Sorgente del Vino March 2017

Oltretorrente ChiaraI’ve been dismissive of trade shows in recent years. I let the personal become professional. They are large and loud. The din and excess, the raw aroma of booze alone gives me anxiety. When I leave I feel I’m exiting an area of grave danger, like a paintball course or a Coldplay concert. But it’s unprofessional to dodge the accumulation of knowledge simply because the experience is a mild irritant.

I hit upon a strategy. I’m a little guy in the wide ocean of wine. To attend the massive fairs filled with industrial sangria makers and vodka floozies and literally thousands of exhibitors, including a fragment that are appealing to me: it’s a mistake. But I need context to grow, to understand if I am importing wines as good as my ego and palate lead me to believe. I have a feisty, healthy ego. To seize hold of a wine and shove it into people’s stemware requires ego. But I don’t value ego at the steering wheel of human character so… there is some roiling tension under my blotchy hide.

I’m at Sorgente del Vino because it is one of the oldest Italian natural wine fairs, well established, with a diverse but ultimately not overwhelming number of exhibitors, and because I’ve never been to it. And because Piacenza is a convenient location, close enough to Piemonte, Emilia-Romagna and the Milan airport that I can do a good deal of what I normally do (visit farms) and also commit 48 hours to grazing through the halls of Piacenza expo.

And I’m here to graze. A few estates that I represent have tables, and it is nice to see them (always) but I’ll see them all at their respective farms on this trip anyway. I want to wander, taste the names I don’t know, with a focus on Liguria and Val d’Aosta, because I know little about what’s happening in those regions today. Calabria and Sardegna, too. On day one I wandered for a couple hours, talking and tasting (35 wines maybe, enough to red-line my palate but not so much as to feel exhausted by the influx of sensation) and formed a few impressions. Sorgente del Vino has a higher population of dogs than any professional wine event I’ve wandered around, including some draft animal sized Newfoundlands. The percentage of smokers is high relative to the general population. Even in Italy smoking is plummeting out of fashion and mercifully the fog of nicotine that covered VinItaly of yore is absent in the sunny concrete causeways around Piacenza Expo. Clusters of smokers drift like last bison on the Great Plains, looking furtive, delinquent, and occasionally quite happy. I’m 16 years beyond a 13-year smoking habit, long enough to feel the creep of disdain. In honesty I like smokers and like smoking, even if it stinks to me now. There are more smokers here than you’d find in a normal population sample because we buy and sell alcohol! Drugs is drugs on some level, drugs have gravitational pull on particular humans. So: no judgment. We’re tasting hippie natural wine of the cosmos, but we’re all in it for the buzz, even if it’s a mellow high that we seek.

I didn’t expect organic cheese. Food throws me off course. Wine is my everyday, the chance to chat with a cheese-maker from the mountains of central Sardegna: that gets my blood moving. And then the raw milk Pecorino slows the blood down again. Balance!

The smell of alcohol is still here. To clarify, alcohol often smells lovely. This is the smell of your college dive bar parking lot. Old rejected alcohol oxidizing into a putrid hangover aroma. We all know it. A reminder of mornings after unthinking evenings.

I’m not sure I covered the whole room. Distractions on day two came in the form of the inspiring/necessary dried pastas of Casa Tajarin from Alba (I bought two kilos) and a particularly beautiful pane lieviti madre, bread the size of my torso that I immediately compulsively purchased and furtively hid in my rental car. Mine mine mine! Why do I need this charred cracked giant bread? The answer is probably hidden deep in my DNA. In between rounds of grocery shopping I run into Daniele Saccoletto, whose farm I’d visited the previous week: he seemed genuinely happy to see me. He has a cult following at this event, which is really great. Later I see Chiara Penanti from Oltretorrente. I have fun walking around with Chiara, getting recommendations of wines made by her friends, and bottles she simply enjoyed tasting. We’ll see each other again on the last day of my travel. This first brief visit after over a year with no contact feels positive, warm. She possesses a mix of my favorite characteristics in a wine partner (or in a human.) She is perceptive, thoughtful, funny, generous, analytical and a little worried, but not held back by her fears. Chiara and Michele take action at Oltretorrente: more on that soon!

