Above: the list and food at Felix Trattoria in Venice, California blew one Italian wine blogger completely away. Wine director Matthew Rogel has created what is possibly the best Italian list in the country right now. Its depth and thoughtfulness are going to be hard to match.
Today it seems hard to believe. But it’s been more than 20 years since Joe Bastianich launched his game-changing all-Italian, high end-heavy wine list at Babbo in the West Village, opened in 1998.
New York-focused Italian wine insiders from that era will also remember that it was right around that same time that Nicola Marzovilla debuted his similarly ambitious list at I Trulli on E. 27th with a southern-centric program.
Of course, the ultimate cognoscenti will also recall the extraordinary cellar put together by Vincenzo Cerbone, and later by his son Anthony (one of the loveliest people in our industry), at Manducatis in Long Island City — “opened on Christmas Day in 1977.” But that was ante litteram and antediluvial.
All three of these lists were a foreshadowing of what was to become a bona fide renaissance of Italian wine throughout the world.
I’m not quite old enough to remember the good old days of the holy tretalogy — Bolla (Soave and Valpolicella), Ricasoli, and Fazi-Battaglia — that once populated the italophile wine lists of America.
But memories of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, with its artsy-fartsy label and clear-glass bottle, are yet unhazed in my mind.
It’s incredible to think how refreshingly unsurprising it is today to find a sub-section for “Alto Piemonte-Valle d’Aosta” in the superb program conceived by Matthew Rogel at Felix Trattoria in Venice, California (above). It’s followed by “Roero-Langhe” and not by “Barolo-Barbaresco-Brunello-Super Tuscans” et alia, as one would have unwittingly expected even just a decade ago.
But is Italian wine in America “in danger” as one colleague (a leading player no less) put it to me earlier this month?
Above: a friend treated me to a super bottle last night at the wonderful Ferraro’s Kitchen Restaurant and Wine Bar in North Miami. In terms of its drinking window, that wine was as perfect as it could possibly be. What a bottle! And great menu by chef/owner Igor Ferraro. Even a decade ago, you wouldn’t have expected to find such a gem and such excellent wine service in the U.S. outside of New York.
The presence and marketshare of Italian wine in the U.S. has expanded over the last 20 years, they said, thanks to Italian restaurants here.
But now that the once supremely unencroachable Italian restaurant scene here is now being gently however consistently elbowed by the growing tide of internationally focused concepts, Italian wine is not growing in tandem.
The plain-sight evidence of this? Italian restaurants, for the most part, have Italian-focused programs, they pointed out. But as soon as you stray to something like, say, a high-end and high-concept Korean steakhouse, you’ll be hard pressed to find much beyond France and California. Similarly, casual and formal-dining French concepts hardly even consider Italian wine. Progressive American cuisine? Only the initiated will ever know how much Italian wine appears on the list at the French Laundry.
For Italian wine to meet the challenges of the future, they noted, it needs to find a way to connect with an increasingly fusion-focused international dining crowd. And it needs to reconnect with francophiles who now seem more open to getting oustide their box (perhaps because of prohibitive pricing of the French stuff).
Is natural wine the key? Is sustainable? Is organic? Will it be through programs subsidized by the EU? Will it be thanks to a new generation of new wave of Italian wine lovers? Will it be launched by a new generation of Italian wine professionals? Do we need to mount an intervention with the WSET to inform them that Italian wine isn’t just an afterthought?
My colleague doesn’t have the answer yet. But they’re working on it.
After more than two decades of unparalleled growth for Italian wine, it seems we are at a crossroads. Who’s with me?
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