Posted on | June 23, 2015
Written by | Kristen Wolfe Bieler
In conversation with Fabrizio Pedrolli, founder & chairman, Vias Imports
With a track record that effectively parallels the blossoming of America’s wine consumer culture, Fabrizio Pedrolli is in an ideal position to speak about the evolution of Italian wines, the popularity of Italy’s aromatic whites and the power of indigenous varieties.
The Beverage Network: You founded Vias Imports in 1983. How have you witnessed the growth of Italian wines in the U.S. over the last three-plus decades?
Fabrizio Pedrolli: In the 1970s when I arrived, the situation was this: Italian cuisine was spaghetti with tomato sauce, meatballs and pizza. The wine was Soave or Chianti in the straw-covered fiasco—and overwhelmingly, it was poor-quality and inexpensive. Fine wine was all French—even Mondavi was a small, little-known winery. When I started importing wine, it was the beginning of a new era for Italian wine, people were very receptive to wines from other parts of Italy.
TBN: Italy remains the leading source of imported wines in the U.S. How has the country managed to stay on top with the onslaught of new competition and the ever-changing consumer?
FP: The key is our indigenous grapes and diversity. France works with a handful of grapes and we have over 300 native varieties. I started with 16 wineries and people immediately responded to wines from Campania or Piedmont; they were ready for something different than Chardonnay or Merlot and this discovery continues today. Our native grapes are the way we can compete with France, Spain and even California. My goal with Vias is to create curiosity about Italian wine by offering the very best from every region of the country—today we have 200 wines and diversity is a pillar of our philosophy.
TBN: As the first Italian secretary general of the ASI -(Association International de la Sommelerie), you have a background in wine education which you continue to prioritize; the Vias Master Class Series is one example. How does this investment benefit your bottom line?
FP: When I started, the typical wine salesman was a classic salesman—he could sell cars or watches; it was all about the price. The key to success with a portfolio like ours is creating curiosity and excitement about indigenous grapes. Having an educated sales force is the best way to do this, and it has always been my passion. Our seminars are not sales seminars, they are purely education seminars open to many in the trade who want to learn.
TBN: As a native of Trento, you have helped drive recent interest in Northern Italy’s aromatic whites. What are you seeing in the marketplace?
FP: Wine follows food, and the food in the U.S. has changed a lot. We’ve seen many American chefs who have trained in Italy—Michael White is one example—and returned home to create their own hybrid cuisine. Their Mediterranean-inspired food emphasizes fresher, brighter flavors which demand aromatic whites high in acidity. Asian food, which is increasingly popular, requires wines like these as well, which can work with spicy flavors, cleanse the palate and aren’t weighed down by oak. We are seeing a lot of interest in grapes like Malvasia, Sauvignon and Friuliano from Friuli, Sylvaner, Kerner and Riesling from the Valle d’ Isarco and Pinot Grigio and Müller-Thurgau from Alto Adige. We have the best terroir for varieties like this.
TBN: Poor Pinot Grigio has been so mass-produced throughout the world in recent years, the grape gets little respect. Is it a challenge for you to overcome this?
FP: We have five Pinot Grigios in our portfolio, and the grape is capable of truly great wines. But it requires the microclimate of the Alto-Adige, Trentino or Friuli to achieve these very specific characteristics—the unique aroma of Bosc pear is a classic hallmark. Most Pinot Grigio is grown in flat vineyards that are too warm, and allowed to produce very high yields which is very bad for the grape’s reputation. Expensive Pinot Grigio is a hand sell.
TBN: What major changes have you seen in the way Italian wines have been crafted in the last 30 years?
FP: The quality everywhere has increased. Yet there have been periods of trial and error. Italian people follow fashion. For example, in the 1990s, many regions began to use too much new French oak to age their reds which gives sweetness and covers completely the characteristics of the wine. That is fashion—something is hot for five or 10 years, then it is on to the next. In Barolo this was particularly a problem—there were years when every producer’s wine tasted the same. Luckily in the last decade there has been a return to large, neutral casks which was the tradition in Barolo.
TBN: Any future trends in Italian wine you are keeping your eye on?
FP: Absolutely, the increase in organic and biodynamic winemaking. This is the future, yet there is still a question mark. While there is a very solid understanding of how to practice viticulture with this philosophy, winemakers are still figuring it out in the winery. Non-interventionist winemaking is still a bit underdeveloped and risky—there are problems with consistent quality and issues with oxidation.
TBN: How do your relationships with your producers differ from most importers?
FP: Our wineries are true partners. I don’t just buy the wine, but I work together with winemakers. Last year, when I was at La Lastra winery in Tuscany, I tasted their Canaiolo, which is typically a blending grape, before it was blended into their Chianti. It was delicious on its own, so I urged them to bottle a 100% Canaiolo, which we just debuted at our May tasting in NYC and we received a lot of interest in this wine. I like to encourage our producers to push the boundaries of experimentation.
TBN: Vias has imported Bisol since 2000. Where do you see room for growth in the Prosecco category?
FP: Prosecco must always be a wine that’s easy to drink and affordable, but I see a lot of opportunity for the high-end brands like Bisol’s Cartizze once consumers become more educated. Everybody loves bubbles, and Prosecco is easy to drink and not as expensive as Champagne.
TBN: In New York and New Jersey, Vias acts also as a distributor, representing wines from around the world. How does this model benefit the company?
FP: In an ideal world, I would have a distributorship in every state where my wines are available. This is the most effective way to control the way our wines are being presented. For example, we have 15 sales reps in New York and 3 in New Jersey, and they are constantly doing in-store tastings, which is the best way to promote wines like ours—it always creates return customers.
TBN: Vias has added a number of spirits brands to its portfolio in recent years. What was the learning curve like for your sales team?
FP: Our sales reps embraced them immediately because the types of distilleries we represent share the same philosophy as fine wine. We are talking about very small, niche brands and just like our wine brands, they have good stories. For example, the Sibona distillery in Piedmont has the oldest distillation license in Italy; they craft single-variety grappas aged in barrel. Family-owned Distilleria Bertagnolli in the Dolomites—which once supplied the imperial courts—also crafts superior grappas. At our tasting in New York City in May, we debuted an amaro that only sells in the city of Genoa in Italy! Arvero, a limoncello from the peninsula bordering the Gulf of Naples, is made with a centuries-old recipe based on the famous Sorrento lemons.