Thursday, September 15, 2011

Garantito IGP: Le Baccanti, Much More than Travel...

This time I take the stand.

Nobody who writes about wines expected to do so. Filippo Bartolotta finished college and after a time applied for a job in management at Vinopolis, a then new venture dedicated to wine in Bankside, a part of London that was then rather run down, but resurging.

"Don't have one," came the reply, but they did ask him if he wanted to take a post as a Sommelier. "No," he said, thinking that pouring wines for a living would be a tremendous failure, and continued to look for a job in management while staying at a friend's. When his savings were gone he went back and was told they could take him part time.

The people who launched Vinopolis expected an initial clientele of at least 1400 people per day. The actual number was closer to 40, but the 30 sommeliers from all over the world working the floor still had to open the bottles, and took advantage of the opportunity to taste and talk about the wines too; Filippo quickly got a much broader and more nuanced view of wine than he would have had he started to pour in Italy, and his conversations with the clients he served broadened his outlook even further.

The break came when Stephen Spurrier saw him tasting a wine he was pouring for a vertical, and asked him to taste with Decanter's tasting panels. After a time they asked him to write about how Barolo ages, a request that led to a trip to Piemonte and an anxiously written first article, and soon he was writing for Decanter, and also organizing corporate wine events.

And very much attached to living in London. However, he was in contact with Natalia Greggi, who was putting together a wine tour company called Le Baccanti; she asked him to do a wine tour and course in 1999, and he ended up helping her develop the packages to offer clients. They didn't agree on business strategy however, and he stayed in London, sending people her way.

Fast forward to 2002, when he returned to Italy; on the one hand he continued to write about wine, for Italian publications too, and on the other Natalia asked him to become a partner. Things worked out differently: his wife Vanessa became pregnant and lost her job as an agronomist. She redesigned Le Baccanti's website to refine its focus, and together they decided to take the company over and make it into a travel agency.

And are still there, but it's not that simple. They initially aimed at the British market, but the Web knows no borders and their first important client was an American bent on a family reunion; Filippo offered the party (about 30) the sorts of wine and cultural activities he offered his British corporate clients and the Americans had a great time. More came, and soon Le Baccanti was focusing on the places Americans wanted to go -- Rome and the Alban Hills, Venice, Amalfi, the Riviera Ligure, Milano, the Lake district, and so on, and also organizing second trips for repeat customers, taking, for example, people they had already shown Chianti to to hunt white truffles (and discover harpsichord makers) in Piemonte's Langhe.

Then 2008 rolled around, and the phones went dead. "I had a down payment for a trip from a banker," he recalls, "and his phone stopped working. We didn't know what to do."

He did have people's email addresses, however, and decided to reverse directions, setting up a package called "Italy at Your Table" and offering it to his clients. They bit, and he soon had 30 appointments all across the US, at which he poured fine wines of the sorts people in smaller American towns simply cannot find, served quality Italian foodstuffs, and made contact after contact, finding himself one day in the White House, discussing how to promote nutrition with the White House Chefs. "It was a round table, and I was the Italian," he says, adding that in the US Italy and the Mediterranean diet, with its combination of grains, proteins, and greens, is seen by some as a model for nutrition. "In Italy we don't realize what we have."

What was initially touring has also become education, and at the same time a new branch of the business. People want direct, unfiltered contact -- you introduce people to foods and wines in their homes, tall stories and cook together in their kitchens, and it comes full circle; this is what people want and what works. Food and wine become the heart of a social network that operates at several scales; in addition to visiting people's homes he has held events at much larger venues, for example the New York's Metropolitan Museum

What does he like most about what he does? People's curiosity and eagerness to learn. It's not automatic of course; the curiosity of the client must be met by an eagerness to communicate on the part of the producer or cook. "We're in the business of building memories people will share with their grandchildren," he says.

I envy him.

Published Simultaneously by IGP, I Giovani Promettenti. We Are:
Carlo Macchi
Kyle Phillips
Luciano Pignataro
Roberto Giuliani
Stefano Tesi

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