Italian wine “after COVID”: a new book on the challenges faced by Italian winemakers in the post-pandemic world.

Above: a photo taken (with a Blackberry) in Austin, Texas in 2008.

In 2008, one of the largest wine retail chains in Austin, Texas relegated its selection of Italian wines to an “Italy/Other” rack. The ad hoc category was a reflection of Italy’s station, so to speak, in the hierarchy of international wine at the time. With higher-profile space allocated to California and France, the chain’s sales team displayed its Italian offerings in one of the shop’s least prominent racks together with after-thought “esoteric” wines.

Since that time, so much has changed. Thanks to aggressive efforts by Italian winemakers and their U.S. importers and a wave of heightened interest, the category has become a major focus in wine retail in Texas and across the U.S.

In the A.C. (after COVID-19) world,* will the Italian wine industry be able to maintain its newly conferred status as a leading international category? Or will the challenges of doing business in the U.S. in the post-pandemic era erase more than a decade of robust growth?

The authors of a new “instant” book entitled Italian Wine Beyond COVID-19, Flavio Geretto (export director for leading Prosecco producer Villa Sandi) and Fabio Piccoli (founder and editor-in-chief of Wine Meridian), share their predictions for what the A.C. wine world will look like and how producers will need to adapt their marketing and sales strategies.

(Disclosure: Flavio is a good friend of mine and I am a media consultant for Villa Sandi; Wine Meridian featured me in a 2018 interview.)

The book, written in Italian, can be purchased here. Proceeds go to the Italian hospital system.

The following are my notes. While some of the authors’ observations align with commonly embraced tenets for good business practices (like the need for diversification in sales channels), others genuinely surprised, impressed, and inspired me. Flavio and Fabio don’t have all the answers but the questions they raise are spot on. If you read Italian, I highly recommend ordering a PDF. Special thanks to the authors for sharing a review copy with me.

– Sales channels diversification will become a primary factor in determining which wineries succeed and fail. For too long, the authors write, wineries have focused on an overly limited number of outlets for their wines. And in some cases, companies have even “snubbed” certain sectors, like supermarkets and online retail platforms. Today, those choices have left countless producers highly vulnerable.

– Sustainability and organic farming, they predict, will increasingly become a focus for winemakers as consumer demand more transparency and clarity in terms of how producers present their wines. Authenticity and health concerns will become primary drivers of how wines are marketed and sold and how end users perceive them. This trend had already emerged over the last decade, they note, but now it will be “accelerated.” The nature of the COVID-19 crisis will heighten the demand “organic, biodynamic, natural, and sustainable” wines, they believe. Wineries who embrace these categories — and more importantly — those who are prepared and have the resources to market their wines as such will enjoy a significant advantage over those who don’t.

– There is an increased need for the government to regulate payment terms, they note, so as to ensure prompt transfer of funds. Chronic delays in payment, a systemic problem throughout the Italian business world, make wineries more vulnerable, especially in times of crisis. The authors cite the case of a major northern Italian winery group that faces bankruptcy because of unpaid, overdue invoices that it is now unlikely to collect. Italian legislators, they argue, should intervene to ensure that credit terms are respected, including government-imposed penalties for late payments.

– Restrictions on movement, and especially intercontinental travel, will make it extremely challenging for winery ambassadors to visit foreign markets. As a result, wineries will increasingly have to rely on agents already present in the market. The authors foresee the rise of ad hoc brand ambassadors. (Similarly, travel restrictions will lead to a rise in domestic tourism in Italy. The Italian wine industry needs to be bolster its hospitality programs in order to take advantage of a surge in Italian tourists with better education and a more highly trained work force.)

– Because of the new challenges of market work, especially when budgets are stretched thin, wineries will have to be more selective and demanding when designating a wine ambassador. As the authors note, wineries often delegate market work to employees — like winemakers — who have no sales experience. Sales skills, not technical knowledge, and robust training of sales staff will be one of the keys to reviving the industry.

