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The Italian Job

story and photos by Albert Letitia
What is up with Italian wine? I mean, who can keep track of it all?

The wines of Piedmont and Tuscany are universal and collectible enough for most people to grasp, and Sicily is somewhat famous thanks to a few iconic producers, and everyone understands what Prosecco and Pinot Grigio are, but past that the remaining armada of Italian wine can be overwhelming to the average sommelier or enthusiast. 

There are almost 600 cataloged varietals with 500 more to go, there are 20 regions, there are 300+ DOC’s, 70+ DOCG’s, then pile on the entire IGT and Super Tuscan movement and a wave of modernization vs. the traditionalists and it all becomes a very complex labyrinth of vino. 

Amy C. Ezrin of the Italian Trade Agency (ITA) has taken up the daunting task of migrating Italian wine out of the osteria and into every genre of gastronomy. She recently teamed up with Sommelier Ryan Bailey of the Nomad Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles for an amazingly curated lunch and seminar with a blockbuster line up of iconic as well as esoteric selections from north-to-south of the Italian peninsula. 

Amy C. Ezrin of the Italian Trade Agency with Sommelier Ryan Bailey
at the Nomad Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles.
In attendance were some of the city’s top wine buyers, consumers and writers as well as Ezrin and Bailey to lead the way. The idea was to put a lot of great people in front of a lot of really great wines and pair them with non-traditional dishes. 

In attendance were some of the city’s top wine buyers, consumers and writers.

“We’re really targeting a sophisticated, mature wine consuming demographic that is already interested in wine, is already drinking it, and is enthusiastic and trying to learn more but probably finds Italian wine difficult to navigate so they really just need access and exposure,” Ezrin says. “I assume that these people are drinking Italian wine with Italian cuisine, but they’re not drinking Taurasi with Korean barbecue or Fiano with sushi.” 
The ITA has two immediate goals. First, there is the literal philosophy of education, exposure and access but secondly, there is the fundamental business goal is to raise the average bottle price (ABP) of wine exported to the US from Italy. And Ezrin believes education is the first step in achieving both. 
“We want Italian wine to be considered as premium as wine from anywhere else in the world including Burgundy or Bordeaux or even Napa Valley,” Ezrin says. And although Italy’s ABP is going up, it’s going up very slowly and it’s still half of the ABP from France. Italy’s ABP is €6 Euros. France is €11.

Another problem with Italian wine consumption in the US is that 82% of all the Italian wine imported here is from just 4 of the 20 regions. That leaves the remaining 18% to be divided between 16 other regions, including places like Sicily and Apulia which are two of the highest producing regions in the country. Indeed only 2% of the wine coming from Italy to the US is from Sicily. “And think about how much great wine is being made in Sicily and Americans just aren’t drinking it!” Ezrin says. “And that makes me sad.” 
So if Ezrin and the ITA are able to increase education and get people drinking a little more Aglianico, Verdicchio, Pecorino and Nero d’Avola, then they are, in most cases, selling a higher value bottle of wine, which will automatically increase that ABP. 

A selection of Italian red wines at the event.
All market research done by the ITA indicates that Italian wine has a positive image; it's just not a luxury one. French wine and cuisine, on the other hand, was long revered as the epitome of luxury, and they've done a good job maintaining that position. However, Ezrin says, “When American wine enthusiasts get the chance to taste new Italian wines, they fall in love. We need to connect the dots and get great diversity and higher quality into their hands and they'll be hooked.” 
The ITA continues to do a ton of consumer outreach, like the Nomad event, but also, Ezrin says “we do social media, paid editorials, digital ads, print ads and we’re going to be offering educational courses in ten different cities in 2019 all with the goal of increasing the image of Italian Wine.” 

The menu and pairing by Ryan Bailey were as follows with notes by Bailey as well.

Fava Bean Humus with Toasted Pistachios, Whipped Ricotta & Warm Flatbread
2016 Tenuta di Valgiano, Colline Lucchesi Palistorti Bianco, Tuscany, Italy

“The wine has really bright minerality and natural salinity, but at the same time has floral notes that are not overwhelming. And the slight nutty quality of the wine paired very will with the fava bean hummus and Pistachios” Bailey said. He likes the wine specifically because of the producer’s commitment to biodynamic viticulture and also he feels that wine pushing the trend in Tuscany with regard to natural wine making and vilification of traditional varietals, in this case Vermentino, Malvasia and Trebbiano.

Kampachi: Ceviche With Red Onion, Jalapeño, Cilantro & Lettuce Wraps
2017 De Fermo Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo “Le Cince,” Abruzzo 

Kampachi: Ceviche With Red Onion, Jalapeño, Cilantro & Lettuce Wraps 

“I chose this because I wanted to select from one of the few regions in Italy that can truly hang its hat on the production of rosé. It also speaks to my love of natural wines,” Baily said. Cerasuolo, a term meaning “cherry,” refers to the light cherry-red color of the Abruzzo wine. The grape here is Montepulciano. 

Cerasuolo refers to the light cherry-red color of the Abruzzo wine.   

1996 Ronchi di Cialla “Cialla Bianco,” Colli Orientali del Friuli, Friuli-Venezia Giulia
1998 Ronchi di Cialla “Cialla Bianco,” Colli Orientali del Friuli, Friuli-Venezia Giulia
000 Ronchi di Cialla “Cialla Bianco,” Colli Orientali del Friuli, Friuli-Venezia Giulia

“I really wanted to do a vertical of these wines to show everyone how well Italian white wines can age. My idea for the pairing was that the Parmesan, basil crumble and the Sungold tomatoes needed a heavier white that was comparable to the cooked down sun gold tomato flavor,” says Bailey. The blend here is 60% Ribolla Gialla, 30% Verduzzo and 10% Picolit. Ronchi di Cialla is a bit of a cult estate and very historic in Friuli. They’ve specialized in reviving varietals that were going extinct and they’re experiencing a renaissance recently, being picked up by younger distributors and embraced by younger somms. Ryan makes a strong case here that these wines are similar to white Burgundy and, more specifically that they mature somewhat similarly.

Cialla Bianco from Ranchi di Cialla on ice.

Nomad Roast Chicken with Foie Gras, Black Truffle & Brioche
2015 Arianna Occhipinti Frappato, Sicilia
2010 COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico Fontane, Sicilia

“I have always loved the wines of COS and I thought it would be a cool story to tell that Arianna’s uncle was one of the founding fathers of COS back in the 80’s. And now here she is doing it in her 20s on her own with one hectare and building her own winery. It’s not only inspirational, but it speaks to the traditional roots of generational winemaking.”

Beef Tenderloin with Charred Broccoli & Spigarello
2012 Giuseppe Mascarello Barolo Monprivato, Piemonte
2009 Soldera Toscana Rosso Case Basse, Toscana IGT

“The pairing was great because, for consumers and for enthusiasts, it was really great to have two of the best examples of these grape varietals by two top producers side by side. This is the pinnacle of Nebbiolo and the pinnacle of Sangiovese. Both wines were young. Both had lots of gravitas. And they were a nice progression up from the Sicilian pairings.”

Cheeses: Parmigiano Reggiano DOP & Robiola Bosina
2010 Cantina della Volta Lambrusco di Modena, Brut Rosé Emilia-Romagna

“This was definitely a ‘what grows together goes together’ pairing. Lambrusco, especially here in the U.S. market is perceived as a very sweet, very fruity red sparking wine. And this was a great example of how good it can be when it is treated with care.”

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