Flying winemakers land in Italy

Flying winemakers land in Italy – Brief Article

Susan Low

These days, if you want to be a successful wine producer, you have to make “premium” wines. Call it what you like–you can decide to make simply “premium” or you can go for “super-premium” or even “ultra-premium.” Of course, you’ll need the fancy bottles and the stylish labels, too, not to mention some high price tags. As ill-defined and as irritating as those terms are, they help to underline one crucial point: “jug wine” is out.

I would guess that certain large Central Valley wineries (who shall remain nameless due to their litigious natures) understand this point pretty clearly. In recent years, the big wineries have been desperately trying to leave the whole jug wine thing behind them in an attempt to rebrand themselves as producers of expensive, upscale wines. “Us make jug wine? No way. Well, OK, but that was a long time ago… and besides, we’ve changed,” you can imagine them saying.

But they’re not the only ones who are at it. Look at southern Italy. Not so long ago you couldn’t drink the stuff made there without guaranteeing yourself a whopper of a headache. The potential was certainly there–hot, dry weather, a plethora of interesting, quality grape varieties, a long history of winemaking–but for many decades that potential wasn’t being realized. The good stuff was often shipped out to bolster wimpier wines from the north in poor vintages, and the rest went into bulk wine, often made by cash-strapped cooperatives. No, southern Italy wasn’t the place to come looking if you wanted fine wine–or even a bottle of something well-made and inexpensive.

But in the past decade, the southern stretches of Italy have undergone a dramatic transformation. Regions like Campania, Puglia and Sicily are now turning out the kind of clean, fruit-driven wines that the international wine-drinking community loves. Southern Italy is now being taken seriously by the wine cognoscenti, and not just for cheap, everyday wines. Prices–particularly in Sicily and Campania–are beginning to creep ever higher as the reputations of their wines become more established.

The Flying Winemaker Theory

One popular–but flawed–theory concerning southern Italy’s vinous volte-face posits that foreign “flying winemakers” are responsible for “discovering” the region and unlocking its potential. This argument suggests that the Italians just couldn’t be bothered making decent wine. In fact, they had probably forgotten how to make the stuff some time around the fall of the Holy Roman Empire. They were happy, the theory goes, growing huge crops and selling their grapes to the cooperatives-which didn’t really care much either.

But when those clever Australians flew into town and taught them a thing or two–including how to clean up their wineries and how to make decent wine–well, things really changed. Without flying winemakers, those lazy southern Italians would still be sitting around doing “far niente,” the way they always did.

Do you get the feeling that there’s more than just a bit of cultural imperialism going on here? One of the problems with the whole flying winemaker thing is that cultural values tend to be imposed from the outside. Too often, these peregrine producers rely on international grape varieties, following “recipes,” rather than tuning in to local varieties and terroir. The result? Yet more nameless, faceless plonk to add to the world’s growing oversupply of cheap wine.

Yet, to dismiss the whole flying winemaker trend as an exercise in exploitation is equally daft. Throughout the past decade there have been a number of foreign winemakers working in Italy who have been instrumental in helping to change the fortunes of this huge region. The difference between them and the worst sort of flying winemaker comes down to one thing: commitment. Without commitment, without the willingness to devote time and effort, dull wine is the inevitable result.

So who are the individuals who have made a positive contribution? One of the first foreign winemakers to work in Italy–and one of the most successful and influential–has been the Australian Kym Milne MW Milne is director of winemaking at a company called International Wine Services (IWS), which specializes in winemaking projects worldwide.

Milne (along with his colleagues, New Zealanders George Elworthy and Alistair Maling MW) work all over Italy, from Sicily to Veneto. This they do by collaborating with existing Italian companies and setting up partnerships, often with family-owned companies. IWS’s latest release is called Camelot, a 60/40 Cabernet/Merlot blend. The wine is made in Sicily by Milne and Giuseppe Pellegrino, winemaker at IWS’s “host” company, Firriato.

