Last month at the Illuminati estate in Abruzzo, I had lunch with my people. No, they weren’t Sicilian or Calabrese cousins. They weren’t my co-workers or clients meeting me in Italy. It was much more visceral than that, almost tribal in the connection. I was invited to have lunch with a wine sales team, guys who sell to wine shops and restaurants in Rome.
Over the years I've had many meals at Illuminati. In the early days we had meals on the second floor of the old house, sometimes outside. If it was cold we’d invade the dining room. As the winery grew and the Illuminati family redesigned the old stable on the main floor, we settled into the space they called the Luperia, a space with a kitchen and an open hearth. And a larger dining room. Many great memories exist in this room, but I had never sat down to eat with my own regiment. And during those years, friend and cellar master, Agostino, has opened many a bottle for us to enjoy. We’ve grown into the job together.
I was really excited about this meal. I was prepared to pick the brains of rookie and veteran alike. Who would know better the travails of selling wine than a salesman from Rome? What kind of kickbacks did the Roman restaurateur demand? How did one go about getting control of the wine list or selling a wine from Abruzzo to a Sardegnan? I was hoping for all mysteries to be revealed.
Dino Illuminati, the patriarch of the estate, motioned for me to sit next to him. Lunch is serious business for Dino and he didn’t want anyone to get too near him with idle chat. He wants to eat and drink first. I know the drill. When Dino and I sit down we both go after food and wine pretty well much in the same way. Except Dino has a capacity that I will never be able to match.
One of the older veterans sat across from me. He reminded me of one of the salesmen back home. This gent had a peaceful air about him, he was the elder statesman; he grew up in Amatrice in northern Lazio.
I asked him how his route was. Was it competitive? Cutthroat? Was it hard to collect money? Did you get resistance with all the new wines coming out? What about the prejudices of owners from one region against the wines of another region (i.e. Piedmont vs. Tuscan). I was surprised to be reminded that they don’t go around tasting wine, sampling as we call it. Now they just carry their list, with maybe some Gambero Rosso review (very big in Rome) and the price list. Pretty cut and dry. Rome was a city that was prepared for all comers, and has been this way for hundreds if not thousands of years. Anything goes.
I was looking for their “hook”. How did they catch the big fish? Figuring Rome would be like NY or LA or Houston, there was always the particular technique that worked for the peculiarity of the particular city.
He was a thoughtful guy. And we were starting to drink pretty well by then. The big slurpy purple stuff they make in Abruzzo that they call “Montepulciano in purezza.” All the while the young salesmen would come over to him and bear hug him or jostle him around. You could tell these guys liked working with each other; there was camaraderie among them.
“Alfonso, what really works best is the rapport we build with our customers. Trust, time and relationship.” Ah, the “R” word. So the secret was, there is no secret; daily treading, pressing the flesh, and being reliable. Showing up. Building trust. Just like almost everywhere else.
Look at these people. They’re having fun. They’re enjoying their lives. They’re enjoying each other.
I told some stupid story, trying to be funny, about a sales experience here in The States, but I don’t think the experience translated so well to their frame of reference. No matter, platters of grilled lamb, sausage and pork were pulling up to the table and we soon were diverted to the main course.
Dino, me and Spinelli, back in 1985
The Luperia is a wellspring for me. I come back here to re-connect with those souls who are manifestations of the timeless energy that travels through the vine. Daniele Spinelli was one of the early winemakers I came to admire. I loved hanging out with him. When we would sit down to eat, as the night progressed, and as we went into red wine, the stuff he made, his head, shaped appropriately like a grape, would turn redder and redder. My Italian would get better and he would bestow his bodhisattva-blessing on me as a way to replenish me for another year. And send me back out to the outer regions to spread the word. It worked. And we came back every year or so, like pilgrims.
Luigi, me, Stefano and Claudio
Now, Dino isn’t so hands on. Spinelli passed away in 1992. But the next generation is upon us and there are more of them. As it is in the streets of Rome, so it is in the vineyards of Abruzzo. This is something that has been happening for hundreds of years and will continue, hopefully, for many hundreds more.
After lunch we went outside for espresso and cigars and fresh air, what a combo, eh? The sales crew had to get back to Rome. It was only three hours we’d had to sit down and break bread, but in that time I felt like a huge gift had been dropped in my lap; An afternoon with my selling tribe; with the young ones, the veterans, the crazy ones, the calm ones. Its not a closed brotherhood but it is a deep connection, to capture what is growing right out there in the land and transform it to wine and take it to Rome and NY and Austin and try and share with all those folks in those places these amazing miracles in bottles. Not just wine, but the lives, of Spinelli and Spinozzi and Illuminati and you and me and anyone that wants in on this.
This is the joy of selling. This is why I am on the wine trail in Italy and anywhere else the road takes me.
Thumbs up from a couple of Romans? I'll take that as a good sign.