– Remote tastings with buyers using video technology are less than ideal, they note, because the variables affecting the wine (temperature, humidity, bottle variation, etc.) are too complex to mitigate. Even tastings conducted with proper social distancing won’t suffice because the two actors — buyer and winery ambassador — still won’t be able to taste from the same bottle. The industry will need to devise new ways for interacting with buyers. The authors don’t have the answers for this seemingly insurmountable challenge.

*The acronym is borrowed from Thomas Friedman’s March 17, 2020 op-ed for the New York Times, “Our New Historical Divide: B.C. and A.C. — the World Before Corona and the World After.”

Live with Nicolis Amarone today, MS Steven McDonald on what’s next, and a great podcast from Columbia Journalism School

“It was like 2018 all over again,” said Master Sommelier Steven McDonald (above) when I spoke to him recently for the last in my series of posts for the Houston Press on how the Houston wine community is coping with the ongoing health crisis. He was referring to the moment the Court of Master Sommeliers revoked his newly awarded Master Sommelier title after it discovered irregularities in the testing process (answers had been leaked to another candidate; Steven later re-tested and was awarded the coveted pin).

“It was like your whole world was falling apart,” he said. “I feel like I’m living it all over again right now.”

Until late March, Steven was running what many consider to be one of the best wine programs in the U.S. Today, he and the team he managed are all unemployed.

Steven’s a friend: our kids attend the same elementary school and we often bump into each at our favorite neighborhood breakfast place. And he’s one of the wine professionals in our community I admire most. An immensely talented sommelier and an accomplished songwriter and performer, he’s trying to figure out what’s next.

Check out the post here.

In other news…

I’ll be doing a live Instagram story today with Angelo Nicolis from Valpolicella. I tasted with Angelo and his family back in January during my last trip to Italy, including the 2010 Ambrosan (what a wine!) which we will also be opening today.

Valpolicella is such poorly understood appellation in the U.S. I feel a deep connect to the wines because of my many years living, studying, and working in Veneto during my grad student days. I’m really geeked to talk shop with Angelo (who’s a super cool guy, btw, and speaks great English).

Check it out today at 11 a.m. CST/12 p.m. EST on the Ethica Wines Instagram @EthicaWines. I’ve really been enjoying my work with Ethica. Great people and great wines. And these stories have been a lot of fun. Help support Italian wine and Italian winemakers and growers by joining us. I hope to see you then.

In other other news…

Last week I did an interview with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism candidate Emily Pisacreta on how the health crisis will impact the availability of Italian foods and wines in the U.S. (her professor is my good friend Ben Shapiro).

Check out her podcast here.

The Italian wine and food industries were already deeply impacted by the trade wars, tariffs, and the threat of more tariffs when the pandemic forced governments across the world to shut down their economies. It was a “perfect storm” for many in the trade.

Check out her podcast: it’s really compelling to hear her interview with Marco Forti from the Pecorino Toscano Consortium.

Dulcis in fundo…

A lot of people asked me about my Earth Day greeting yesterday: non unius terrae sed totius naturae interpretes sumus.

The line comes from Pliny: “we must contemplate/study not just one [place on] earth but all of nature [to have a deeper understanding of it].” It seemed fitting for the moment.

Image via Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Please share: Southern Smoke (Houston) offering restaurant worker relief nationwide (Houston Press interview with wine director Matthew Pridgen)

Until I reached out to Underbelly Hospitality wine director Matthew Pridgen (above) for an interview published today by the Houston Press, I wasn’t aware that the group’s non-profit Southern Smoke is offering financial aid not just to Houston-area residents but also to restaurant workers across the U.S.

“So far we’ve donated over $670,000 to 354 people to date since the COVID crisis has started,” he told me. “Obviously there’s still a lot more. They’re processing them as fast as they to try to get money to people. Once people are approved, it’s a really quick turn-around. The check is in the mail immediately. It’s been a big help to a lot of people. We’re able to help outside of Houston. It’s nationwide. It’s not relegated to strictly Houston.”

