Thursday, January 7, 2010

Italian Wine in America - A Few Thoughts

The author (second from right) with a few friends at a ristorante in Napoli

A few weeks ago, renowned Italian wine journalist Franco Ziliani asked me if I would like to be interviewed for my thoughts on Italian wine in America. I was thrilled to be asked and gave Franco my answers on any number of subjects from how consumers view Italian wines in restaurants to the perception of the quality of Italian wines in general to the ease in understanding these wines.

The interview appears in Italian on the A.I.S. site (Association of Italian Sommeliers) and can be found here. Below is a condensed version of the interview in English.

Franco Ziliani: How has the economic crisis affected the wine scene in America? Is it true that many consumers choose wines because of price?

Tom Hyland: The biggest change is that people are looking to value wines. Often these wines are from Argentina, Chile or Australia (though people are moving away a little bit from the lowest priced Australian wines). American consumers are not loyal – this is important to know. Five or ten years ago, they could buy a Chianti Classico for $12 or $14 per bottle at a store, but now that same wine is $18-$22, so consumers will opt for a Malbec from Argentina or a Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile in the lower or mid-teen price range ($14-16). These are nice wines of course, but they are not Chianti Classico! This however does not seem to matter to most consumers.

There are some consumers however who do want to buy an Italian wine in a lower price range, so they have found value wines from Sicily (Nero d’Avola) as well as Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, so this is good for Italy!

Very expensive wines from anywhere in the world are not selling. This is true both at retail and at luxury restaurants. Just ask some of the sommeliers in New York City or Las Vegas!

FZ: Do you agree that the economic crisis encourages consumers to look for lesser-known wines that were in the past less familiar than the most famous wines?

TH: I do think that as the most famous wines are becoming so expensive today and because people must be careful in how they spend their money, more and more moderately priced wines are becoming popular. This not only refers to value-priced Cabernet Sauvignons from Chile and Australia, for example, but it also means that there are new discoveries out there for consumers. An excellent example is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which has become much more successful in America over the past few years, thanks to its ripe black fruit flavors, easy drinking style and affordable pricing. Nero d’Avola from Sicily is another good example and there are also several inexpensive Spanish reds that are achieving success in the marketplace.

FZ: Do you think that offering wines by the glass can help consumers discover new wines rather than reading about them in the press?

TH: Yes, definitely. People tell me all the time that they don’t know much about wine, but they know what they like. It is difficult for the average consumer to explain the sensations of wine, so it is important for them to taste new wines. That is more important than a review in a magazine.

FZ: Has the economic crisis altered pricing of wines in America? Are wines priced as expensively today in restaurants?

TH: If there is a good thing with the economic crisis, it is that restaurants have lowered the pricing on many expensive wines. Wines that might have sold for $100 a bottle at a restaurant now sell for $75 or $80. The pricing is still too expensive in restaurants, but the situation is better. I have also seen restaurants that offer special pricing (20% discount) on wines on a particular night during the week that would be not that busy, such as a Tuesday night.

I think restaurants have to do this, especially as more BYOB resturants are having great success. People are starting to become better educated on wines and their pricing, so they do not want to pay expensive prices in restaurants.

FZ: Do you think there is room for other Italian wines in America besides Pinot Grigio? Do you think that examples of Pinot Grigio from California, Oregon, New Zealand and other places can compare in sales to Italian Pinot Grigios?

TH: While Pinot Grigio from Italy is still popular – and I think will always be popular – I do think other Italian wines will gain great success. I see a comeback for Soave, especially with the wines made by Pieropan and Ca’Rugate. Other whites such as Oriveto, Gavi and Pinot Bianco (Alto Adige or Friuli) offer good value and are now selling well. They are also popular, as they are un-oaked wines that can enjoyed with or without food, which makes these wines attractive to consumers.

Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris from other countries do sell, but not as well as those from Italy. I think this has to do with its popularity as well as the American consumer’s love of anything from Italy.

FZ: What do you think of Italian wines today? Are they of better quality than in the past?

TH: Yes, the winemaking and quality of today’s Italian wines are much better than twenty or thrity years ago. Just as long as technology does not overtake terroir, things will be fine!

FZ: What is the conscience level and expertise level of the American wine consumer today? Have they been guided by wine "gurus" such as The Wine Spectator and Robert Parker?

TH: I think that American consumers are more comfortable ordering wine today and arguably, they are more knowledgable today than 10 or 15 years ago. But I do not think that most American consumers are that knowledgable about most wines in general. They know that Italy is home to many great wines, but few know what a Barbaresco is or even which region is home to Brunello. The consmers that are guided by Parker and Wine Spectator know a few famous producers, but they are not that well versed in the world’s wines. They blindly follow these publications, but I don’t believe the average American consumer worries about the ratings in these magazines. The only exception is when someone might need to purchase a special bottle of wine that would sell for $50 and up- then they would look at a wine recommended by those publications.

