Letter from Italy: “The day everything changed” by Giancarlo Gariglio.

Giancarlo Gariglio is the editor-in-chief of the Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of Italy, Slovenia, California, and Oregon. He lives in the town of Bra, where the Slow Food movement was founded in the late 1980s.

I was in America on February 21 when everything changed in Italy. That was when we became the first in Europe and the first outside of China to discover that the novel coronavirus was something more than the flu. It was something we had a read about in the papers, with a death rate of 1 percent. We tended to minimize the threat and even joke about it. Then everything changed in Italy. And it was immediately clear that despite our excellent public health system, it wasn’t going to be easy to face this disease.

I didn’t get back home to Italy until February 28. It was a very strange trip. There were already hundreds of infected persons and the world was beginning to look at us like we had the plague. But who were we to complain? In January, there had been reports of xenophobic attacks on Asians in Italian cities. In Boston, during the Slow Wine Tour, more than one sommelier called us to let us know that they wouldn’t be attending because there would too many Italian producers at the tasting.

It was a tough trip. We had been away from our families for 15 days and we were beginning to fear for them. When I boarded a flight from Munich to Milan, there were just 10 passengers on a plane that could hold 170. It was clear to all of us that our world was changing fast. We had left a chaotic as usual but healthy Italy. When we landed in Milan, Malpensa airport, one of the biggest in Italy, was deserted. It took us five minutes to get off the plane and it took just a few seconds for our baggage to arrive on the carousel. Usually it takes at least 20 minutes.

Outside the deserted airport, they took our temperatures as we passed through immigration (in Munich they hadn’t checked). What followed was a succession of disturbing news. Half of Lombardy had been declared a “red zone.” People couldn’t enter or leave a portion of the region. It had been isolated from the rest of the world. Over the course of just a few days, it had become clear that the rest of the most populous region in Italy was at great risk. It would later be closed with a decree issued by our prime minister. Throngs of people fled to the south packed in overcrowded trains. That was the day that our government decided to declare our entire country a “protected zone.”

At the Slow Food offices where I work, it was clear that we couldn’t stay open. The schools had already been closed for 10 days. Families with children didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t drop their kids off at their grandparents because the elderly are among those most at risk. Bra, where I live, is a small town in the countryside with around 30,000 people. Cuneo province where Bra is located is in Piedmont, the region that has the third largest number of infected persons and earths. Located at the foot of the alps, it’s on the margins, so to speak. We’ve been spared the worst so far, with roughly 300 infected persons in a population of 600,000.

But there is plenty of fear to go around. And you can feel it in the air when you go out, even though we rarely leave our apartment. We have been confined to our homes for more than 15 days. The streets are deserted. The cafés — one of Italy’s most beloved institutions where we gather regularly after work — were among the first venues to be closed by law. Then the restaurants and all the non-essential shops. The handful of fellow residents that you see on the streets are wearing surgical masks and it’s easy to gauge how terrorized they are. They step aside as we walk by. And we do the same, as if out of instinct. Surgical masks can no longer be found. I’ve been using a sleep mask that they gave me on an international flight. I just put it over my eyes and wear latex gloves when I go out.

Over the last 20 days, I’ve only left the house three times. And only to go food shopping for my family. Our two daughters haven’t been allowed out at all. My wife has only gone out once. The event that marks the passing of another day is the e-bulletin issued every night at 6 by the government’s office of emergency planning. They start with the number of people who have recovered. Then the number of infected, the number of people in intensive car, and lastly the number of dead. That’s the number that hurts the most. I’ve started an Excel file where I jot down all of the numbers. And that field is always the most painful to fill. On March 19, Father’s Day in Italy, more than 700 people died in just one day.

I get phone calls from people who live in the hardest-hit cities, Bergamo and Brescia (where Franciacorta is located). The stories they tell seem plucked from science fiction. My wife’s grandmother is 94 years old. She lives near Como in the region of Lombardy. A few days ago, she wasn’t feeling well and so the person who takes care of her called an ambulance. They were told that ambulances are now used only for people 50 years old and younger. Everyone else can only hope that God will protect them. This is the situation that has taken shape in the most productive area in Italy — Lombardy and parts of Emilia-Romagna, a handful of provinces in Veneto, and parts of Piedmont. The rest of Italy is in a holding pattern. There are cases of infection but not many of them. And the hospitals can still keep up with the crisis.

We are all worried about what the future will bring. We’re worried about work and what this will mean for Slow Food given that all activities related to wine have come to a stop. I usually take 40 or 50 flights a year for work, covering thousands of kilometers. Nothing will ever be the same and who knows what’s in store for us.

