Not long ago I was in a conversation with a bunch of (male) wine fanciers. The subject of Italian wines came up and—men being men—someone asked, "Who do you think is the most important guy in the success of Italian wine?" Names such as Angelo Gaja, Piero Antinori and John Mariani of Banfi popped up. Much to everyone's surprise, I submitted that the most important man in Italian wine is Giorgio Armani.
As you might imagine, this group of wine jocks looked at me as if I had wandered away from a mental ward. "What in God's name does Giorgio Armani have to do with wine?" incredulously asked one of the participants.
I explained that, until embarrassingly late in life, I had no idea of the power of the fashion industry. I'm sure that you women out there will smile knowingly, if not laugh out loud, at my naïveté—and rightly so. Really, I had no how idea of just how penetrating, how pervasive and, above all, how essential, the fashion industry is.
When I say "fashion industry" I'm not talking about just this season's runway styles. No, I'm talking about the vast, elaborate business of moving people off the mark, of making them reach for their wallets, through the power of imagery and association.
What I now understand is that the fashion industry drives a multitude of businesses, many of them seemingly removed from its ostensible purview of clothes, cosmetics and the like. More now than ever, the fashion industry drives much of modern life—our needs for stimulation, fantasy, titillation, transformation and metaphor. Clothes are the least of it, almost a byproduct really.
Getting back to Italian wine and Giorgio Armani, you don't need to be especially old to recall a time when anything associated with sophistication, refinement or elegance—and, not least, anything attractively expensive—was French.
France had it all. Not just clothes, perfumes, cosmetics, shoes and such. What France really had was style. Fashion, in the broadest sense of that term, permeated seemingly everything in France. Presentation was paramount—and not seen as frivolous. Quite the opposite.
French chefs (men!) dressed like chefs, not mere cooks. They were adorned in spotless white (at least when they entered the dining room or posed for photos), with the chef de cuisine, the head guy, wearing a towering toque that even a Sioux warrior chief would envy. It was costuming—and it sent a powerful message.
Wine was included in this as well, from the "proper" way to open a bottle of Champagne (and pour it into a special glass) to France's elaborate ranking systems in Bordeaux and Burgundy. The presentation of wine in France was fashion in its purest and finest sense. You drank the dream as much as the wine, whether it was the youthful spontaneity of Beaujolais Nouveau, the celebration of Champagne or the almost churchlike reverence when presented with a classified-growth red Bordeaux or a grand cru Burgundy.
But starting in the 1980s something revolutionary arrived: Italy. Suddenly, or so it seemed, the ferocious grip France had on the world's imagination began to loosen. The whole French "fashion business"—which is to say not just its clothes and cosmetics, but its image of unrivaled luxury and refinement, its capacity to make you want to be French—began to lose sway.
For the first time in centuries, the world wanted to be Italian—to eat Italian food, drink Italian wines, have Italian manners ("Ciao bella!") and live what was seen or fantasized as an Italian life. This was a dazzling turnabout. Previously, Italy was a lowly red-checked tablecloth in a restaurant serving spaghetti and meatballs accompanied by cheap bottles derisively referred to as "dago red." The notion that Italy—not France—could be longed-for, the stylemaker, was preposterous.
"Every wine nation has its fashion industry opportunities. It may not involve clothes or even design. No matter. Fashion is so much more than that. It's about the projection of a dream."
Make no mistake: For Italian wine producers, dazzling success—and very real profits—was impossible without Giorgio Armani, Italy's most successful designer and a billionaire because of it. Mr. Armani is, of course, just one of dozens, even hundreds, of strikingly creative designers. I use him here as a symbol, the leader of an impressive pack. One could just as easily cite Enzo Ferrari, Emilio Pucci, Valentino Garavani, Missoni, Miuccia Prada, Ettore Sottsass, Gae Aulenti and Renzo Piano, to name but a few of myriad late 20th-century industrial designers, couturiers and architects.
Precisely because we drink the dream as much as the wine, without Giorgio Armani—who internationalized (and epitomized) Italian style, making Milan a new pivot point of fashion—there would be no dream. And without that relentlessly and brilliantly marketed dream, Italian wines wouldn't be what they are today.
Want proof? Look at the Sunday New York Times from just a few weeks ago. You'll find a special glossy edition of the New York Times style magazine called T. The entire 116-page production is titled "Bella Figura: The Milan Issue Winter 2010."
Want yet more proof? Go to Manhattan and wander through the newly opened Eataly emporium, a 24,000-square-foot monument—that's the only word—to the "dream." It's all about Italian food, Italian wine, Italian chocolate and so forth, replete with wood-burning ovens for properly made-to-Neapolitan-specifications pizzas and a variety of Italian breads.
So today, it's the Italians who are "lucky." (Luck, of course, had nothing to do with it.) After all, what wines are you going to see in the countless Italian restaurants everywhere from Tokyo to Tuscaloosa? Australian? I don't think so? French? Bonne chance.
The power of the dream, allied of course to something substantive, shows the force of fashion.
A Chilean winegrower recently lamented to me how Argentina has recently captured the American wine imagination. I was reproached for choosing to live for three months last winter in Buenos Aires rather than Santiago. When I merely raised an eyebrow at that idea, he had the grace to laugh and concede, "You're right. Buenos Aires is incredible."
Although Argentina produces nearly 40 percent more wine than Chile, it was only this year that, for the first time ever, Argentina surpassed its rival Chile in exports to the United States, both in volume and value. René Merino, the president of Wines of Chile, a trade group, dismissed this, commenting, "Malbec is a fad." Maybe so. But Mr. Merino had also previously noted about Argentina, with apparent chagrin, "They have a country identity much stronger than ours. They have football, Buenos Aires, and tango. This is an advantage that in times of crisis helps them."
This is the fashion business and Mr. Merino knows it. It's an inestimable advantage, one that—if cultivated adroitly and repeatedly—can make Malbec more than a passing fad. Does that mean that Chile, or any other winegrowing country without a strong national identity, has no chance at "selling the fashion dream"?
Not at all. When my Chilean winegrower asked me what I thought Chile could do against the romantic likes of Argentina, I said that I thought Chile—not just its wine producers, but its powerful fruit growers and food processors—should launch a multi-year campaign called “Purely Chile.” After all, Chile is a place of pristine national parks, of unspoiled deserts, of fish in unpolluted waters, of strict agricultural production standards that serve American supermarkets. (Nobody rejects a fruit or vegetable in the supermarket because it says “Product of Chile.” But we would think twice if the apple or pear said ”Grown in China”.)
Every wine nation has its "fashion industry" opportunities. It may not involve clothes or even design. No matter. Fashion is so much more than that. It's about the projection of a dream, especially one that captures the "artisanal." Chile, for example, needs to encourage smaller, more artisanal producers. Australia, for its part, lost its marketing way by never promoting its thousands of small wine producers.
California has been selling its golden "fashion dream" (along with numerous artisanal wineries and food products) to us for decades, with obvious success. Spain has huge possibilities, especially if it can somehow encourage the blossoming of more Spanish restaurants. Its artisanal products are rivaled only by those of Italy and France. The list goes on: New Zealand, Australia, Greece, Portugal, Hungary.
And, oh yes, France. It's lost so much marketing ground in Great Britain, the United States and Germany, to name three vital markets. But all French wine needs to come roaring back is, well, Giorgio Armani—a French version, bien sûr.
Lisa Donneson — Long Island, New York — November 2, 2010 8:26pm ET
Simon Woods — UK — November 3, 2010 6:52am ET
Matt Kramer — Portland, OR — November 3, 2010 1:04pm ET
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