I’m not sure if attending trade shows is the greatest commercial activity for wine estates. I’ve heard from winemakers in our portfolio that the costs are high, and that few long-term clients emerge from the scrum of tasters. At least, not enough as reward for vital days away from their farms. Other estates that I represent attend many trade shows and do significant business as a result. I wouldn’t import a wine without visiting where it is made. I have to dig deeper than these events allow, for assurance, to dispel any fears that would otherwise bubble to the surface of my consciousness at 5am, kicking me out of gentle somnambulance and into my frequent state of sweaty, irrational pre-dawn terror.

I see value for the wine buyer in broad critical analysis of wine’s vast unknown expanses. Sorgente del Vino was a low stress situation for me. I scrupulously avoided the temptation to run around trying everything. Consequently I had a good time. And Piacenza is cool. Low impact participation gave me the free time to wander its diverse and architecturally impressive city center. And to eat a pasta or two!

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There are delicious wines that make us happy. They set things alight. We drink them and it’s an entirely different night, we feel just great. These wines are the real deal on a deep fundamental level, and they resonate.

These wines are dangerous: they make it unappealing to drink ordinary wine. You crave their vibe, the extra crackle of giddy electricity, so you spin in frustrated concentric circles through turned-on wine shops, in search of scant bottles of the really awesome stuff. Patterns are altered, to the detriment of convenience.

The ideal of people working in nature for agricultural reward is often the reality of life at the farms that make these delicious wines that send us over the moon. The little farm with a couple people making wine by hand has nothing to do with the creation of most ordinary wine. When you walk down that grocery store aisle, surrounded by a wallpaper of marketed-to-within-an-inch-of-their-life bottles, it is unrealistic to connect those products to a specific farm or farmer. Wandering open-handed through that gauntlet of appealing labels, shopping with an open mind and without a compass will yield an ordinary wine for your dinner. Because ordinary wine, wine without a spark, that beverage is assembled and bottled in exponentially greater quantity than the good stuff. Ending up with it has nothing to do with your powers of discernment or wine acumen.  They are vast and ubiquitous in nearly all alcohol-selling establishments today.

But let’s return to the positive and tangible world of delicious wines.

I want to write about the specifics behind delicious wines I encounter. These are common threads. Precisely how this memorable wine is different from common wine creates definition for an important category. To connect with beer, a category of alcohol whose production distinctions are widely understood and accepted today, I’ll call the majority of delicious wines being made globally today Micro-wines.

Micro-wines wines are:

  1. Made by small estates. Hence the name. We can fuss over what small is, but we know not-small when we see it.
  2. Made by families, or small communities of people. Which is logical to point number one. Family farms and little co-ops with high farming standards make the good stuff.
  3. Farmed in a healthy way. Methods vary greatly, under a successful big tent idea. Microbrewers use quality ingredients, Micro-wine needs the same, and it comes from healthy vines on healthy land.
  4. Estate-bottled, mostly. It starts with controlling fruit quality.
  5. Made to articulate something distinct about their place. This is a bit squishy, but character can be hidden and erased, or exposed and framed by farming and cellar work.

The terms are all imperfect. Many bad-tasting wines also fit within the above definition. It is a worrying trend to associate flaws in farming, fermentation and aging with this emerging category of Micro-wine. This erroneous conflation comes from too-few encounters among wine drinkers with Micro-wine, which they know will be a less homogenized entity. The Micro-wine community will weed these underachievers out. Every community has untalented, average, and exceptional members among its ranks. Our support for the delicious wines makes those farms thrive and continue: it’s how capitalism works, when it works, right?

Returning briefly to danger: every encounter with Micro-wine makes ordinary wine more unappealing. Eventually ordinary becomes intolerable, your body essentially rejects the wine. You know how it’ll make you feel later on, like you’ve consumed a cheap unhealthy drug, or eaten a pile of Bugles, Chips Ahoy and Cheese Whiz for dinner. In my experience, the banality of the ordinary becomes unacceptable, to the degree that abstemiousness is more appealing than a glass of industrial wine. I’d rather read a book! Or drink tea. Heavily processed wines make my mouth unhappy.

Still more danger: of course people will call you a snob. And you are, because you also like eating local ripe tomatoes or tasty local chicken. You analyze what you consume. Snob.

Micro-wine fits, because only a tiny part of the world’s wine is like this. Two or three percent, maybe? Even inside my happy, healthy wine importer bubble I see the difference in scale between the people making cool stuff, and the giants of ordinary wine processing. But seeking out great micro-wine will also lead you to great people who care (sometimes a little too much, exceptional experiences breed obsession) about the same thing you are finding. Fun-to-drink wine.

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