Since we’ve been on lockdown, I’ve been drinking wines that remind me how much I love my job. Italian wines, French, German, Spanish, and American. Some people say that you should only drink Italian. They’ve even begun using the hashtag #iobevoitaliano, #IdrinkItalian. Not me. I drink the world. If there’s anything that unites the world it’s wine and culture. I’ll never get tired of telling the amazing story of how it crosses borders. Because not just bad things cross borders. Beautiful things cross them, too: Wine, music, poetry, and friendship.

Giancarlo Gariglio

Taste Scarpa Barbera d’Asti with winemaker Silvio Trinchero and me at 10 a.m. CST

Today’s virtual tasting is going to feature Scarpa Barbera d’Asti and winemaker Silvio Trinchero.

Please join me live on Instagram @DoBianchi at 10 a.m. CST (Texas time) when Silvio and I will be discussing life in Piedmont during the health crisis as well open a bottle of 2015 Scarpa Barbera d’Asti CasaScarpa.

This is the second virtual tasting I’m leading with my clients and friends in the wine trade. I’ll be doing more next week.

Please join us! Evviva il vino italiano!

Taste Movia with Aleš Kristančič and me today at 11 a.m. CST @EthicaWines

At 11 a.m. CST today, I’ll be doing an live story with Aleš Kristančič of Movia on the @EthicaWines Instagram.

It’s the first of a series of virtual tastings that I’m leading with them. I hope you can join us.

Aleš and his family are great friends of mine and when I visited them in January of this year, we had a blast remembering when they brought my band Nous Non Plus to play a concert at the winery back in 2008 when we had a hit song in Slovenia (no joke!).

Please join us at 11 a.m. and please look out for more Ethica Wines tastings I’ll be doing.

See you shortly! We’ll be tasting four wines, including the Pinot Grigio Ambra.

Dispatch from Brescia: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a concentration of suffering.”

Above: a vineyard in Brescia province, a photo taken nearly a year ago to the day.

In what’s become a daily ritual, there’s a late afternoon-late night call to Italy when a couple of middle-aged wine professionals — one an American in Houston, the other an Italian in Brescia province — catch up on the ongoing health crisis in their respective cities.

Yesterday’s call was grimmer than most.

“I see the number of cases has actually begun to fall in Italy today,” said the American, noting that there was a drop, however small, in the number of new cases and victims with respect to the previous day’s reporting.

“But not in Brescia,” replied the Italian.

His words were echoed in a story this morning on the front page of the New York Times website: “Dip in Italy’s Cases Does Not Come Fast Enough for Swamped Hospitals.”

“In Brescia,” write the paper’s editors in a caption for the lead image, “hospitals have been reporting hundreds of new cases a day.” The photo that appears at the beginning of the article was taken in the intensive care unit of the Spedali Civili hospital in Brescia.

While the numbers are beginning to level off, just barely, in the rest of Italy, the situation in Brescia and neighboring Bergamo province is getting worse. Bergamo and the Italian region of Lombardy where Bergamo and Brescia are located are the epicenter of the ongoing health crisis.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a concentration of suffering so intense,” says
Dr. Intissar Sleiman in a video the man from Brescia shared with his American friend during their chat. She’s a Brescia medical professional on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic in Italy.

“We’re not used to losing so many people in such a short period of time,” she says as she holds back her tears.

The video left the American wine professional with tears streaming down his face. Just a few months ago, he was there in Brescia province visiting his Italian friend. He was supposed to be in Italy this week. How he wishes he could embrace his friend in Brescia right now! Magari!

The wine professional from Brescia and his partners are donating proceeds from the sale of one of their wines to a fund that supports the struggling Brescia hospital system.

Walter Speller wrote about it for JancisRobinson.com this week.

G-d bless Brescia. G-d bless us all.

Letter from Italy: “I’m proud to be an Italian” by Paolo Cantele.

According to a report published just minutes ago by the Associated Press, “Italy, a country of 60 million, registered 2,978 deaths Wednesday after another 475 people died. Given that Italy has been averaging more than 350 deaths a day since March 15, it’s likely to overtake China’s 3,249 dead — in a country of 1.4 billion — when Thursday’s figures are released at day’s end.”

Above: Paolo Cantele, one of my best friends in the world and my client of many years, standing in front of his family’s winery in Guagnano in Lecce province. He calls me “Jar,” my nickname since I was a teenager.

