Brian Larky is a high-energy guy who looks like he's running even when he's not. I first met Larky in the late 1980s, when we were both a lot younger, in Lombardy, Italy. Not long out of UC-Davis, Larky was young, confident, American and the winemaker for Ca' del Bosco. We crossed wine paths a few times since that meeting in Italy, but it wasn't until last month that I decided to see what he was up to. I quickly discovered that Brian Larky, founder of Dalla Terra--Winery Direct is one busy guy, even in these slow economic times.
When we met at a small Italian trattoria in Santa Rosa, California to talk over old times and taste a few wines, I asked Larky if it wasn't unusual then for an American to be the winemaker for an Italian winery. 'Well, considering that I was the only American winemaker in Italy at that time, I guess so,' he said with a sly, confident smile.
Larky's import company, based in Napa, California, specializes only in small family-owned Italian wineries. What makes the Dalla Terra (of the earth) approach significant to wine consumers is that Larky bypasses the national importer step of the common three-tier system (importer, distributor, retailer) and sells wines directly to the distributor while working on smaller commissions than his competitors.
The bottom line is that Dalla Terra Italian wines are available nationally at affordable prices.
A major part of Larky's operating philosophy is that bigger is not necessarily better. Since he founded Dalla Terra fifteen years ago, Larky has carefully added one winery a year to his portfolio, a selection, he says, that is finalized only with the consultation of the present members. Today, the Dalla Terra portfolio includes a range of 19 Italian producers from all but a few of Italy's major wine regions. Producers best known to American wine drinkers include Alois Lageder (Trentino-Alto Adige), Avignonesi (Vino Nobile di Montepulciano), Badia a Coltibuono (Chianti Classico), Marchesi Di Gresy (Barbaresco), Marco Felluga (Friuli Venezia Giulia), Selvapiana (Chianti Rufina) and Vietti, the most recent acquisition, producers of top-end Barolo and Barbera.
Larky recognizes that an angle is needed in today's highly competitive wine market, where sales are becoming more difficult with each passing month. And he is not shy about stating his opinions of a hectic changing wine market. 'I don't think there's any difference in the state of the Italian wine industry today, based on the economy, than any other wine region. But sales of Italian wines are still extraordinary in the United States and I don't see that changing. French wines have pretty much priced themselves out of the U.S. market, but my feeling is that Italy is in a better position to respond to challenging demands of the market because there are more reasonably priced quality wines available.'
Larky reckons his marketing edge is that Dalla Terra offers distributors high quality wines at prices that are about 20 to 25 percent less than his competitors. That translates into good news for the wine drinker. 'Consumers are looking for value whether it's a wine at a hundred dollars or ten bucks, and with the wide range of 19 small family-owned Italian producers we offer, there is incredible opportunity for the distributor and the consumer,' he says.
Still, with so many import wines on U.S. wine shelves, there's always the concern that consumers know enough about a particular wine to make an intelligent buying decision. Although Larky believes that American wine consumers know whether they like a wine or not, he frets that 'There is a lot more that they don't understand than what they do know. What I think is important to know about Italian wines is the history, the story, the presence, why the wines are what they are, and that the wines have always been made for the table, not for earning high scores.'
Larky cautions, however, that he sees big changes in the future. 'There will be a huge shakeup, across the board, in the world market, not just in Italy. The overall market is going down, but Dalla Terra remains a shining star because we offer greater value.' His advice to wine consumers seeking quality and value is to look south. 'Generally, where winemaking is most exciting, and where you'll find some great values, is in Maremma in southern Tuscany, and then further south in Puglia, where winegrowing is so diverse and there's so much going on.' Dalla Terra's import from Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot, is Li Veli, owned by the Falvo family, specialists in native grapes Negroamaro and Primitivo.
If Sicilian wines are your forte, Dalla Terra imports Ajello, including a mouth-filling Nero d'Avola and a pair of white wines made from local grapes such as Grillo, Catarratto and Moscato. Another popular Italian red with American wine drinkers is Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. La Valentina from Spoltore, Abruzzo makes five, all 100% Montepulcianos, employing a different approach with each, like tank fermentation, large oak fermentation, single vineyard and one wine that winemaker Luca d'Attoma calls 'Binomio,' made from 100% old-vines of an 'Africa' clone and aged in French oak.
In this age of globalization and proliferation of wines made in the so-called international style, it's encouraging and comforting to know that folks like Brian Larky continue to carve out a niche in the U.S. market, bringing us value Italian wines that reflect family values and a specific place.
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