10 biggest stories to watch in Italian wine in 2018 (#1 might surprise you)

When I first moved to Texas nine years ago, it was common to see Italy grouped with “other” in wine shops (the Foucauldian implications were evident, at least to me). Today, it’s rare that Italy doesn’t have its own, distinct space on the retail floor.

10. The expanding Balkanization of importing and distributing.

Over the last two years, more and more blue chip and marquee-name Italian wineries have abandoned national distribution opting instead for a state-by-state strategy. None of the biggest players in Italian wine imports wield the power they did 10 years ago when the field of wines and importers was much smaller. California, with its extremely liberal importing and distributing regulation, sets the bar for this trend. It simply doesn’t make sense anymore to rely on the three-tier system with its inherent markups and bureaucratic obstacles.

9. The growth of self-importing.

More and more Italian wineries are investing in their own importing and distribution channels. In Texas, for example, a major northern Italian estate (with little history or market presence in the state) set-up its own importing and distributing company this year and from what the owner has told me, the company is looking to expand its reach to California and other states as well. High-profile Italian estates have also invested in existing companies in recent years. This trend will only continue to flourish.

8. Robust tribalization among big distributors.

As the big distributors have watched their empire dwindle as more and more small importer-distributors pop up across the U.S., they have doubled down on their efforts to muscle their smaller competitors through aggressive marketing and sometimes unfair market practices. Increasingly, I’ve seen wine buyers wooed with gifts and liberal expense accounts. It’s reminiscent of the “good old days” (as some would call them) when reps entered accounts with wads of cash to distribute. And it’s as scary as hell.

7. The importer vanity label.

Among their efforts to curb small-business mid-sized importers and distributors, the fat cats have increasingly turned to vanity labels — created out of nothing but ink, paper, glue, glass, and wine. They obtain large quantities of wine from commercial producers, concoct a back story and marketing campaign, and then sell the wines at a high markup. It’s a brilliant business model, no doubt. But it negates the very thing that makes Italian wine so cool: its small-scale familial approach to viticulture. Slap some Tuscan sun on to a bottle of Montepulciano farmed in Molise and pass out the cigars.

6. Multi-national corporations’ land grab.

One of the biggest stories of 2016 was the sale of Piedmont heritage producer Vietti to the American owners of the Kum and Go convenience store chain. One of the biggest Italian wine stories of 2017 was the release of what may be the highest-priced Italian wine ever. A growing number of Italians fear that it’s only a matter of time before many of the best Italian estates are bought-up by multi-national corporations. Sadly, the unstoppable march of capitalist progress is, well, unstoppable.

5. Sicily is the coolest kid on the block.

As a wine buyer and an Italian wine trade observer, I’ve been seeing more and more value-driven, high-quality wines coming from the island. Investment in Sicilian wine, from Etna to Vittoria, is only growing and Sicilians have become increasingly savvy about marketing their wines in the U.S. It seems like every day, I taste something great from a new Sicilian winery. And it’s not just limited to cool-kid estates. Last year, I was thrilled to see Monica Larner (who’s doing wondrous things for Italian wine, btw) devote so much ink to heritage winery Feudo Montoni and its show-stopping wines. This year, Ian D’Agata wrote the following for Vinous: “Feudo Montoni is one of Italy’s best but still relatively little known estates.” Yes! Keep the great wine (and great wine writing) coming…

4. Sparkling wine.

The unbridled success of Prosecco in the 1990s has spawned a wave of sparkling wine production in Italy. From Sicily to Gambellara, it seems that everyone wants to get in on the sparkling wine gravy train — with mixed results. There’s no doubt that sparkling wine is the fastest growing category in wine across the world and we are only going to see more bubbles and more investment in Italian bubbles marketing here in the U.S.

3. Natural wine.

The ongoing debate over what is and what is not natural wine remind me of the countless hours we used to spend in graduate seminars discussing the definition of post-post-modernism. Sometimes it took up so much time that we hardly devoted our attention to the works of literature we were supposed to be studying. There’s no doubt that natural wine has established itself firmly as a market and marketing category in the minds of U.S. consumers — especially among young ones. In bon appétite, wine writers Belle Cushing and Marissa A. Ross called natural wine “2017’s Drink of the Year.” One of their criteria for selecting a bottle of natural wine was “It’s Fine to Just Pick the Coolest Looking Label.” Yes, it’s come to that. But it can only be a good thing in my view: the newer wave of natural wine enthusiasts only continues their predecessors’ efforts to champion small-scale farming and wholesomeness. That’s a positive, at least where I come from.

2. Asti Secco.

The first wave tsunami of Asti Secco is beginning to hit American shores. It’s going to give Prosecco a run for the money. The category didn’t make landfall in time to insinuate itself fully into holiday sparkling wine sales in the U.S. market. But Prosecco growers are going to be carefully watching developments in 2018. There’s a lot of money and marketing savvy behind the brands that are pushing this newly created Italian wine. Hold on to your seats… it’s coming to a Target near you!

1. The delayed issuance of CMO marketing subsidies.

Although hardly noticed by the American wine trade, the biggest story in Italian wine in 2017 was Italy’s failure to renew its CMO subsidies. More widely known by its Italian acronym OCM, the EU’s Common Market Organisation includes programs to protect and promote heritage viticulture and sustainable farming practices. But it also provides funds for the marketing European wines abroad. In the fall 2017, France and Spain received their new round of foreign marketing subsidies without a hitch. Italy did not: the EU delayed the issuance of monies earmarked for the country until February of 2018. From what I’ve been able to find out, the delay is owed to the fact that Italy wasn’t able to spend all of the funds allocated for 2017.

Thanks for reading and thanks for drinking Italian wine in 2017, 2018, and beyond…

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