FZ: Which wines are best known in America today: French, Italian or New World?

TH: Of course, California wines are the best known, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay and to a lesser degree, Pinot Noir. Americans are very name conscious, so Napa Valley plays an important role as people know of the quality of the wines from there. Image is very important, so the fact that Napa has earned a notion of quality means a lot to consumers. An excellent wine region such as Monterey, however, is not that famous, so you do not see these wines as often as those from Napa, even though these wines are excellent.

French wines are losing popularity in America, for two main reasons. First is the complicated appellation syatem – few consumers understand that a Meursault, for example, is made from Chardonnay. Of course, the second reason is price. If you want a famous French wine such as Bordeaux or Burgundy, you have to pay a lot of money for it.

Italian wines are very popular, especially as Italy has such an positive image to Americans! The Italians have also been very smart as they have updated their wine laws to ensure that the wines are easier to understand. It is still very difficult for most American consumers to know about many Italian wines, but they are learning and they understand the quality of Italian wines.

FZ: What aspects of Italian wine excites you the most? Which wines do you like the most?

TH: For me, it is tasting wines that reflect both the area where they were made as well as the heritage of that land. That is why I love the wines of Campania so much, as Greco, Fiano and Taurasi are such beautiful representations of the viticultural history of this land.

The best Italian wines, of course, are the ones made from indigenous varieties. These are wines that have a sense of place and a soul and are not made to please the market or measure up to a new trend. Instead these wines are unique and individualistic. A wine is so much more that a set of statistics on alcohol or acidity. The best wines offer special flavors while telling the story of the land and its people. That to me is what Italian wines are all about.

Specificially, my favorite wines are the reds of the Langhe as well as the whites of Friuli and Alto Adige and almost anything from Campania.

FZ: Which are the Italian wine zones that you love the most?

TH: If I had to choose one Italian wine that I love the most, it is Barolo. This has such great complexity and aging potential and it is a wine that changes so much over the course of time. It is also the wine that for me best reflects the local terroir. The Barolos from La Morra are so fragrant and round, while those from Serralunga and Monforte are so much more powerful with more rugged tannins. It is fascinating to taste wines from so many different cru in this zone and when you can enjoy a first-rate Barolo from a producer such as Cavallotto, Bartolo Mascarello or Beppe Rinaldi, you are tasting a great wine from people that respect what their land gives them.

I am also a fan of traditional Brunellos such as Il Poggione, Col d’Orcia, Talenti, Sesta di Sopra, Le Chiuse and Pian dell’Orino, to name a few of the best. These are so elegant and so rich with such finesse. I also love Taurasi, but only in the traditonal style.

I am also a big fan of Italian whites, especially from Alto Adige – I love Gewurztraminer from Tramin – and Friuli. The best examples of Soave are beautiful whites as are Greco di Tufo and Fiano do Avellino from Campania. Finally, I am also a fan of well made Vermentino from the Tuscan coast as well as from Sardegna.

FZ: How do you see the future of wine consumption in America? Will it be relegated to a minority of consumers?

TH: I think that wine consumption will continue to increase in America, though in small numbers. Much of this has to do with the fact that there are so many value wines available from around the world. There will always be people who do not drink wine due to health reasons or because of religious beliefs, but the number of these people are small.

Also, as wine gives many people a sense of culture and education, it will always be important in America.

FZ: What do you think of the phenomenon of free information on wine via the internet and wine blogs? Does this alternative information benefit the public?

TH: I think it this is a positive development, as more information and more opinions are a good thing for the industry. I do think that some blogs are poorly written and offer very little, if any, good information. But there are some excellent blogs written by people that have important things to say. The fact that blogs can be more timely with certain developments in the industry is another good thing.

I also think it’s a good thing that consumers can read these blogs and understand there is more to wine appreciation than reading The Wine Spectator or The Wine Advocate! The world of wine is bigger (much bigger) than what is presented in those two publications.


  1. Mr. Hyland,

    Your remarks in this interview are cogent and helpful, and I agree with many of your points.

    I would like to point out that Wine Spectator reviewed 3,000 Italian wines in 2009, reaching far beyond "a few famous producers." You mention enjoying the wines of Alto Adige; a feature story in our August 31, 2009, issue focused on the region and its many fine producers.

    Our goal is to inform and educate wine lovers about wines from all over the world. We are not looking for "blind followers;" we hope to help people explore broadly and learn their own tastes along the way.

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator

  2. Thomas:

    Thanks for your comment- keep reviewing those lovely Italian wines!

  3. Thanks you Tom for mentioning Tenuta il Poggione. We see each other in Chicago. A presto, Ale