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  • Writer's pictureCynthia Chaplin

Cheap Wine. Says Who? Italian Wine Snobs Defeat Themselves

I have to admit I was horrified to find a negative comment on something I posted on a Facebook group page dedicated to Italian sommeliers.  It was a few years ago now and I am still unhappy, so I have decided to get this off my chest.  I don’t usually mind what people write about things I post, mostly because I only post when I am confident with what I am writing.  Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I don’t get upset when people don’t agree with mine.  But, on this occasion, I posted a review of a wine I had brought home from a winery I visited as a guest several months previously in Le Marche.  The review was not a professional analysis of the wine; in fact, I included my thoughts about the wine within a description of a wonderful dinner in the home of friends.  I took the wine as a gift to be shared with the meal my hostess had created.  It was a great pairing, everyone loved the wine and the food, to the point where another guest asked me where he could buy the wine.  I had to tell him that the producer is so small, it is not easy to get the wine except directly from the vineyard.  The post was focused on the celebration of friends, food and wine in Italy.  And this is why I was horrified by the negative comment.  This little wine, a blend of sangiovese and montepulciano, made with love by a passionate producer whose family has been in the business for many generations, received the comment, “it’s just a cheap wine,” from an Italian!  This comment made me think of everything that is wrong with wine today.  Here is an Italian person, a sommelier, writing so dismissively, so stupidly, about a wine that personifies so many great things.

Blond woman in black jacket with a wine glass

In Italy we are truly blessed to have “cheap” wines.  I am American by birth, Italian by choice.  I have lived in the USA, the UK, Belgium, Spain and Italy.  I can honestly say that “cheap” wine in other countries is ALWAYS bad.  I have travelled all over the world.  Nowhere else are “cheap” wines so good and so much a part of the fabric of the culture.  In Italy we have over 500 indigenous grapes, making the wines in Italy are unique in the world.  Yes, Italy has its famous, international wines like Sassicaia and Ornellaia and Barolo and Brunello.  Yes, Italy has changed its wine focus from quantity to quality since the 1960’s.  Yes, Italy’s wines are some of the finest in the world, which is why I chose to make Italy my home and center my career in the sector in this fantastic country. I have become a Professor of Italian wine and culture because I adore what this country has achieved.  However, it would be a huge mistake for Italian people in the wine industry to forget their humble beginnings.  Italy was called Oenotria in the days of the Greek Empire (before the Roman empire), oenotria means “land of vines.”  This is a country deeply tied to wine, commercially, religiously, artistically, historically and personally.  No country I have ever visited has this deep, abiding and heart-felt attachment to its wine.  In Italy, wine was and remains something of a human right!  In centuries past, when water was potentially harmful, the citizens of Italy drank several litres of wine per person per week, to receive healthful nutrients, vitamins and inexpensive nourishment.  I am quite sure they were not drinking Biondi Santi, yet they loved it.  Since the transformation of Italian wine from unrefined chiantis and lambruscos exported in vast quantities in the 1960s and 1970s, to the globally acclaimed wines Italy is now proud to produce, international perception of Italian wine has changed a great deal. Italian wines now consistently rank among the most respected and valued in the world.  But!  We must not forget that most people cannot drink prize winning, high priced wines every day.  And this is why I felt so outraged when my little wine from Le Marche was called “just a cheap wine” by an Italian.  This wine personifies everything great about Italian wine.  It is indigenous.  It is humble.  It is delicious.  It is honestly made by a producer who is incredibly devoted to his job.  It is not commercial, it is not widely available, at +/- €10 it is not really even that cheap for most people.  This is a wine that speaks to me about Italy and Italians who love their craft and work hard to ensure their wines taste good.  Maybe it is not mysterious, mystical, magical and transformative, but it is true to itself.  Many people who live locally in the Ascoli Piceno region drink this wine and feel proud of it.  Never forget that Italy is the only country in the world where wine is produced in every region and pairing local wines with local foods is an art form.  As a foreigner, even after 13 years of residence, I often find myself in discussion with extremely sophisticated, intelligent, well-travelled Italians who become misty eyed when speaking of the rough wine they drank as children, at the table of their grandparents, in the region of their familys’ roots.  Many Italians, who no longer live in the region of their family background, still exclusively and defensively drink the wines of that region.  This is a wonderful, emotional, unique sentiment, which has the power to ensure continued production of a brilliant variety of wines across a very small country.   Did you know that Italy is smaller than California in size?  Think about that fact.

People around a table talking about wine in Italy

The truth is that there are still many badly produced, commercial, unacceptable wines made in Italy.  But they are not in the category I am discussing. Many authentic, artisan, indigenous wines are produced in Italy by careful, attentive, informed winemakers.  They are not all great, most of them are average.  Almost all of them are “cheap.”  We should rejoice.  In my professional life as a sommelier, an educator, a creator of wine events, an ambassador for Italian wine, I am thrilled (yes, truly, thrilled) to sing the praises of the famous majestic wines made in Italy.  But in my private life, every day, with my dear family and friends, I am also deeply touched to be able to share “cheap” wines, so well made and so profoundly Italian. I never go to bed without a glass of Italian wine beside my bed and, although it is often inexpensive, it is never “cheap.” 



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