SpeakEasy: Alfonso Cevola, On The Wine Trail in Italy

Simply a pleasure to get to soak in all the wit and wisdom coloring decades of experience in the wine business from Alfonso Cevola, all documented in my latest SpeakEasy series of interviews with bloggers. Keep up with Cevola via On The Wine Trail in Italy.

You've been involved in the writing, selling, educating and advancing the cause of Italian wines since 1978. What has changed in how you perceive and enjoy Italian wine from that time until today?

It’s actually come somewhat full circle. When I began I enjoyed simple wines like Tocai, Verdicchio, Chianti and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. I also had the rare opportunity to enjoy something exceptional like a Monfortino. There wasn’t the access to Italian wines that young wine directors and sommeliers have today. So when something unusual came my way, it was really special.

I grew into Italian wines in an organic manner, along with frequent travel to the wine regions. Then over the years I realized that life is not all about peak moments. It’s a cycle. I’m pretty much in that same place Iwas 30 years ago but for different reasons. I drink simple wines, usually white, for everyday purposes. And then when there is a special meal or moment, the rare wines get dragged out of their slumber in the wine closet.

Within Italy, how has the industry changed in that time period? What are the challenges Italian wines face within Italy and in a global context?

Italy has gotten better organized for one. Italians love to travel, and they have gone out to the world and brought back things that inspired them, for better or worse. I remember Pio Boffa telling me his trip to Napa was seminal in shaping his arc of development for wines, especially white wines in Piedmont. Others, like Gaja, Antinori, Currado, Mastroberardino, too many to mention here, they traveled to California, to France, Australia, Argentina, and took pieces of where they went back into their cellars and their work.

The challenges now are many. Competing in a world market where many wines are judged solely on price rather than provenance. Trying to tell their story and make it so in a way that doesn’t sound like everyone else’s. Balancing the need to be modern and employing appropriate technology in harmony with following their instincts to make a wine without over-manipulating and shaping it. There’s a big debate going on as to the role of the winemaker in Italy. The young ones want to make wine less and steward or shepherd it more.

Really the major change I have seen is this quantum leap we have seen, technologically, in the last 60 years, right about the time humans entered the atomic age. Italians love machines and new things, just like most people. But they really geared up and embraced things like stainless steel, temperature-control, cold-fermentation, more advanced tools for pressing. And then there were the changes going on in the laboratory. There has also been a little of the Frankenstein factor. They went a little beyond their grasp, became a little too God-like in their approach to winemaking. They also went a little crazy with small French barrique. Again, the young winemakers are trying to pull back a little, get more balance in their wine-“making.” I’m very encouraged, even though right now it seems a little like a tower of Babel with all these voices and ideas and wines. But it will sort itself out in the marketplace.

You recently wrote: “This New California thing is much bigger than people in Texas think. To my way of thinking it is a wonderful confluence of new sensibilities dovetailing with what is going on in places like Etna in Sicily, in Piedmont, in Offida, for God’s sake. Everything is changing.” What is changing, and how?

I touched on it a little in the last question. I was born and grew up in California and saw the wine scene from a very close-up and personal point of view. By my way of thinking, California, like Italy, has gone full-circle. Years ago there was interest in wines like Chenin Blanc, Grignolino, Alicante Bouschet, and Petite Sirah, along with Cabernet, Merlot, and Chardonnay. Alcohol levels were in check. Wines were in balance between the fruit, the acid, the wood and the alcohol. These days the names of the grapes are a little different. But many different grapes were growing in California 40 years ago. They were blended in; maybe they called the wine Toyon Noir or any number of names they had to give to get someone to try the wine.

But the grapevines, rooted as they were, didn’t go away, not all of them. Now the young winemakers are looking into some of these areas where those vines were left on their own. I remember as a kid driving from L.A. to Palm Springs and seeing those head trained vines, ancient then, in the fields of Cucamonga. Most of them were pulled up to make way for stick houses and satellite dishes, chain restaurants and strip malls.

I think the fundamental change is that winemakers in the New California scene aren’t uber-wealthy, looking to make trophy wines for their circle of titans. They are making interesting, compelling wines for folks who can actually afford them. Just like the Grignolinos of Joe Heitz and the Petite Sirahs of Ernie Fortino.

