Three weeks ago, a swath of the Italian wine business assembled in Verona to take stock of the state of vino and exchange ideas about the future.
At the third-annual edition of Vinitaly International's Wine2Wine business forum, some 1,600 participants—wine producers, marketing and sales professionals, importers and others—conferred on topics ranging from the latest in viticulture techniques to digital trends and what brain science tells us about consumers in the new frontier of "neuromarketing."
Because this is Italy—a country where individualism is an art form—there is rarely what you'd call "consensus," especially when it comes to Italy's complicated and often wacky rules for wines bearing one of its more than 500 DOC, DOCG and IGT designations.
But the two subjects ever-present on the minds of Italians in the trade are the world's two biggest economies. First is the United States, which is Italy's largest export market for wine and which imports more wine from Italy than from anywhere else. A close second is China, seen as the future El Dorado for stylish European products.
Stateside, wine importer Giuseppe LoCascio (formerly of Winebow), who led a seminar on exporting to the U.S. and negotiating the country's complex distribution system, sees more polarization coming among U.S. distributors.
"The big distributors will continue to get bigger," he told me over an afternoon espresso, noting the recent mergers in the field. "But that will create space and niches for the smaller distributors to focus on smaller producers, and lesser-known areas and varietals."
"The strength of Italian wine is in its indigenous varieties," added LoCascio, who was born in New York but grew up in Palermo. "The French sell at higher prices, but our wealth is in an incredible number of varieties."
LoCascio expects to see the continued emergence of wines from "Sicily, Campania, Sardinia and the south of Italy in general," as they offer good values for consumers. Because of the collective work toward quality in western Sicily, he is particularly high on Sicilian whites made from the Grillo grape.
"It's one of the most-planted varieties in Sicily," he said, "but if handled well, it can make wines that are balanced, elegant and interesting—and it's available."
During the two-day conference, much discussion focused on reaching America's thirstiest wine drinkers—Millennials—through booming digital channels. But even now, some traditionalists are wary of online overexposure.
"In fine wines, we are still in the old economy—not in the digital economy," said the soft-spoken aristocrat Giovanni Geddes da Filicaja, longtime CEO of Frescobaldi and the family's legendary Bolgheri estates Tenuta dell'Ornellaia and Masseto. With those brands, he has pursued an old-school formula of exclusivity over the mass market.
"Of course, I do think things will become more and more digital, but we don't want to force it, especially with Masseto," he said of the flagship wine, which retails for $700 with the 2013 vintage. "There is a risk of becoming too digital."
Establishing new luxury wines today is still possible, said Geddes, "but it's more difficult to establish a great wine today than it was in Tuscany 30 years ago or in Bordeaux 160 years ago."
Great wines from all of Italy's 20 regions were represented on the list of 104 producers selected for the OperaWine 2017 tasting, unveiled at Wine2Wine by Wine Spectator senior editor Alison Napjus.
The sixth edition of OperaWine will unfold in Verona on April 8, preceding the opening of the Vinitaly wine fair, with 18 wineries new to the roster from 2016. The newcomers include some producers recently featured in this blog such as Emilia Romagna's La Stoppa and Valpolicella's Zymè.
"The next edition of OperaWine features more new producers than ever before, with the same high quality and breadth," said Napjus. "All together it should be a great showcase."