Dear Jar,

It took me a little time to write you because, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t in the right mood for it.

Writing is supposed to be therapeutic. It’s meant to help you overcome you’re the fears and doubts that grip your brain even as your mind, despite its efforts to remain cool and collected, continues to focus on that damned list of infected and dead.

Everyone is trying to keep working, regardless of how challenging this all is. We all know full well that for the next 3-4 months, there will be no wine sales. There will be no cash flow. And it’s going to be tough to pay the salaries of all the kids who work for us. They’ve been nothing less than fantastic through all of this.

Angelo Gaja has said that he’s not going to fire anyone. Instead, he’s hiring. Good for him! I’m planning to send him my resumé.

Thankfully, the situation in Puglia and the Salento Peninsula isn’t as bad as northern Italy. But that’s only because we were able to implement preventive measures before the virus spread.

You know how critical I can be of Italy and my fellow Italians. But Italians’ true spirit comes out in difficult times like these. We’ve all become aware, more or less, of the enormous challenges that we face. And the only thing we can is to stay closed up in our homes and persevere. We’re doing so, as diligently and rigorously as we can.

I’m proud to be an Italian. And I’m proud to be part of a community that has refused to throw in the towel. A community that fights and will continue to fight even — and especially — after the virus will be defeated. But it’s damaged pride, sadly spurred by a European Union that has shown itself to be more Disunited than ever before.

We need to take stock of the fact that we are going to have to lift ourselves out of this mess by ourselves, through no one else’s efforts but our own.

But I have faith that we can make it because Italians always give their best in moments of crisis.

I hope I get to see you again soon, man. I miss the U.S. I miss our road trips. And I miss our talks about the wondrous invention otherwise known as life.

I love you.


Letter from Italy: “We will be reborn” by Angela Mion.

Angela Mion is a wine writer and sommelier who lives in Este in the Euganean Hills outside of Padua. She posts regularly for the popular Italian wine blog Intravino.

Above: in the place of weekly hours, a handwritten note in a restaurant in Este reads “everything will be okay” (photo by Angela Mion).

Close but faraway.

Italy doesn’t know what day it is today as it looks out onto the world from its windowsill, whether from home or the hospital.

We have never felt so equal. We are all being chased by the same invisible enemy that’s upending all of our lives.

An economy, probably in need of a rewrite, now seems a post-war economy.

And this is how Italians are no longer average Italians, the ones that cut in line, run red lights, and yell on the subway, or eat dinner out with their rude children.

No, the average Italian no longer exists. The Italian who exists now is dealing with a challenging time within ourselves.

Cafés and restaurants are closed. Everything has come to a stop and the new time on our hands is scary. It’s a time to be with your family if you have one. It’s a time for tears and fear, a time when our passions can help, a time to muster all our strength and positivity.

# I am positive. I’ve always thought, today more than ever, that the best things about us emerge during the worst of times. Wine came into my life during a difficult time, after a bad accident. And it consumed the time otherwise devoted to unpleasant thoughts.

You’ll have time to read up on tannins, for example. Ever heard of them? And the French Paradox vs. resveratrol? What is the ancestral method? How is vermouth made? Have you ever seen the hills of Cartizze?

Wine unites us. It makes us speak the same language. Now more than ever, it can help to fill the time on our hands without relying on old habits.

The Italian will return. We will sing again. We will laugh over a dish of pasta. We will become ourselves again.

Today Italy looks to the future. Like it’s never done before. The world watches us from its windowsill. We watch the world from our windowsill at home: we smile, perhaps with sad eyes.

And for once, we wait. We will be reborn.

Angela Mion

Letter from Italy: “We’ve been through two wars. We’re still here and we’re not giving up now” by Andrea Gori.

Sommelier and wine writer Andrea Gori is the current generation of a Florence restaurant legacy: Trattoria da Burde, one of the Renaissance city’s most beloved dining spots. “We’re hanging in there,” he wrote me when I asked him to write a post for the blog. “Italians are fantastic team players.” Earlier this week, in its ongoing effort to curb the spread of Covid-19, the Italian government ordered all restaurants, bars, and cafés to shutter.

Above: There are no lines this week at the famous Uffizi museum in Florence (photo by Elena Farinelli). All public gatherings have been banned in Italy until April 3.

Does 16 days seem like a long time to you? Or a short time? Just 16 days ago, we were counting our covers, ordering wine and meat, we were planning wine dinners. Covid-19 was already here and things had already slowed down as if a spell had been cast over the outskirts of the city where our restaurant is located. Things were slowing down for us but in downtown Florence, the tourist apocalypse had already taken shape three weeks ago. The initial reaction was one of pride enabled by the inability to accept that the entire world had turned its back on us — all at once.

