Whine Time

22 Apr 2003

The 37th Vinitaly ended last week, so the time is ripe to review the situation, have discussions, wonder about unconfirmed reports and look in a little more detail at wine issues. People are beginning to speak about a difficult period ahead.

Since the start of the year the news has been gloomy – a stagnant world market and a lot of wine remaining unsold. Nonetheless, since the start of the terrible conflict in Iraq, indications suggest that Italian wines have recovered slightly. Sales have increased at the expense of the unfortunate French, who do not approve of the conflict and seem to be suffering a boycott from American consumers. They are just rumors at present, possibly just propaganda: we shall find out the real situation in due course.

It should be pointed out, however, that this boycott is also being exploited, as is evident from the shabby behavior of some Italian producers. They have made loud declarations justifying the attitude of US consumers, thus demonstrating unprincipled opportunism. I would like to see how they would feel if they were at the receiving end. A bit of patriotism is all very well, but I don’t think anyone is more partisan than those who claim not to be. Immediately cashing in on other people’s misfortunes is a mean thing to do and will surely be repaid at the first opportunity, though in a more subtle and sophisticated way.

But let us put the war and these skirmishes between producers to one side: the former is sadly all too serious and the latter is of no consequence at all. Something we should note, however—something which deserves some soul-searching—is the constant, unrelenting increase in prices we have witnessed over the last seven to eight years. This is one of the main reasons for this sudden slowdown and the cool reception towards our national product on world markets.

I have been recommending caution and moderation over pricing policies for a few years: lean years always come round and you should never push your luck too far. The facts tell an unambiguous story: price increases are often quite unjustifiable. And producers who had been enjoying relaxing trips to foreign countries, where their wines were selling like hot cakes, are now traveling a bit more frantically, with a worried expression on their faces.

They are facing serious dilemmas after backing a strategy of developing products with a so-called “international” taste. Many producers went too far, interpreting legitimate critical assessments – and awards – as a passport for success that could be followed blindly. We can now see an opposite trend emerging, towards rediscovering native grape varieties – but they are not so popular in other countries and do not seem to appeal to foreign palates. In any case, the long-debated struggle between tradition and innovation is becoming tedious and is proving to be counterproductive.

In short, managing this situation is very difficult and it is perhaps late in the day to advise people to watch what they are doing. But it is also true that it is not the end of the world – it would appear that people have been making good money up till now.

A little humility would not go amiss. We could do with more objectivity in recognizing poor vintages and ought to exercise some rational awareness of what’s possible. We should not continue to force the market, but rather seek try to understand what it is telling us.

I would like to make a final comment to those who are complaining about this “crisis”, sometimes in sensational terms: if people are facing hard times it means they have made mistakes somewhere; people who are managing to get by without too much trouble have obviously acted sensibly so far.

First printed in La Stampa on 6/4/2003

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