Two messages arrived in my inbox yesterday asking me to provide a list of potential American importers for the authors’ friends’ wines from Italy. One came from a friend of mine, the other from a friend of a friend of mine.
Before the 2020 lockdowns, I’d receive at least two messages like that per month. Sometimes more. They stopped for a while. But now that things are opening up again on both sides of the Atlantic, the missives — “help me find an importer for my clearly superior wine although I have no intention of paying you for your services nor would I even consider that given how good my wine is” — are beginning to appear again.
They are generally accompanied by a collateral message: “my wine is obviously so stinking good that American importers will undoubtedly be lining up and fighting for the opportunity to work with me despite the fact that I don’t speak English, have only ever visited New York and San Francisco on vacation, and have no idea how the U.S. wine market works or what market conditions are.”
Snap your fingers and ship your wine to New Jersey! Sorry, Italian winemakers. I love you but it doesn’t work like that.
The messages bring to mind a 1982 New York magazine article by legendary wine writer Alexis Bespaloff where he features three then relatively (at least in America) Italian winemakers: Gaja, Antinori, and Mastroberardino. They were all trying to break into the U.S. market at the time.
In the piece, Antinori explains to him why his family has abandoned traditional winemaking conventions: “‘We came to the sad conclusion that simply following the classic Chianti varietal mix, we couldn’t produce the finest wines from our vineyards,’ Antinori explained, discussing [Tignanello’s] evolution.'”
The first Super Tuscan — quite literally ante litteram — was born!
At the time, the 1978 “Tignanello… a complex Tuscan red,” wrote Bespaloff, was “readily available” and cost about “$13.” (!!!)
It’s incredible to think that these three winemakers (and I would add producers like Primo Franco and Maurizio Zanella to this early 1980s list) were hitting the streets and hawking wine. My friend Craig Camp, wine writer and now Oregon winery manager, remembers, for example, doing work-withs with Angelo Gaja when Craig was starting out in the wine trade as a sales rep.
What I’m getting at is this: these guys — titans of Italian wine today — were busting their asses to build their brands in the U.S. And history would prove them to be visionaries of their craft. Just think how much Tignanello costs today and show me the high-end steakhouse that doesn’t have it on its list. In 1982, it was an unknown wine that, as Antinori explains in the article, he created in the hope of opening up new market possibilities. Piero Antinori and today his daughters still come to the U.S. regularly (before the lockdowns, of course).
There couldn’t be a more challenging time for a small Italian winemaker to break into the U.S. market today. Massive consolidation of distribution channels, continuing supply chain and shipping disruptions, and shifts in consumers’ tastes and attitudes are making it difficult for single family-run estates to break into U.S. importing game.
Despite the herculean task that lies ahead of them, I always write back the same thing.
My advice is to spend as much time in the U.S. market as you can (even if your wines aren’t here yet). Try to make connections with young American wine professionals. That’s the key to building your brand here. Try to figure out whether or not your wines are relevant here. Think about how your brand fits into the American wine trade paradigm.
I can point to myriad Italian winemakers who have done just that. They cultivate the friendships and professional contacts that ultimately lead to success here.
Have you ever attended one of Angelo Gaja’s lectures where he talks about the countless scallop-and-lamb-chop dinners he’s attended in the U.S.? That’s called paying your dues, folks!
Yes, there are exceptions to this rule. Neither Bartolo or Maria Teresa Mascarello had any desire to come to America (she told me as much once when I complained to her about her asshole importer from Oklahoma). Yet their cultish brand is undeniably popular here. You could say the same about Quintarelli. But those are both examples of wines that had already become undeniable classics, icons of Italian winemaking before they even touched U.S. soil. Neither of them had any trouble selling all their wine each year and the U.S. represented and represents a means of expanding their profitability.
For most Italian winemakers trying to break into the U.S. market, you need to be here. Showing up is literally 50 percent of the equation.
Wines are like songs. Even if they are the best songs ever written, they will have no meaning or commercial viability until someone hears them. And getting people to hear them takes grit, determination, luck, and — I hate to say it but it needs to be said here — investment. I’m not a winemaker but I am a songwriter. I’ve written a ton of songs but the commercially successful tracks were the ones that happened at the right time and in the right place and with the right support. It was about being there: showing up and playing every gig my bandmates and I could until someone finally started paying attention.
To every Italian winemaker or friend of an Italian winemaker who’s hoping to make their wines a big hit in the U.S., please come see me in Houston. I’ll take you wine bar hopping and will introduce you to all the cool young sommeliers and wine buyers (I’m a wine buyer in Houston, too; I’m just not young!). The first round is on me — for real, I mean that. The rest is on you…
Images via Google Books.