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Wine Talk: A Diplomat in Florence

U.S. consul general William McIlhenny reflects on Italian wine and culture

James Suckling
Posted: September 19, 2005

William McIlhenny, consul general of the United States in Florence for the past three years, has used his strong passion for wine to build relations with the local community and the world at large. The 42-year-old diplomat has worked in various posts in Europe, Latin America and the United States; this fall, he leaves for a new assignment in Washington, D.C., where he will work on the Secretary of State's policy-planning staff for the Western Hemisphere.

Wine Spectator: How did you get interested in wine?
William McIlhenny: It was always something that was around my house at the table when I was growing up, so I have always had an interest in it. And for me wine has, certainly for the last 20 years, been an important part of being a diplomat. I have lived in some interesting places from a wine point of view. I was in Lisbon for four years, in Paris for four years, and now in Tuscany. Wine has always been a gateway into a local society, a way of understanding the economy and the local culture.

WS: You once told me that when you were working in the U.S. embassy in Paris in the late 1990s that you would catch a train to Burgundy or the Loire whenever possible. Why?
WM: Yes. Every weekend that I could. France is an example of a country where wine is such an important part of the living culture, and to understand the country, I think you have to understand wine. In France, they say wine is an important factor in diplomacy, and I think it has been for thousands of years. Diplomacy is essentially about developing and entertaining a whole series of relationships in your host country, and wine helps.

WS: When you received the assignment in Florence, were you happy because you would have the chance to learn more about Italian wines?
WM: Absolutely. I have loved Italian wines for a long time. I think Italy, in particular Tuscany, is one of the most interesting places in the world for wine. It is because the region has the ability to conjugate past and present and to innovate with roots and traditions. This develops a fascinating style of wine. There are some absolutely extraordinary wines here today, as you know.

WS: Is there any particular appellation or type of wine you like best?
WM: My admiration and interest is very broad and ecumenical. For instance, I am very interested in some of the new stuff that is being done in Sicily and also some of the super Tuscans. But I am interested in all the work being done all over Italy, particularly with the local varieties, which over hundreds of years have really grafted themselves into the land and culture of the region. It is interesting that some people think that globalization is a force that standardizes and homogenizes, that covers up tradition. But in the case of wine, it may be just the opposite, because it has helped create an interest and an economic base in wine, and it has revived so many of these ancient varieties in Italy. There are so many people here in Italy with incredible passion who are pursuing that.

WS: So you don't buy into the idea that anyone planting Cabernet or Chardonnay in Italy is just making another global wine that has no local character?
WM: I think the reality is much more nuanced. The fact that there are big producers making a good quality standard product for an international market also leaves room for others. This activity creates an economic base for tremendous experimentation and revival of all the varieties in Italy. There is tremendous synergy. The two are not a zero-sum game at all.

Italy might be one of the best examples where you have international wines and, at the same time, wines made from indigenous varieties. Sometimes they are even blended together—Cabernet with Aglianico or Merlot with Sangiovese. So Italians aren't tied down to tradition. There is a graceful choreography in there somewhere, and they are not afraid to try new things and to make them work.

WS: How have you used wine in your public diplomacy work in Tuscany?
WM: So much of what we do is designed to try to get across a more nuanced view of American society and policies instead of the caricatures and stereotypes that have been growing throughout the world. Do you remember that gala dinner and tasting where we brought over the 12 best Virginia winemakers to Tuscany? It was not with any hope of really promoting or selling Virginia wines over here. It was a way to dangle out in front of a public here an image of the United States that is very much at odds with our fast-food, mass-consumer approach to food and drink.

When you have 100 Italian wine journalists, winemakers, wine dealers and prominent members of the public sitting down with these passionate people from Virginia—some of them who have mortgaged the family farm to pursue this dream of making wine—it reminds them of just how alike we really are. So we tried to do a lot of events like that, using food and wine to get American culture seen in a more realistic light.

WS: Now that you're off to Washington, will you be drinking Italian wines there?
WM: I'll be drinking those great Virginia wines in Washington!

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