It is difficult to believe but I am now halfway through my contract period for writing my book. I asked for three years to write a 300-page book on The Wines of Piemonte for the CIassic Wine Library. You can see the summary of the book on the publisher’s website. Is it time for a half-term report? Yes, and of course this first half-term has been completely different to the one I had envisaged. Covid 19 struck. Janet and I returned from a scoping visit to Piemonte in January 2020 with a planeful of innocent-looking skiers. Little did we know that they – among others – were unknowingly bringing this new virus back to the UK and that life was about to change completely. So here is the half-term report.
I spent the first three months in late 2019 setting up my note-taking and writing systems and collecting maps. I did research on what is available in the academic as well as the popular literature and made some good contacts. Interestingly, there is a lot of research on the depth of colour in Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto. This reflected the concerns around the paleness of Nebbiolo back in the 1990s. But there is no research comparing the various ways you can best extract the tannins from Nebbiolo. Despite this, every producer passionately defends their preferred method – submerged cap, a few days in the rotofermenter, moderate length of maceration on the skins etc. But we have no actual research.
New ways of working
Once Covid took its grip, like everyone else, I quickly switched to new ways of working. Three key contacts helped – the Roero consortium put me in touch with the top 10 producers I nominated; the PR agency, Wellcom in Piemonte has a good range of important local wineries on their books; and Stefano Ricagno in Asti introduced me to the giant Barbera d’Asti e vini del Monferrato consortium that covers many of the denominations of southern Piemonte. Basically, I have had producers sending me samples and then I have been interviewing them on Zoom. Tasting samples followed by video interviews with producers is a surprisingly effective and efficient way of working. However, of course, I miss the feel of the place, the incidental but vital encounters and … the restaurants!
Since Brexit, there has been the added complication of delayed transport times and having to pay excise, VAT and a handling fee on every consignment, a self-inflicted wound. What is very clear is that there is no way of predicting if one will be charged or how much.
As a result, I have:
- Completed a full draft of the Roero DOCG chapter
- Written a substantial but incomplete draft of the numerous Barbera d’Asti/Monferrato denominations
- Collected the material for the traditional method sparkling wine section, Alta Langa DOCG
- Collected some material and written some producer profiles for some other denominations including Barolo and Barbaresco
- Nearly lost my sanity over the complexity of Italian wine law and the system of registering the intention to make a certain denomination and then claiming that at harvest, resulting in widely varying statistics about how big denominations are!
- Done some research and thinking about how to cover the two big ‘B’s, Barolo and Barbaresco, in relatively few pages. This is the main reason why people will buy the book though, in reality, the message of the book is Piemonte is far more than the two Bs. I have made some progress with this but there is still a long way to go.
The downside of the half-term report is that there are a number of topics that I have barely started on. These include Gavi, the important but mercifully small denominations of Alto Piemonte, the Timorasso grape variety around Tortona, the barely known denominations of the valleys in the Alps on the border with France. Nor have I found a good source for the cultural history that has made a Piemonte a fertile place for grape growing for several centuries.
Raising my profile
I have also thought hard about the challenge of raising my profile. I neglected the SEO and the promotion of this website over the last ten years. In addition, though I am one of two main authors of the WSET’s Diploma textbook, it is rightly presented as a joint WSET effort. I researched and wrote the Italy section but nobody would know that.
To begin to raise my profile, I have had my website updated and pointed at me as the author of the forthcoming book (David Way at www.winefriend.org). An expert is doing the SEO work that should lead to the website getting higher up Google rankings. I also started a new feature on the website called Diary of a wine writer. This is a series of blog posts that cover the process of writing and some key findings along the way. Of course, if you subscribe to this, you get all the notifications immediately. I post regularly in the Barolo and Barbaresco group on Facebook which does improve my number of visitors substantially. Of course, blogging is quite time-consuming. This is not so much the writing but the images, SEO, posting on Facebook/Twitter/Linkedin. So there is a balance to be struck between blogging and writing the book.
My travel plans are of course still on hold. The UK is in a much better place than Italy mainly due to the vaccination programme. Numbers are rising again in Italy but not rapidly – the national R rate is reported as 1.08 (end of March 2021) though Piemonte is in the higher group along with many parts of northern Italy. Hopefully, travel will resume before the summer but we will see. I will have had my second jab in a month. I have accumulated leave that the WSET is allowing me to take as a 5-6 week block. The plan is to use that in June/July or September. My work commitments have also reduced as I have negotiated to go down to four days a week for WSET so that should give me a bit more time for the book.
So, my half-term report reads that I have made reasonable progress despite the circumstances but it is difficult to judge whether I am on schedule or not. But I am really pleased to have achieved this much during a challenging time.