by Peter Pharos

Letters from Monferrato

This was not the piece I was planning to write. This was meant to be my write-up of my visit to Monferrato, the Piedmont region usually left out of the spotlight, though it has some of the most interesting red grapes in the country. I wanted to tell you about flavourful Freisa and Marmite Ruché, about their take on Barbera and how I changed my opinion of Grignolino.  I would have a part where I would tell you how the Alba aristocracy is throwing the odd look Monferrato’s way, and how a small group of producers lead the region’s natural wine movement. I certainly didn’t intend to engage with anything too serious. Just a postcard from a reserved but hardworking Italian region, some good wines to try, and then off to plan my next piece on Sardinia. You know, life’s little pleasures.

As cases of Covid-19 started appearing in northern Italy, I thought I might need an addendum, a brief obligatory call to support the region and its wines. When Lombardy started showing signs of a crisis, I started wondering if events would make the piece redundant. As the whole of Italy went in lockdown, discussing grapes and vinifications seemed weirdly frivolous, if not outright tone deaf. Instead of thinking about the wines, I started wondering about the people. I got in touch with some of the producers I’d spoken to, to find out how their lives are, how they have changed, and the impact this is having on their business. A few kindly got back to me; given the circumstances, it is difficult to ask the rest twice. I will still write that other article at some point, when things look like they are getting back to normal or, in a gloomier scenario, perhaps when we have become resigned to a New Normal. But for now, this is how the Monferrini are describing things on the ground.

It’s likely that by now you know how the Italian lockdown works: schools and universities have been closed for a while (since 25/2 in Monferrato). Restaurants, cafés, and any non-critical stores followed soon after. Going out requires a valid reason, with fines applied if not, and everyone is highly advised to stay in when at all possible. What you might know less well, especially given the inspiring, but unrepresentative, “balcony videos” circulating, is the effect this has on well-being.

Understandably, people are reporting being frightened, even panicking; one described it to me (perhaps with a hint of Italian flourish) as “a Third World War, this time bacteriological”. Others report struggling to think or concentrate on work. Even relatively innocuous aspects, such as going out with gloves and masks, have an impact, more so in a country where close physical contact is an integral part of the culture (I realise southern Italians might not have thought this would be problem for the Piedmontese). “Surreal” was used by more than one. It sounds about right.

If there is a silver lining for wine producers it is that, all things considered, a winery is one of the better places to be in a lockdown (I can confirm I would very happily take it over an apartment in Birmingham). Eleonora Armarino of Crealto told me there is relatively little changing in their everyday routine from a practical perspective: they do their shopping from local stores, and the agricultural work goes on as it would; nature doesn’t do lockdowns.

It is an entirely different story in the man-made realm of commerce. While technically exports are still allowed, and goods can certainly move as normal within Italy, everybody reports a complete halting of trade. The picture is bleak: cancellations of orders; rescheduling or indefinite postponement of events; an economy in stasis. Things are particularly dire for those that rely on supplementing their income from agritourism, hospitality being the single most affected sector in the country. This also magnified by a touch of the absurd. Suddenly, Italian products are viewed by some abroad as carriers of the Coronavirus, despite the evidence to the contrary. Franco Morando, the owner of Ruché specialists Montalbera, told me he recommends watching the TV news only once a day and read only expert commentary: advice we could all use.

As for production, feelings are mixed. Of course wine will be produced (it has been produced in times tougher than this), but with much of the 2019 stock unsold, there will be an impact on volume. Unsurprisingly, everyone has halted all investment plans and planting of new plots, an important effect on itself in an area that has been experiencing a lot of growth. Stefano Gervasoni of the strong new entrant Hic et Nunc, thinks that things will not go back to normal until the end of the year. Thankfully, all the people that got back to me were all trying to be stoical or cautiously optimistic about the future: grit the teeth and go forward hoping it all passes soon, as Patrizia Accornero put it. Of course everyone feels that it would be a great help if we keep believing in Italy and keep buying Italian wine more than before (which, as Eleonora of Crealto put it, it can help a difficult period pass).

Our Italian friends, however, do not have only requests of help from us: they also have words of caution. Their own experience should be instructive: in the words of Morando, Italian politicians failed to understand immediately the speed of propagation. Gervasoni thinks that the UK is wasting time. Accornero pleads with us to respect any rules imposed; for her, Italy is paying the superficiality with which the issue was originally treated. As Boris Johnson spent a week fiddling with behavioural science, British exceptionalism, and “taking it on the chin”, we would do well to listen. Northern Italy, a place with a strong State and one of the best healthcare systems in the world, was overwhelmed. In a few weeks, we are about to find out how the UK will cope with such a challenge.

Stay safe everyone.

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