The following op-ed appeared this week on Intravino, Italy’s most popular wine blog. Translation from the Italian by Montalcino Blog.
Vinitaly (the annual Italian wine trade fair) is over and the dust has finally settled. We’re exhausted. But we’ve already returned to our little villages and have fallen back our routines.
Wherever great wines are produced in Italy — Montalcino, Langhe, or Valpolicella — the same old litany of grievances will be repeated again and again. The show is over and all that’s left for us “locals” to do is cry: Our villages aren’t what they used to be; a wine shop stands where you used to be able to buy underwear; everything is so expensive and you can’t even find a parking spot. We’ve sold our souls and our towns are filled with SUVs and the jerks who drive them.
But there are optimists among us. We’ve come so far but we still have a long way to go, they say. As if it weren’t enough, certain “wine experts” complain that we lack entrepreneurial savvy. We are too “rustic,” they claim, incapable of “big picture” projects.
What can I say? There’s no doubt that we live in some of the most beautiful, most vibrant, and richest places in Italy. The enduring success of Brunello, Barolo, and Amarone shows how misguided these criticisms are. If our communities were truly unglued, would we have been able to share our wines with the world? If our villages were populated by small-minded people, would we have been able to make our success last as long as we have?
So why is it that those who live among us view us this way? It’s not as easy as it may seem for us to understand what we’ve become. And what’s worse is that we are now the prisoners of a long list of stereotypes. For example, when we produce high-quality wines and manage to compete handily on the world market, many believe we are mostly charming scoundrels with fancy shoes and conniving minds. They think we are bored aristocrats who don tweed jackets as we escape from the cities to “find ourselves” among the vines. It’s laughable, especially when you remember that amateur gods were never expected to win the Olympics.
You might think that life is easy in these sleepy, magical towns. You might imagine that nothing ever changes here. But it’s actually the impoverished countryside that’s like that. The impoverished countryside that surrounds us. We are something different. We are special communities that have made our wines famous across the world.
It takes a lot more than just grapes, climate, and soil. If that weren’t the case, there would be hundreds of Italian towns producing millions of bottles at exorbitant prices. A great wine is the child of the culture, history, and traditions of a community.
It takes a lot of culture to combine an appellation’s ability to produce great wine and the demands of the market.
It’s a shared history. It takes decades (even centuries) to fine tune the perfect technique. If every generation needed to start from scratch, you’d never get there.
It’s tradition because when it comes to wine, there are certain things that you can’t learn from a textbook. Certain things need to be passed down from person to person.
To achieve success on an international level, all of these things need to come together. And they need to come together in a community that knows how to deal with change. At the same time, that community also needs to know how to preserve its identity and how to rise up again after a crisis. Because sooner or later, the other shoe will drop.
How many communities like this can there be? And are they to be found in places where nature has given us great wines? There aren’t many of them. And it’s no coincidence that the number of famous wines in the world is relatively small.
Our villages are wealthy and vibrant. And they offer many opportunities for our young people. Who are we to complain about not being able to find a good head of lettuce or a pair of underwear? Shopping centers and restaurants may be nice for the people who live, work, and play cards there. But they don’t make for a “real” community.
A “real” community is a community that has developed its own social, economic, and cultural model for living. A real community is one that has a strong identity. It’s a community that provides for its members. It’s a community that integrates everyone without losing its identity. It’s a community that offers a sustainable future to its young people. And that’s what we are.
If I need to drive a couple of extra miles to buy some zucchini, that’s fine with me. You can keep your radishes. I’ll take the Brunello instead.
Stefano Cinelli Colombini