicily is sexy; it was sexy even before the wines were so good.” Roberta Morrell, president and CEO of Morrell Wine Bar and Café, New York City.”The good reds came before the good whites…now the whites are fresh, fruity and minerally.”
“I’m consumer driven. If you can’t say it, you can’t buy it.” – author/wine educator Kevin Zraly.
“In Italy, people mostly eat at home.” – restaurateur/ author Lidia Bastianich. “First, because good eating means eating their mother’s cooking, nobody makes it better, and secondly, because of the economic crisis that is currently afflicting the country.”
“Buying a wine made in Italy means buying a piece of wine history from a country that has made wine for a thousand years.” – journalist Luciano Pignataro.
As we head into Italian Wine Week Feb. 3-9, with special events held in New York City, it’s fitting to remember the roles of five men key to the wine connection between Italy and the U.S.
With the Jan. 5 passing of winemaker Harry F. Mariani of Banfi Wines, another chapter in that American wine history could be written.
Mariani, 78, and his brother John, who survives, made their fortunes introducing
Americans to Italian wines. They were working for Banfi, founded in 1919 by their father and his three brothers, when in 1967 the brothers began importing Riunite, a chilled, sparkling sweet red wine that by 1973 was the nation’s largest-selling imported brand.
If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember Riunite Lambrusco’s promotional slogan, “Riunite on ice, that’s nice,” which was updated in 2002 to the trendier “Just chill.”
Imports of Riunite peaked at 11.2 million cases in 1984 and accounted for 27 percent of all foreign wines sold in the United States, according to Banfi Wines.
That success as importers allowed the brothers to branch out, purchase their own vineyards in Italy and on Long Island and by the mid-1990s Banfi was the nation’s leading wine importer, according to the New York Times.
Today, Italian varieties are the leading imported wine in the U.S. and Americans now are drinking more Italian wines than Italian themselves, said the Italian Wine and Food Institute.
Which brings us to three other major players in the Italo-American wine connection.
At one time the company owned nearly half the vineyard acreage in California with annual revenues estimated at $1 billion.
Ernest was in charge of marketing and his desire, according to his biography, was to see the company become the “Campbell Soup Company of the wine industry.”
The Gallos marketed their cheap White Port and Thunderbird wines in inner city markets along with a catchy jingle that in part went, “What’s the word? /Thunderbird/ How’s it sold?/ Good and cold/…”
The company gradually shed its low-rent image to become the largest winemaker in the country and today is the largest privately held wine company in the world.
Ernest Gallo died at the age of 97 on March 6, 2007, less than a month after his brother Joseph. Julio Gallo died in 1993.
The third of our Italian triumvirate is Robert Mondavi, who, dismissed in 1952 from
Charles Krug, the Mondavi family winery, went on to build his own eponymous winery and his great fortunes.
As Mondavi noted in his 1998 memoir, “Harvests of Joy,” he found his mission doing “whatever it took to make great wines and to put the Napa Valley on the map right alongside the great winemaking centers of Europe.”
In 1968, he took Sauvignon Blanc, at the time an unpopular variety, and rebranded it as “Fumé Blanc,” figuring it was something Americans could pronounce. The wine was so successful that Fumé Blanc became an accepted synonym for Sauvignon Blanc.
By the time Mondavi sold his winery in 2004, it was sixth-largest winery in the U.S. with annual sales of 9.7 million cases, according to Wine Business Monthly.
Mondavi remained as chairman emeritus until his death on May 16, 2008 at the age of 94.
In 1993, Mariani told the New York Times that wine was always a part of his life, “it was never taboo.”
And at every meal, Harry Mariani would toast: “A tavola non s’invecchia,” which can be translated to “At the table with family and friends, one does not grow old.”