Everywhere, people were claiming that Italy was infected. Other countries were competing to see who could impose the most restrictive measures on our travel. And every day, we didn’t know whether we should be worried about the fact that we could no longer move around or whether Italy — the most beautiful country in the world, where everyone says they would love to live or visit — was suddenly going to become a country that everyone wanted to avoid at all costs. It was madness. Impossible to believe. It was as if the day before you were the belle of the ball and the next day you were the girl that nobody wanted to ask for a dance. Day after day, it became clear that the problem was real and that the advice from politicians, trade groups, journalists, and colleagues on how to get people into restaurants were useless, out of touch, and counter-productive.

Few understand the mathematics behind an epidemic. But I remember enough from molecular biology to know that everything will get worse before it gets better. It was roughly a week ago that we all wrapped our minds around the fact that concrete steps needed to be taken to ask business owners to shut down and limit movement.

For us here at our family’s restaurant, it was a dramatic moment. We are restaurateurs and we are accustomed to welcoming people with hugs and kisses. And we love mingling with our guests. Being forced to keep people at a distance, to refuse reservations, and to cancel long-planned events was extremely tough for us as restaurateurs and business owners. But it was also hard for us as people who value relationships and the warmth and passion of human interaction.

But we started to wrap our minds around it last Saturday night when prime minister Conte told us what fate had in store for us. Many of us realized then that it had already been decided and there was no turning back. We were being forced to close, to shutter, and to isolate.

For Italians, it’s like a death sentence. We are people who live our lives in cafés and restaurants. We cherish our aperitivo and all occasions when we can connect with others and interact. From football championships to coffee at the café in the morning and dinner with friends and family in the morning, we had to progressively shut it all down.

The Italian lockdown is true torture. But Italians follow the rules when they are laid out with conviction. They do what needs to be done when the goal is to change an unsustainable situation. And when the prime minister spoke, surprisingly, we all became aware of what needed to happen. People ask for a coffee and you explain to them that you can’t give it to them. Their first reaction is anger and then acceptance. And then comes a smile that expresses true compassion. We are all in the same boat and we all will paddle together.

This lockdown, and the millions of business owners, restaurateurs, waiters, and sommeliers who are at risk of losing their jobs (and we’re just talking about people who work in the restaurant business), is devastating. It’s absurd, cruel, and terrifying. It makes you shake in your boots as you realize how difficult it will be to get back to normal. Then you begin to understand that “normal” doesn’t mean what it used to. Globalization as we knew it has finally found its tipping point. The restaurant trade in Italy (just like everyone else) will have to change if it wants to be ready for the future. Whatever that future will be.

Today, I opened the shutters at Burde, our family’s restaurant, because even though bars and restaurants are required to stay closed, we have also been a food market and tobacco shop since 1901. We’ve been through two wars. We’ve served German soldiers, American soldiers, fascists and partisans who came to us for cigarettes and bread. We’re still here and we’re not giving up now.

Andrea Gori

Letter from Italy: “Hopeful a better human race will emerge (and ‘Nutella Biscuits’)” by Giovanni Arcari.

Yesterday, in its ongoing efforts to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Italian government issued a decree closing all businesses except supermarkets, pharmacies, and health care. The entire country has been under lockdown, with a near total ban on movement, since Tuesday. I’ve asked a number of my friends and colleagues there to share their experiences, feelings, hopes, and fears. Today, I’ve translated a letter from my best friend Giovanni Arcari, a winemaker in Brescia province.

Dear Jeremy,

Here in Brescia, the situation is intense. The hospitals are about to fall apart and the number of infections continues to rise. This is all attributable only to ourselves. We believe we know everything and we have become egotistical beyond measure, so much so that we are convinced that no one can be as intelligent as us. Today, we are facing the unknown and it’s beginning to permeate our consciousness aggressively. It’s something that only unexpected death can manage to create.

We are afraid, depressed, disheartened, and powerless but we still don’t feel like we’ve been defeated. It’s now, in these difficult times, that a team knows what to do, how to wait patiently, and how to console one another even if it’s just by telling some dumb joke about Trump or Salvini (who continue to be the stupidest people in the world, even when facing this crisis).

Wine sales have stopped. Restaurants are closed. And all the payments due will have to be postponed.