Southern Smoke is currently accepting applications from people in need: click here to apply. And they have 30 staff members processing applications.

“Once people are approved,” he said, “it’s a really quick turn-around. The check is in the mail immediately. It’s been a big help to a lot of people.”

Please share with anyone who needs the support right now.

The interview is part of a series of posts devoted to the Houston wine community and how it is coping with the ongoing health crisis (for the record, I’m putting these together pro bono).

Thanks for sharing.

And happy Earth Day: non unius terrae sed totius naturae interpretes sumus.

“I would order 365 bottles each year.” Mario Soldati on Giacosa Roero Arneis.

In the fall of 1975, during his third trip across Italy tasting and researching material for his celebrated television series, “Vino al Vino,” pioneering food and wine writer Mario Soldati happened upon a relatively unknown “producer and ager of wines” in the village of Neive.

The winemaker in this case was Bruno Giacosa, today considered to be one of the greatest producers of Barolo and Barbaresco of all time.

But many will be surprised to learn that the wine that Soldati was most excited about wasn’t a Barbaresco Santo Stefano or Asili, nor a Barolo Falletto Vigna Le Rocche. Instead, it was Giacosa’s Arneis.

When a bottle of 2018 Giacosa Roero Arneis found its way to our dinner table the other night (thanks to my generous friends at Folio Fine Wine Partners), I was reminded of Soldati’s notes from his notes from the trip (originally published in Italy by Mondadori in 1977).

The following is an excerpted translation. I hope you enjoy it as much as Tracie and I enjoyed the wine.

*****

I don’t remember how it happened one early morning. But as soon as we arrived at the Albergo Reale, I discovered that in Neive, a village that lies between Asti and Alba, winemaker Bruno Giacosa, “producer and ager of wines,” had recently begun to make Arnèis [sic]…

In this moment, as I write, I have a bottle of Arnèis before me, many months now after my visit. It somehow reminds me of the magical surprise that I felt when I first walked up the stairs to the first floor of the small country house where Bruno Giacosa lives, vinifies, and ages his wines. I saw that bottle, all by itself, on a long marble table…

[It was] the 1974 Arnèis, 12 percent alcohol.

Intensely aromatic, but with extreme garb. Not fruity but a floral, pleasantly bitter note, reminiscent of geranium. It reappears on the palate and immediately impresses me. The floral bouquet naturally reminds me of Gradnik’s Pinot Girigio from Collio or Ghersi’s Vermentino. But this wine has a big advantage: lower alcohol. It’s a big advantage because you can drink more of it and you can drink it more often, and not just with appetizers.

It’s a wine you never tire of. If I could, of the 7,500 bottles he makes, I would order 365 bottles each year. My wife and my son agree with me.

Mario Soldati

Excerpted from the chapter “Nelle Provincie di Cuneo, Asti, e Alessandria” (“Terzo Viaggio. Autunno 1975), Vino al Vino, Mondadori, 1977. Translation mine.

Loving, missing, and drinking my friends a world apart…

Had the trade fairs not been cancelled, had international flights not been suspended, had there not been a nationwide lockdown in Italy and then in the U.S., had there not been a global pandemic that has brought the entire world to its knees… an already weary American wine professional would have been in Franciacorta this last weekend, missing his family and home in Texas but comforted by a rich friendship that stretches back more than a decade.

Vinitaly, the annual Italian wine trade fair, was supposed to start yesterday, April 19. Like their counterparts from across the world and Italy, a legion of American wine trade members would have made their way to Verona late last week — me included.

Italians’ legendary warmth and hospitality are hard to understand until you’ve been their fortunate guest. And this lonesome Italonaut has been blessed by the generosity of gracious hosts across the peninsula. But there is none that rivals the reception a solitary American journey has experienced when visiting his comrades in Franciacorta.