Texas has a growing wine community, but we still have folks here in buying situations that need to travel a little more. Our consumer base is way out ahead. I talk to them all the time. People want wines that are complementary to the other things in their life. If you live in an Oak Cliff bungalow, you might be more inclined to sip on a Trousseau. They don’t want a wine in a bottle that weighs more than a watermelon. A couple wants to actually finish a bottle of wine. They want clarity, crispness, clean flavors. If they want oak, they’ll drink bourbon. If you live in a McMansion in Plano, you might still hanker for an oaky, chewy Cabernet. The old-guard “Cab and a slab” crowd is still flying high in Texas. After all, we’re in one of the biggest oil and gas booms in history. But there are signs of change, albeit not as quickly as one sees on the coasts.

Sicily is probably the hottest wine region in Italy these days among wine professionals and media. What is behind the appeal of the wines from this island? And what confluence of events have made this popularity possible?

It sure seems like Sicily is the darling. Geez, even the Wine Spectator featured Sicily on their Oct. 31 cover. That must make it almost mainstream. Or maybe even “over.”

Kidding aside, Sicily is not an easy place. It’s a lot different than Italy. It takes more patience to traverse the land, and I mean that literally. GPS doesn’t always work so well in Sicily.

What really attracts me to Sicily is that unspoken feeling of vulnerability, as if you are in a place where anything could happen. From the streets of Palermo to the slopes of Etna. Sicily has this aura of the outlaw: Even Homer in his Odyssey propelled the idea of peril with his depiction of Cyclops and other fatal attractions.

In reality, it is much more dangerous to walk the streets in San Francisco from the Niko hotel to Zuni Café in broad daylight than it is to walk the streets of Palermo at midnight. I’ve done both.

I think the young Sicilians traveled and brought back information and inspiration. Then they went back into the fields, touched the earth. Sicily took it from there. Lots of good, primal energy in Sicily.

You offered six pieces of advice for those considering (and applicable to those who already have) a wine blog. Upon reviewing this list, is there one you think is especially significant and can you elaborate on that? Or add an additional directive?

Other than “write for yourself’ and “write consistently?” I’d say write from an inner voice. Don't worry about the trends, the scandals, all the little dramas. There are folks already covering that, and they are better at it than any of us could ever be. So what does that leave you? News? Really? Do you fancy yourself a journalist? I don’t. I write a web-log. As my Texas blog-comrade Jeremy Parzen says, “All blogs are vanity blogs.” Spot on. Just keep doing it until the cream rises.

Find that spot inside where the transmission is coming from and share it with the rest of us. Sometimes it could sound like it is made up. So what? Speculative fiction is very sexy. Who needs to be 100% factual 100% of the time? Ask a theoretical physicist that question and see what kind of an answer you’ll get. Dig deep for the inspiration. That’s where the new ideas will spring from. You don’t need to be another Alice Feiring, or Tom Wark. We don’t need another Hosemaster or another Hawk Wakawaka. We need you to be yourself. I read Elaine Brown because she is uniquely herself and she is interesting. And the things she writes about are interesting. Be yourself. Dig for your inspiration. Turn on the faucet and let the water flow.

Oh yeah, and try and have a day job, so you can pay the bills.

What is some general advice you can give to people who hope to visit wineries in Italy? Do expectations need to be managed?

1) Italy isn’t one big Hwy 29. Wineries are not usually 5 minutes from each other. Plan travel time accordingly, and if you are driving (you have to have a car) know that your GPS might not always be accurate. So allocate enough realistic travel time between wineries.

2) Don’t try and visit a winery on a Sunday, or even a Saturday. If you are going to take the time to go to Italy, plan visits during the week.

3) Do not try and do more than two visits a day. I usually try and schedule 11AM and 3PM.

4) Italy is not as set up for the tourism side of wine visits in the same way as California. They are in the process of developing this side of the business (wine tourism), but it’s still pretty much a mamma-papa kind of business. The good news is you can still talk to the grape growers, the wine makers, the land holders, the folks who put everything on the line. The downside is, these folks are farmers and many of them are pretty busy.

5) Respect their time. And if you do get an appointment, don’t blow them off because you found a better offer down the road (i.e. a free meal, etc.). Italians prize hospitality above many things. It’s a sacred duty. Know this and be culturally sensitive to this. Please.