Italy's Kaleidoscope of Diversity is its Strength
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Wine expert Steven Spurrier of Decanter suggests a unified brand to help propel Italian wine sales abroad as consumption falls at home, but without losing sight of Italy's “kaleidoscope” of diversity. Is it time to launch “Made in Italy?”
The simplest concepts prove to be the most effective and, often, the most blindingly obvious after that lightbulb of invention first flickers: wheels on suitcases, forks, can openers (invented eight frustrating decades after the can), and for a wine lover, even blind wine tastings. The Italian wine economy now finds itself in need of a new, elegantly simple concept for promotion and communcation.
Steven Spurrier is an English gentleman of the wine magazine Decanter who speaks with a soft voice and carries a kind smile about his eyes. He spoke during the 2014 Collisioni Festival as part of the wine and food appointments. He sat under the map of the Barolo cru in the blessedly air-conditioned cellars of the Regional Wine Shop (Enoteca Regionale) in the Barolo Castle, together with the Regional Chair for Piedmont and Southern Italy Ian d’Agata, and wine and food journalist of Il Sole 24 Fernanda Roggero.
“Wine is all about communication,” Spurrier said Saturday. In 1976 in France, where he worked as a wine merchant, he organized the Judgment of Paris to introduce the Old World wine snobs to what he considered to be excellent Californian wines. In his case, communication started with the lack thereof: he hid the wine labels in order to halt any pre-judgment, as California wine was not highly regarded at the time. Thus, the blind wine tasting was born. Its subsequent success promoted the expansion of wine in America and brought about new esteem for Californian wines.
The Judgment of Paris was important because it allowed unknown wines to go up against the big players. “But this kind of competition isn’t necessary anymore,” said Spurrier. “What wine needs is comparison and communication.” It’s a good thing that wine blogs and wine sites are continuing to blossom online from wine lovers of all levels.
Wine tourism is vital because we’re coming back to communication.
However, is it possible that Italy is missing out on wine communication? Italian wine has been ceding slices of Italy’s alcohol consumption pie for several years now, heightening the need for wine exports. Wine communication is, indeed, rather disparate in Italy. Italians are famously individualistic and proud of their regional heritage, while at the same time apathetic of their national heritage (unless it’s the World Cup and the Italians are winning). This makes for a greater emphasis on individual wine regions that shrink to smaller and smaller plots of land, each within another, so that Italy’s crus become the Chinese dolls of wine. On one hand, this presents an unsurpassed patrimony of native diversity. Just dipping a toe in is exciting. On the other, it can be intimidating and confusing.
Spurrier used two examples of a united front in wine communication. The Australians branded their wines behind one country ten years ago, and became the highest-selling wine in the UK (losing ground years later to a series of marketing mistakes). France is currently in the process of marketing its wines under the tagline “Great wines from France,” before getting into specific regions. This mosaic of regional differences, though, is exactly what Spurrier emphasized as Italy’s strength. “Wine is a rediscovery. There should always be a new wine to discover, and Italy is leading in that regard.” In other words, in order to take advantage of the boon that is Italy’s diversity, start general and go more specific; think of the producer, grape, wine name, region, province, and country as one package.
“Italy is recognized for so many things that they need a simple message,” said Spurrier. The Ministry of Agriculture is currently on the job, toying with the idea of launching “Made in Italy” as the countrywide brand. This could either effectively thumb a nose at all the laughably horrific imitations abroad, or be pulled under by them (this remains to be seen). And would it dilute its effectiveness by including everything, from cheese and salumi to olive oils and wine, under one brand? Of course, if wine gets its own motto, then soon every product would want one, and that would bring communicating the brand of Italy back to square one.
Every time you shake the kaleidoscope of Italy, you get a different image.
Another way to help grow interest in Italian wines abroad is through wine tourism. “Wine tourism is vital because we’re coming back to communication,” said Spurrier. He used another successful French example to emphasize his point. “Bordeaux is now open to the public. Initially, the other producers didn’t want that first winery to stay open 365 days a year, but they soon followed.” Now look at how successful Bordeaux is. What is probably attractive to a wine producer is that it can be controlled according to their personal schedule, as they decide to stay opened or closed. However, producers are notably inconsistent at keeping regular hours (naturally so, as they have work in the vineyards, cellars, and with clients), something that a successful wine visit needs.
As for Piemonte in particular, Spurrier suggested that Barolo’s high price tag could be off-putting, and for this, the less-costly wines should be made much more available abroad. “Barolo is the benchmark. People need to see that there are greater wines that they can’t afford, but nonetheless be able to enjoy wines from the same region.” It is a bit like proudly displaying a well-crafted Swiss watch, even if it’s not a Rolex.
Spurrier’s last message was strong and optimistic, and perhaps answers the question of the wisdom of an all-encompassing brand. “Every time you shake the kaleidoscope of Italy, you get a different image. Italy’s independence is a difficulty, but it’s also a strength. Unite.”