Italy’s positioning in Usa: Zachary Sussman’s insight on Italian wine

di Irene Graziotto

Zachary Sussman

Italy is the first wine supplier for the USA market (followed by Chile) and even though 2016 seems not to have been as positive as predicted, still, there has been a +1,8% rise in Italian export value for the first 9 months of the year despite the decrease of 1% in volume (source: Wine and Food Institute).

According to Lucio Caputo, President of Italian Wine Food Institute, Italy needs a restyling of its image in order to increase the perceived value of national wines. We asked one of the most renowned writer over sea to understand which kind of perception, before even speaking of real value, USA drinkers have of Italian wines.

Zachary Sussman is a Brooklyn-based wine writer, educator, and consultant. He is the New York wine columnist for Punch, an independent, online magazine in collaboration with Ten Speed Press. His work appears in such publications as SaveurThe Wall Street Journal MagazineBon Appétit, Wine & Spirits MagazineBeverage MediaTasting Table, and, among many othersand has been mentioned in the “What We’re Reading” section of the New York Times Diner‘s Journal. He was selected as the 2016 Emerging Wine Writer of the Year at the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards in London.

Wine trends: there is a lot of changes all over the world. Which ones do you consider to be the most relevant?

“This is a very broad question, but I think that in general the wine culture is shifting away from placing value on technological or “modern” winemaking (ie, wine as a luxury commodity) towards the embrace of “low fi” or more traditional practises (wine as an agricultural product expressive of place)  Another way to say this is that “artisanality”— the elevation of the pre-industrial, heirloom, indigenous, and hand-made— is evolving into the new form of luxury. We see this with the rise of interest in categories like grower Champagne and “natural” wine, as well as the reclamation of formerly neglected native varieties and pre-industrial styles like “col fondo” in Prosecco or skin-macerated “orange wine” from Fruili and Slovenia”.

How the image of Italy is changing in USA, if it is changing at all?:

“It’s hard to generalize about Italy as a whole, but one thing I’ve noticed is the overwhelming ascension  of Piemonte, which seems to have dethroned Tuscany in the minds of many sommeliers and industry professionals. This development relates back to the rise of the “artisanal” narrative I mentioned earlier. With its independent family-run estates and various micro-climates, Piemonte culturally aligns with our romantic conception of the winemaker as a rustic, terroir-conscious “farmer,” whereas Tuscany signals more of a slick corporate image. On a broader level, however, I think we’re finally learning to appreciate and understand all of Italy’s diverse viticultural heritage— not just a few key celebrated regions. Among many others, there’s now serious interest in exploring regional, terroir-expressive wines from Campania, Liguria, Alto Adige, Friuli, the Val d’Asote, Lombardy, Umbria, and (perhaps most of all) Sicily. To that end, Etna in particular has emerged as one of the most exciting discoveries of recent years, and has even acquired a cult following”.

USA is Italy hugest market even though we are pressed from above by France and from the bottom by Chile. It has been said that we miss an efficient positioning strategy. Would you agree with this statement? Or do you think we face other problems?

 “Again, it’s difficult to generalize about all of Italy; it’s also hard to make generalizations about the US market, as there really isn’t a single US market: there are several different markets operating within the United States. The answer to this really depends upon which segment of the market you’re trying to reach (the mass market? high end wine?). That said, while French wine might still be more popular or recognizable to the average American consumer, I believe that this is an extremely exciting time for Italian wine, as there is more room for it to grow. In that regard, at a time when American drinkers are more curious and willing to experiment than ever before, Italy’s diversity represents its biggest asset”.

The Prosecco wonder: how much the average NY person knows the difference between the Doc and the 2 Docg?

“I’ll be honest: the average American consumer– even in an extremely sophisticated market like in New York’s– knows absolutely nothing about the differences between the different appellations of Prosecco. The distinction is completely lost on most wine drinkers, as the overwhelming majority of them think of Prosecco as a style of wine, rather than an agricultural product that comes from a specific region in Italy. It’s almost as if Prosecco has become its own international brand, which is unfortunate, as the region offers so much more than the cheap, industrially-produced expressions that have transformed it into a global phenomenon”.

Wine Trends in New York: what’s cool right now?

 “We tend to cycle through wine trends so frantically in New York that the moment you define something as “cool,” the wine culture has already embraced the next “big thing.” First it was France’s Jura region, then “orange” wine, sherry, the “New California” movement, pétillant naturel and other ancestral method sparklers, and more recently wine from Georgia, Hungary, and others parts of Eastern Europe. On a “macro” level, I believe this speaks to a larger trend, which might be called the “hipster effect”: obscurity has become the new form of exclusivity, and everyone is eager to be the first to discover or reclaim a new trend. In many ways, it’s the same kind of “status seeking” that always informed the wine world, just transposed to a different set of values”.

Wine writing: how is it changing over the years?

 “My hope is that wine writing has become more ambitious and wider in scope. Rather than care about a generic tasting note or how many points a wine received, readers today want to be clued into a wine’s social and historical relevance: who made it, how it relates to culture of the place where it was grown, why it matters and what it has to say. My favorite wine writers are trying provide a context for some of those bigger questions. At the same time, now that there are so many blogs and online sources of information about wine, the field has become so much more open and democratic; the hierarchical era of the formal wine critic handing down his or her judgement to the masses is fortunately coming to an end. I don’t think that we’ll ever again see a single critic wield the same level of influence as Robert Parker did, for example, during the 1990’s and early 2000’s”.

Finally, your favourite wines?

 “Impossible to say! It entirely depends upon what I’m having for dinner. I will say, however, that I’ll never turn down a glass of Champagne or mature Nebbiolo. And France’s Loire valley, in general, is an ongoing obsession of mine”.

La traduzione dell’articolo in italiano è disponibile al seguente link:

intervista a Zachary Sussman



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