IWS has been involved with Firriato for six years, producing a variety of wines, including Emporio, a Syrah, a Nero d’Avola, a Merlot and two dual-varietal whites (a Cataratto/Chardonnay and a Griolla/Chardonnay) under the Zagara label. Elsewhere in Italy, IWS works with the Cecchi family in Tuscany and Umbria, the Sartori company in Veneto (with input from winemaker Fabrizio Nicole for Soave and Valpolicella), the Meloni family in Sardinia and the Cantele company in Puglia, among others.

The secret to making things work, says Milne, is cooperation. And in order to make cooperation possible, you have to find the right business partner. “It’s finding the right people to work with,” confirms Milne. “There’s no point in seeing a place with good vineyards and good grapes if the people aren’t open-minded. Without co-operation locally, it just never works.”

Fine-Tuning Is Important

The IWS team is involved in the entire winemaking process, from sourcing grapes to putting together final blends, working with their winemaking partners who are on the scene at all times. Milne describes it as a constant process of “finetuning.” The things that IWS generally works on are vineyard selection, investment in barriques (importing from France, rather than using local wood), using cooler fermentation temperatures, more careful juice handling and less oxidative juice handling, particularly for white wines.

Is getting things done here difficult? “Sometimes we have ideas that are foreign to the people there and they’re skeptical at first, but we generally try to work to a common goal. As long as we keep that feeling of working toward a common goal, it works,” he says.

Not all foreign winemakers have found it easy, though. Another Australian winemaker, the ebullient Geoff Merrill, was involved in making wine in Italy for seven years, with the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. It wasn’t always easy. “The early years were far more difficult, because I was trying to convert the Italians to my way of thinking,” says Merrill. “The young Italian winemakers were very enthusiastic and competent. Some of the more entrenched middle management needed convincing early, but came ’round in the end,” he says.

Of course, it isn’t just the Australians and the New Zealanders who are getting involved in Italy-there are Americans working there, too. Most famously, the Mondavi/Frescobaldi joint-venture has borne fruit in Tuscany, Sicily, Venezia and the Marches, but there are others. Howard Rossbach, of “virtual winery” Firesteed, has been making a Barbera d’Asti since the 1995 vintage. To my palate, though, the Firesteed wines are variable in quality. I’m not certain that the wines show the spirit of dedication that other foreign winemakers have shown.

A Transplanted Californian One of the most dedicated has got to be transplanted Californian Mark Shannon. Shannon, though, is no flying winemaker. In fact, he has little time for them. He says, “To fly in for harvest and fly home for Christmas is not making wine; it is delivering a recipe.” Shannon has moved to Italy lock stock and barrel, and has lived in Puglia since 1997.

His “A Mano” and “Promessa” ranges of wines have been hugely successful. These are wines made with true feeling and-dare I use the much-abused term-passion. Shannon had worked with Zinfandel in California and fell in love with Puglian Primitivo. His Primitivos are full of velvety richness and deep, dense, savory black cherry fruit. He has just added a chocolatey, velvety Rosso del Salento with the 2000 vintage. Shannon refers to the variety as “a passion second only to Primitivo.”

Shannon has been successful working in Italy, but that success was not a foregone conclusion in the early stages. When he accepted the job of directing a startup project in Puglia, he admits that “my American friends laughed at me. Everyone said that, ‘nothing was possible in Puglia.’ Well, they were almost correct. It is very difficult, but not impossible to make world class wine here.”

Shannon has found that there is definitely a difference in the approach to winemaking in this region. He says, “In Puglia we have few winemakers. The enologists go to school and learn chemistry, analysis, etc. There is a prevailing attitude that to make wine you have to add things, to process your wines. Our philosophy and practices are so different; we try to do as little as possible to the wonderful grapes that we use.