Last week, knowing that he would have been otherwise enjoying the company and support of his fellows, the urge to drink their wine — a surrogate for their magnanimity — overcame this American enoscrivener.

Unable to embrace them in the flesh, denied the sound of their laughter, forbidden the fruits of their toil, and prohibited the bounty that graces their tables, he tracked down the next best thing: their 2015 Franciacorta Dosaggio Zero, made from Chardonnay and a small amount of Pinot Blanc, with a second fermentation provoked by the must of berries from those very same vineyards that lie in the shadow of Lake Iseo, and vinified without the addition of any crystallized cane from the lands beyond their Longobard frontier.

The vibrant tropical fruit flavors of this wine rolled off his tongue as he and his family sat down for their Saturday night repast, its minerality leaving a sensation of purity and elegance as he drank it down with his wife’s homemade buns and hamburger patties. Even better yet did it taste to him when he picked up his guitar and strummed a few chords as he drank the last drops, not a libation left for the gods.

Giovanni Arcari and Nico Danesi, I can never repay you for the camaraderie, the friendship, the succor, and the solidarity in all things that you have shared with me. We would have all been together on Saturday night, seated around a table, a guitar within arm’s reach and a wedge of Bagòss, a heel of bread, and a bottle of wine always nearby.

On Saturday night we were a world apart yet you were with me on the bayou’s edge — in heart, in spirit, and in wine.

I love you, I miss you, and for a moment my heart was genuinely lifted by your vinous magic this weekend. I can’t wait until I can embrace you again.

Letter from Italy: “Issues in our hospitality industry that need to be addressed as we rebuild” by Francesco Bonfio.

Today’s letter from Italy come from my good friend and one of the wine professionals I admire most, Francesco Bonfio, founder of the Italian Association of Wine Shop Professionals. He lives in the historic center of Siena. He shared the above photo of the Piazza del Campo where the city’s famous Palio is run twice each year.

Jeremy, I don’t need to tell you how terrifyingly painful it is to see Piazza del Campo without a single human being in it. I don’t need to tell you how frustrating it is that it’s highly likely that the people of Siena won’t be able to attend the two traditional runnings of the Palio on July 2 and August 16. They’ll be missing their main reason for living. The last time that it happened was because of the Second World War. It wasn’t run again until August 16, 1945 with Il Drago as the winner. Since that time, it’s never been suspended or cancelled.

Instead, I’d like to take advantage of your offer to share a letter from Italy by addressing the Italians who follow your blog. I know there are many of them out there.

Jeremy, I don’t know if you are familiar with the Italian saying, quando sei martello batti, quando sei incudine statti (when you are a hammer, strike your fill; when you are an anvil, hold you still). I believe it comes from the world of gambling. It means that when luck is on your side, you need to make the most of it by pushing yourself as far as you can. When, vice versa, you are in a moment of difficulty, you need to hunker down and stay put because the more you get worked up, the more damage you’ll do.

Right now, Italians are an anvil.
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Food aid for Houston sommeliers and restaurant workers thanks to Master Sommelier June Rodil and her partners.

In the second in a series of Houston Press posts on how the local wine community is coping with the ongoing health crisis, this morning I published this interview with Master Sommelier June Rodil (above), a partner in one of the city’s top restaurant groups.

She’s one of just a handful of wine professionals in Houston (and the U.S. for that matter) who still have a job. And she and her team are giving back: the group’s “community box,” with roughly three days’ worth of food, is available to anyone who needs it every Saturday at 2 p.m. at Rosie Cannonball at 1620 Westheimer (at Kuester St.). The partners prepare and distribute 100 boxes each week. Rodil recommends lining up at 1:30 p.m. to ensure availability. “No questions asked,” she said. “We just don’t want anyone to go hungry.”

That’s not all she and her partners are doing for our community. And she also shared some good advice for out-of-work sommeliers. Check out the post here.

For those who wish to support our local food and wine community through a donation, I recommend the Houston-based Southern Smoke Emergency Relief Fund.

