Wed 2 Feb 2011
At a press conference on the future of Italian wine in America — last week at VINO 2011 in New York — importer Leonardo LoCascio startled everyone — well, me — by asserting that American consumers don’t give a flying fuck (that’s not exactly what he said) about the regional niceties of the elaborate Italian DOC and DOCG regulations that determine where grapes can be grown and how they may be blended (if at all) in specific wines and how those wines must be treated in terms of barrel and bottle aging.
“Most of the Italian wine laws are irrelevant to the American consumer,” said LoCascio, founder, chairman and CEO of Winebow Inc. “These regulations are totally meaningless as to whether people buy a wine or not. Everything needs to be simplified.” And he mentioned in passing some little-known DOC zone with the implication that it was completely beyond the pale in terms of marketing interest in the U.S.
It’s true that Italian wine and the Italian wine laws are complicated and often confusing. Over 2,000 grape varieties are officially grown in the country’s 20 broad wine regions — they conform to the boot-shaped nation’s administrative divisions — portioned into something like 311 DOC zones, 39 DOCG zones and 120 IGT zones that produce more than 1200 different wines. Many of these areas are tiny and obscure and produce minute quantities of wine from grapes no one has heard of outside the neighborhood. (The abbreviations stand for Denominazione di origine controllata; Denominazione de origine controllata garantita, a theoretically higher category with stricter controls and “guarantees,” and notice that I say “theoretically”; and Indicazione geografica tipica, for a wine that does not fit into the traditional grape heritage of a region or vineyard area.)
Now I’m not about to contradict the authority of one of this country’s leading importers of Italian wines from all regions, the man who practically singlehandedly persuaded Americans to drink the wines of Apulia, and LoCascio may be correct when it comes to Mr. or Ms. Average American Wine Consumer (AvAmWinC) who just wants to pick up a bottle of pleasant, quaffable pinot grigio to knock back with a bowl of potato chips before dinner. These people, I vouchsafe, probably don’t care a hoot whether their pinot grigio hales from Collio Goriziano or Valle Isarco or Blanc de Morgex et de la Selle (yes, that’s in Italy).
There is, on the other hand, a group of people for whom the notion of regional authenticity rates high on the scale of their aesthetic and moral principles. These are the people who care whence their coffee and and tea and chocolate originate, down to the name of the plantation; who eat on a strictly seasonal basis from local food sources; who buy organic and healthy ingredients whenever possible; who want the wine they drink to be made naturally and traditionally, the consumers who care deeply (perhaps maddeningly so) about the notions of integrity and authenticity that regionality signifies. These concepts form the whole basis of the international Slow Food movement, which started in Italy, and the related locavore phenomenon, and if those social and cultural directions appeal to a minority of Americans, let’s remember, in vinous terms, that only 20 percent of Americans who drink wine drink 90 percent of the wine that gets drunk. These people are serious, and they spend money.
As for me, the more regional the better! I was pleased as punch to try wines at VINO 2011 from Italian DOC zones that I had not encountered before, especially in Lombardy. And to move the discussion out of Italy, a few days ago I made my Wine of the Week a juicy tasty garnacha from Spain’s Vino de la Tierra del Bajo Aragón, another region that was new to me. Somebody is sending me a wine from — New Jersey! The Outer Coastal AVA! I can’t wait!
Of course just because a wine is made by a venerable family on an ancient farm in some dim, out-of-the-way valley using only the most traditional methods and gluing the labels on the (recycled) bottles by hand doesn’t guarantee a great or even good wine. Intentions count, but not much. My point, though, is that we must value individuality, integrity and authenticity, even some eccentricity, if we are to participate truly in a global wine world that does not become homogenized or “pinot-grigioized” into universal innocuousness.