Yet Shannon has undoubtedly learned a lot through his experiences in Puglia. “Respect for tradition is certainly one of my newfound attributes,” he admits. “I am by nature iconoclastic, so tolerance for the old, even if it could be improved, is an acquired skill. I have also learned that progress and change comes one producer at a time. No amount of money from the EU, no amount of proselytizing will change a tradition-bound process.”

Iconoclastic or not, Shannon has also come to embrace the idea of terroir. “When I was a young winemaker, I thought that terroir was the French excuse for dirty wines. How wrong I was. Terroir is the expression of the flavors of the native grapes grown where they belong.”

A Learning Process

Geoff Merrill, too, took a lot away from the seven vintages he spent in Italy. He describes his time there as a two-way learning process. He says, “The Italians continually asked me why I did certain procedures and I had to ask myself why. In some instances I modified these procedures to suit the situation, although in Australia I would have automatically assumed they would be carried out without question.”

His experience in Italy has resulted in a subtle re-thinking of how he makes his own wine in Australia. “The Italian wines might not succeed in our stringent show environment, but they complement food. My wines now reflect a more elegant style, better suited to the marriage of food and wine,” he says.

So there is evidence that the influence of “flying winemakers” is not simply a one-way street. The “teachers” it seems, have had quite a lot to learn from their “students.” It’s true that great strides have been made over the last decade in helping the southern stretches of Italy regain lost vinous dignity.

But not everything made by flying winemakers–here or in other cash-strapped countries or regions–is of high quality. In fact, some of the stuff isn’t so very different from what used to wind up in those screw-cap gallon jugs–it’s just dressed up to look fancier. Nonetheless, most producers agree that the “flying wine” phenomenon is here to stay. Let’s hope that they choose to focus on quality rather than volume–and wines that are “premium” in nature, as well as name.

(Susan Low reports on the international wine business for Wines & Vines from her base in London. She is the former editor of WINE Magazine.)

Going native?

When in Rome–or Italy, at least–is it better to work with international varieties, such as Chardonnay and Cabernet, or with native Italian ones? That depends on who you ask. For Geoff Merrill, international varieties are a safer bet. “I prefer to work with international varieties because I am more familiar with their behavioral patterns,” he says. “However, I did enjoy working with varieties such as Teroldego and Sangiovese, which I had never worked with before.”

For Kym Milne MW, working with native varieties is interesting, but he finds that the lack of name-recognition can make them a hard sell. “Sometimes, even if the wine is good, no one buys it. Greco, for example, just didn’t work for us, even when we relabeled it and repackaged it.” As a solution, he has introduced native/international dual varietals, such as Griolla/Chardonnay.

And in the native corner is Mark Shannon. He’s a big fan of native grapes and wouldn’t consider making wine in Italy using international varieties. According to Shannon, “The world is overflowing with international varietals made by flying winemakers. There is a clean, sterile, bland, uniform flavor profile for these wines no matter where they originated.” I think it’s safe to assume that Cabernet Sauvignon won’t be his next release.

Chateau Elan Receives Four-Star Facelift

Chateau Elan Winery & Resort–the 3,500 acre, 276-room property located in Braselton, north of Atlanta, Georgia–is undergoing a $3 million facelift.

The lobby was remodeled, and the Atrium level, Versailles Restaurant and Conference Center were laid with 2,000 square feet of new carpets and marble flooring. Rooms and suites were revitalized; six suites were redecorated with separate themes. Five of the seven restaurants are being refurbished and the kitchens upgraded with high-tech culinary equipment. The 30,000 square foot Spa received a makeover, as well. Also, plans for introducing a new concept for the Wine Market include a sidewalk coffee shop and product displays of the estate bottled wines from Chateau Elan vineyards.

“The guests come here for business purposes or on vacation to experience that feeling of relaxation and revitalization identified with our four-star resort,” said Henk Evers, president of the national flagship property of Chateau Elan Hotels & Resorts. “With this renovation we will continue to enhance Chateau Elan, its amenities and services with a fresh and inviting look conducive to our guests’ productivity and enjoyment.”

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