In other news…

I’ll be hosting a live story with Andrea Farinetti, COO of Barolo producer Borgogno, today at 11 a.m. CST (12 p.m. EST) on the Ethica Wines Instagram (@EthicaWines). Andrea’s family has played a major role in reshaping Piedmontese viticulture over the last 15 years and I’m really eager to e-meet him and discuss how he and his family’s companies are facing the challenges of the current economic climate.

Please join us if you can.

Thanks for being here and thanks for supporting Italian wine by drinking it.

Dum vita spes.

A new series for Houston Press on how the local wine community is coping with health crisis.

Like its sisters and brothers across the country, the closely knit Houston wine community is reeling from widespread layoffs and furloughs. The impact has been nothing short of devastating. Many wine professionals live paycheck to paycheck and the sudden loss of income has left an entire generation of sommeliers without a means to support themselves. It’s really bad out there: people who yesterday were serving top-shelf wines are now standing in breadlines.

In an effort to raise awareness of our community’s needs and resources, I asked the editor of the Houston Press to let me launch a new series of posts devoted to how Houston-based wine professionals are coping with the crisis and what they are doing to support their colleagues.

The first post in the series, published today, features Advanced Sommelier Jaime De Leon (above, in a selfie he took for the piece). As the Beverage Director for the Kroger supermarket chain’s Houston division, he’s one of just a handful of wine professionals who are still employed in our city.

I wanted to post Jaime’s piece first because over the course of our conversation, he underlined the fact that Kroger — like H-E-B, the other major supermarket chain that serves our community — is hiring.

“Kroger is definitely welcoming anyone and everyone that’s willing to seek employment with the Kroger company,” he told me. “Feel free to apply. We are looking for help. It’s not a good time for the total industry and our economy but thank God there are still avenues that are still available for a way to make some money.”

Visit the Kroger careers page for job listings. There are many positions currently being offered, at multiple locations across the greater Houston area.

“I’ve extended the website Kroger jobs site to everyone,” he said. “And I’ve told them that they can use my name as a reference if they need it.”

I’ve already interviewed a number of our colleagues and I’m looking forward to sharing the posts as I edit them.

If you know a Houston wine professional in need, please encourage them to apply on the Kroger website. And please feel free to pass along my contact (jparzen@gmail.com) so I can get them in touch with Jaime.

And for the record, the Houston Press is also in need of support. I’m doing these posts pro bono.

In other news…

Today, I also want to give a shout-out to another Houston colleague, a sommelier who’s been using his time in isolation during the Stay Home-Work Safe order to produce a new enocentric podcast.

Chris Poldoian’s By the Glass is just two episodes in and I was honored to be a guest on his show. He produced it remotely: we spoke by phone using headphones as we recorded our voices and then he spliced the audio files together.

Chris (below) is a great guy and a beloved member of our community. I’m not a fan of my own voice but a listen might help to pass the hours of isolation. He was keen to hear about my experiences in Franciacorta and Lambrusco. I know Chris will appreciate the click.

According to media reports, we’re about two weeks from our peak here in Houston. Please stay safe and isolate. Staying at home saves lives.

A vine flower from Italy: the cycle of life reminds us of nature’s resilience this Easter weekend.

Flowering has begun in the vineyards in Italy.

The photo above was taken this week by my friend Giovanni Arcari in Franciacorta (Brescia province) in the north of Italy and the one below is from my friend Paolo Cantele in Salento (Lecce province) in the south.

Ever since another friend, Raffaella Federzoni, sent me the first in what would become a series of “letters from Italy” during the health crisis, I’ve thought a lot about how the vines just keep growing, unaware of what is happening to the people who tend them.

These photos, taken during the Christian Holy Week, are reminders of nature’s resilience.

The news from Italy is promising today.

“The curve is clearly decreasing,” said a top Italian health official according to today’s papers. “But let’s not let our guard down,” he added.