I’m still faithful and hopeful that a better human race will emerge from this horrible episode with a desire to educate the world about universal equality.

Just a few notes, man, but that’s all I feel like saying right now. And I kept it simple and free of any rhetorical flourishes.

There’s one positive thing: the supermarkets have been raided but today I was able to buy two bags of “Nutella Biscuits.” It seems that they are excluded from the diets of the recluse, except for mine.



Letter from Italy: “Not prayers but bottles” by Raffaella Guidi Federzoni.

A guest post today from one of my best friends in the Italian wine business, Raffaella Guidi Federzoni, who’s hunkered down with her family in Montalcino.

Above: unaware of the health crisis that surrounds them and threatens their stewards, the vines in Italy continue to grow (photo by Raffaella Guidi Federzoni).

Americans love Italians? Yes, they do. They love us very much, even too much sometimes, because we are funny, we know how to cook and how to live. They love us and forgive us for our shortcomings.

Most Americans love us because a good part of their blood is Italian, because some of their DNA comes from a small village or town somewhere in Sicily, or Abruzzo, or Calabria, or in any other of the twenty regions inside our country.

Americans love us in the way you love a slightly strange pet. Because we, the Italians, puzzle them with our strange way of conducting a business, of changing frequently our government, even of keeping a household. But we are so cuddly, aren’t we? We run around, making a lot of noises and sometimes leaving unpleasant traces of our presence. We bark a lot but we almost never bite.

We, the Italians that are impossible not to be loved by a true American.

Maybe not admired or respected or understood, but for sure loved.

Well, dear American friends, now could be a good time to show us if your love is only thoughts and prayers or it is indeed actions.

Rightly you have forbidden us to enter in your country. This is a precaution that we understand perfectly well. At the moment in our country we can hardly get out from our homes. Schools, universities, bars, restaurant, stations, airports, offices are deserted or shut down. So, of course we share your caution. It has to be like this.

But life goes on anyway, and so does business, commerce, market. They may sound prosaic words but they are indeed a part of our life. We need to carry on our activities, we need it now more than ever.

Therefore, dear American friends, carry on buying Italian. Buy food, fabrics, design, artifacts, shoes, clothes. Buy made in Italy.

Buy wine. The products of people that share with you a past in some remote village of the South or a medieval town in the Centre or a prosperous bunch of districts in the North.

Buy wine made with an identity that belongs only to this small and strange country.
A country that now needs help.

Thank you.

Raffaella Guidi Federzoni

In unprecedented move, Italy expands coronavirus lockdown nationwide.

Yesterday in a televised address to the country, Italian premier Giuseppe Conte announced the implementation of nationwide restrictions on movement throughout Italy and its islands. The new “zone protetta” (“protected zone”) expands the “zona rossa” (“red zone”) lockdown that was put into place across a broad swath of northern Italy early Sunday morning.

Read the New York Times coverage here.

As of today, Italians are being advised not to leave their homes and are only allowed to travel between cities and towns if they are in possession of a signed declaration that their movement is absolutely necessary for work or health reasons or “extenuating circumstances.”

The government has assured citizens that goods will continue to circulate despite the lockdown. There are widespread reports of supermarkets being overwhelmed by shoppers concerned that shortages of essential items are inevitable.

It’s not clear what the short-term impact on the Italian wine trade will be. All the major Italian wine trade fairs, generally held during this time of year, have already been cancelled or postponed. Most Italian winemakers had already cancelled international travel plans before the nationwide lockdown took effect.

“Dear friends and customers,” wrote one Italian winery in an e-blast to its clients today, “we inform you that the cellar will be closed for visits and tastings until April 3. In the meantime, keep drinking [our wine] at home, and if you don’t have enough, contact us, we will do our best to help you.”

Nothing like this has happened in Italy since the Second World War.

I had been planning to travel to Italy next week but when I logged into my airline account manager this morning, I discovered that my flights to and from Milan had been cancelled by the carrier.

My Italian friends and colleagues, at least those with whom I’ve traded messages since the announcement of the new restrictions, agree that the new restrictions are necessary. One friend in Milan told me that people are getting restless and that some are planning to travel regardless of the new lockdown. It’s not clear how authorities will enforce the restrictions or how severe the penalties will be for those who travel without authorization.

“We all have to sacrifice something for the good of Italy,” said Conte in his address.

Right now, our hearts and prayers go out to all of our Italian sisters and brothers, especially those with elderly relatives. Italians, know that we stand with you. G-d bless Italy and all of us.

Photo by Rosita Dorigo.