Back to Basics in 2021

Lessons on patience, humility and keeping it real

Back to Basics in 2021
Should we go back to normal? In the New Year, Robert Camuto hopes Italy will rethink tourism and consumers will gain new insights into wine. (Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)
Jan 5, 2021

To paraphrase philosophers from Nietzsche to Conan the Barbarian to Kanye, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

It’s a pop cliché. But hopefully the shock we humans sustained in 2020—coupled with the reflection of our time in isolation—will not only make us stronger but also wiser.

What lessons might we have learned from 2020, aka the year the world seemed to stop spinning?

I live in Italy, the first Western country hit hard. Early on in the pandemic, Italians were saying it would make the country reflect on its future—particularly on its dependence on mass-scale tourism.

Italy is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with an incomparable patrimony. Its tourism industry would be better served, as has its wine, with less quantity and more quality. The piazzas of Rome and Florence and Venice deserve better than a perpetual flood of Instagram-selfie seekers and picnickers.

When international travel restrictions stopped cruise ships from entering Venice’s lagoon, the normally clouded canals cleared, revealing fish and crabs and luring back waterfowl. With fewer cars on the road during a national lockdown, the air sweetened and the sky turned bluer. Italians cheered.

But now, exhausted from months of rolling lockdowns and frustrated with rules that change day by day, Italians are simply pining for things to get back to “normal.”

I hope not. Italy deserves more. Italians are as clever and an inspired people as ever existed, and I’m wishing—fervently—for something better to come from this.

On a personal note, COVID recently hit home for me after I tested positive. I rode out my mercifully mild case alone at home for Italy’s requisite three weeks that ended this morning. That left me plenty of time to think about what we wine lovers might take from 2020.

Lesson 1: Patience

The need for patience is the most obvious lesson to glean from 2020 as life took on a day-at-a-time quality.

The value of patience was recently underlined to me by Ca’ del Bosco’s Maurizio Zanella, a Franciacorta sparkling-wine pioneer who conceded it would take at least another 50 years for the area’s vineyards to approach their potential.

It seemed an extraordinarily sage admission that applies to wine in general. We are often so eager to find the next great thing that we forget that greatness takes time. Wine is based on culture and experience. Finding great terroirs and making exceptional wine takes a culture of excellence and experimentation—usually generations of it.

Lesson 2: Humility

In 2020, we again relearned the hardest of lessons—that sometimes, despite our best-laid plans and human hubris, nature reminds us what really is in charge.

That a tiny, seemingly capricious microbe could bring so much human endeavor to a halt is awe-inspiring. But don’t forget, winegrowers and producers deal with similar challenges all the time.

For a number of years in southern France, a pal and I made wine at my home in the garage. Producing about 120 bottles of red wine a year was surprisingly easy—when the grapes were good. But I was a lousy grower, not attentive enough to do the right (organic) treatments and vine trimming when they needed to be done. My Syrah vineyard became a disease factory. My friend’s small patch of Cabernet was no better, and most years we ended up picking the grapes of another pal vigneron.

The experience gave me a profound respect for the attention that good winegrowers give to their vineyards and nature. It also rooted in me the realization that even great wine is not made with inspiration, but from grapes grown on a patch of earth.

Now, whenever I hear about someone launching a new wine label—such as a famous name with no wine experience—I ask, how much skin are they putting in the game? Are they working and improving vineyards? Buying grapes? Or are they using the easiest, low-risk approach of bottling others’ wines?

Geniuses in any field are few. Wine is like parenting. It’s a hard, full-time job that requires constant presence—not just on birthdays.

Lesson 3: Keeping it real

There is a lot of mystique in the wine world. But sometimes that mystique perilously tips over into the realm of snake oil.

This holiday season, social media were alight with the recycled, specious claim that “natural wines” (those made without added sulfites) were “hangover-free.” In my own experience, I’ve had some real head-throbbers from overindulging, no matter whether it was in funky, natural wines or elite Champagnes.

Science fiction–like claims are distractions that only hurt consumer understanding of wine. Still, the industry is often only too happy to allow the lines between methods and marketing to blur.

A good example is the amphora. In the past decade, I’ve seen more and more wineries adopt clay amphorae for fermenting or aging wine. But sometimes winemakers don’t put a lot of thought into what these vessels are made of and how they are used. They are just there as a sexy showpiece—seen in the same way that French oak barriques once were.

Clay vessels are beautiful, evocative and photogenic. Who doesn’t like the idea of using baked earth in winemaking? But their use is a complex subject that requires careful thought. Containers don’t make wine.

Lesson 4: Solidarity

People in restaurant and hospitality businesses suffered more than most in 2020.

Waitstaff can’t exactly work from home. I am sure we have all thought about the people who make their livings cooking and serving food, pouring wine and cleaning up after us in our favorite restaurants.

As drinking and dining spots open again, tipping for good service will, for me, be a bigger pleasure than ever.

If there’s anything we should have learned for wine and our species at large, it’s that we’re all in this together.

Opinion New Year Italy

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