Unfortunately, the news from our own country has been getting worse and worse this week. And the terrifying numbers and reports from city’s like New York, New Orleans, and Miami parallel those that began appearing a month ago in Italy.

Thankfully, Houston’s mayor relented and finally decided to close our parks this weekend. The entire city is now on lockdown. Tracie, the girls, and I are hunkered down at home, with plenty to eat and everything we need to keep ourselves occupied. We’ll attend Tracie’s father’s Easter services on Facebook this Sunday and we’ll visit with her family later in the day on Zoom and Facetime.

I’ll be thinking about those flowers this weekend. And I’ll dream of tasting the wines that they will bear this fall.

Happy Easter, everyone. Please be safe.

Parzen family Pesach letter.

Last night as we were tucking the girls into bed, Georgia, age 8, prefaced her question as always with her habitual daddy, can I ask you something?

Next came the actual question, one that I don’t have the answer to: daddy, when is this whole thing going to be over?

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve thought a lot about how this is the first time in our daughters’ lives that Tracie and I, like them, are navigating a situation for which none of us, not even the smartest people in the world, have a ready solution. Given the enormous and entirely uncharted challenges that we are all facing, I realize that like Georgia and Lila Jane (age 6), we are all children who have only their faith, their family, and their love to guide them.

I was about to board a flight back to Houston from Miami on March 9 when Italy announced that it was locking down the whole country. Tracie and I knew then that it was only a matter of time before Houston would get its Stay Home-Work Safe order. Sure enough, by Thursday of that week, schools had been closed and we were already isolating (even though Houston’s complete lockdown wouldn’t come for some time). As long as I live and breathe, I’ll never forget when two weeks had passed since my last flight and and I was confident that I had avoided getting infected. Today, Miami, where I attended a large walk-around tasting and took part in a wine conference, is a hot spot.

Tracie, the girls, and I are all healthy. And we’ve been taking every precaution we can to make sure that we stay safe. My mother, my brothers, and their families are all healthy. And so is Tracie’s family. But her grandmother — her mewaw, Violet, 99 years old — had a stroke a few weeks ago and we are all really sad that we can’t visit with her. Not even her children, Randy, Tracie’s dad, and his sister Holly, can visit her in the rehabilitation home where she is recovering. Another sibling, Jim, lives with his wife in Utah and it’s impossible for them to get to Texas now, for obvious reasons. It’s weighing on all of us terribly. Tracie’s family always rallies when one of its members falls ill. But today that’s just not possible.

Georgia and Lila Jane are both doing well. But they have lots of questions (to which we don’t have answers) and Lila Jane has been acting up a little more than usual. We recognize that she is having trouble expressing her anxiety. Every day it gets a little better, a little easier. Luckily, Tracie and I both work from home and so the isolation has been easier for us to deal with than for some of our friends who used to go to an office every day. Homeschooling has had its challenges. But we — the kids, the parents, and the teachers — are all beginning to settle into the rhythms of the new normal.

All in all, we have been extremely blessed. We all miss the way life was before but we know that we are immensely fortunate to have our health and each other.

Tonight, we’ll celebrate the Passover with our Seder meal. We weren’t able to find everything for our Seder plate at our local supermarket but we’ll make do. We’re sharing the one box of matzah that we found with another family in our neighborhood. Just one sheet of matzah would suffice and we are thankful for that. We’ll pour the cup of wine for Elijah and we’ll open the door. But for the first time in our lives, we won’t be able to invite a stranger in (one of my favorite traditions about the Passover, although no one has ever showed up). It will be a Pesach like none before.

I’m hoping that Georgia and Lila Jane will read the Four Questions tonight. I have answers for those. I can’t answer Georgia’s question, when this whole thing will be over? The only thing I know is that we, just like Georgia and Lila Jane, are G-d’s children. And I put my faith in Them and them. Only They and they can deliver us from this crisis.

I hope your Passover is a good one. G-d bless you, G-d bless us all. Chag sameach.