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  • Writer's pictureMelissa L. Smith

Italian Wine Investment Predictions with Juliana Colangelo


Earlier this Fall I sat down with Colangelo Partners Vice President Juliana Colangelo to discuss the business side of Italian wine travel, hospitality, and investment predictions.


Les Dames d'Escoffier San Francisco Dames Tonya Pitts, Theodora Lee, Remi Cohen, Juliana Colangelo, and Melissa Smith


JULIANA:

Welcome to Masterclass US Market with me, Juliana Colangelo. This show has been designed to demystify the US market for Italian wineries through interviews with experts and sales and distribution social media, communications and so much more. We will quiz each of our esteemed guests at the end of each episode to solidify the lessons that we've learned. So sharpen your pencils, get out to your notebooks and join us this week to learn more about the US market.

Hello, welcome to Masterclass US wine market. Today I'm thrilled to welcome Melissa Smith to the Italian wine podcast. Forbes and Robb Report recognized wine appraiser, expert witness, certified sommelier, and the founder of the Enotrias Elite Sommelier Services and the creator of the Wine Collecting Master Class. Melissa L Smith, serves as a writer, speaker and educator, specializing in wine, wine collecting and wine travel.

Welcome to the show, Melissa. It’s so great to have you here.

MELISSA:

Thank you for having me.

JULIANA:

Of course! So before we dive into today's discussion about collecting wine and wine collectors, Melissa tell us a little bit more about your background and how you got into this world of fine wine collecting and cellar management.

MELISSA:

I started my career as a fine dining chef. I'd moved to Napa Valley the week I graduated high school and worked at some of the top restaurants in Napa Valley including the French Laundry. I would spend my weekends or time off in tasting rooms. I wasn't being carded, so I actually got into a lot of wineries and just really enjoyed learning about wine and then spent the next several years working as a chef traveling around the country. And then spent time living and working in Japan for a bit and then came back to the US, worked in some restaurants and then worked as a private chef. And that's when I decided I'd rather get paid to drink for a living. So I went through the Court of Master Sommeliers training, became a certified sommelier, worked for K&L Wine Merchants as the Head Sommelier for the company. While I was there, we'd get a lot of calls for people needing their wine cellars organized, inventoried, and assigned valuations for legal purposes like, divorce and death. So I started taking on those clients and really thrived doing that and had to argue the valuation (or lack of a valuation) for a high profile client going through a divorce. I told my best friends about it, who are also attorneys, and they said you should turn this into a legal seminar.

So I turned it into the Wine Collecting and Wine Valuation seminar that is now considered continuing education for Family Law and Trust and Estates attorneys around the country. I then took that seminar and I turned it into one that I could present to wine enthusiasts that were looking to get into wine collecting, and then I took all of that information and turned it into the Wine Collecting Master Class which is an online 3 hour seminar. It is a deep dive into wine collecting for personal enjoyment as well as for investing.

JULIANA:

Really interesting. So I love your story and how you came into this world. They're not by accident, but you know in a sort of roundabout way, and really from the ground up through different experiences traveling. Working as a chef but ultimately, landing in this really niche and unique space of wine collecting and this Master Class that you've developed. It's really interesting. I think it's a part of the wine industry that we don't always get a lot of insights into.

It's like the world of the uber wealthy and rich. It's a little mysterious and behind closed doors, so I feel like we're getting really a sneak peek today on the podcast. So it really is Interesting to hear your insights.

So Melissa, in today's episode, we're going to talk a little bit more specifically about how we position the Italian wine category and Italian wines for this collector audience that you have such great insights into and our three key takeaways for today's master class and what we're really excited to learn from you are:

#1, What are collectors looking for when making seller acquisitions? What are some of their key considerations? What's going on behind the scenes?

#2. What Italian wines are drawing the most attention right now from collectors?

And #3, what are some of the trends in Italian Wine in the collector world?

So let's just dive right in.

As you mentioned, you've developed this Master Class on wine collecting, and you're the first person to be certified by the Bar Association for the valuation of wine seminar. That's incredible. So tell us a little bit more about this process of evaluating wine. And putting valuation against client collections and how that works.

MELISSA:

I am one of the only wine appraisers in the country that actually comes from a wine background. Most of the other wine appraisers in the industry are coming from a fine art background, which is really interesting. It's actually the closest parallel to wine as far as appraisals go. You know you want to look at the provenance and how the pieces have been stored. Who's owned them in the past? All of that is incredibly important as it is with wine. I take all of that into perspective, but working firsthand with collections, especially my exposure at K&L where I got so much incredible exposure to so many labels, so many wines, authentic wines, which is another thing that's incredibly important. Making sure you're not dealing with counterfeit. That's pretty much made it so that I was able to create the most efficient inventory software on the market.

Having hands on experience and familiarity and knowing exactly what to look for on each label. I've worked with some Master Sommeliers in the past where I've brought them on to help with last minute projects when I'm out of the country and I have seen that they have made mistakes in categorizing wine so I am really proud of the work that I do. And as far as the wine appraisals go, I do a lot of desktop appraisals. So that's under the assumption that everything is in perfect condition. I also work hands on in cellars, where I'm able to look at fill levels, see if they come in the original wooden containers, have original tissue paper, and checking out the provenance to make sure that they are not counterfeit, from what I can tell. So a lot of that goes into what I do. How do I do the appraisals? There are some really key technologies out there. Wine Searcher is probably the best that most of us rely on in the industry for looking at fair market valuations.

JULIANA:

Got it. OK, so you're using tools that you have from your experience working at K&L but also with Wine Searcher and bringing all that background together. And I think it is interesting that you said that you're one of the only wine appraisers with a wine background. That's somewhat surprising to me and I think obviously it seems like a unique edge for you in this case as well.

MELISSA:

Yeah, there's only two other gentlemen that I know in the industry that come from a wine background and they actually spend most of their time in Hong Kong.

JULIANA:

Well, tell us a little bit about this collector audience that you're working with. I know you're based in California, in Northern California and Napa. But where are they living? Who are you working with? Tell us a little bit about more about who this audience is.

MELISSA:

So most of my clients are based on the peninsula, otherwise known as Silicon Valley, and then also wine country, primarily spending time between Sonoma and Napa right now. And then I also have clients all around the country with a focus on New York and New Jersey, Florida, Chicago, Connecticut. So kind of all over. The Texas market is one that I'm looking at getting into as well.My clients run the gamut. Some of them are some of the more historic winery owners in Napa Valley and Sonoma. And then other ones are are in the tech industry and venture capital, new money, old money. But primarily, we're looking at gentleman in the 60 plus range that have been around wine, or they start collecting because of exposure from their parents or their grandparents, or they’ve gotten into it for investment purposes. Typically that's what most of my collectors look like.

JULIANA:

That makes sense, the key markets are the older demographic. We talk a lot now about changing generations, changing wine consumers. Are you starting to see a younger collector audience emerge in any of the spaces you're working in or is it still really predominantly led by that 60 plus older demographic?

MELISSA:

It's a very, very, very small subset of collectors that are new. I would say in the 30 to early 40 range.

It's really interesting to me. It just doesn't seem to be as much a part of their lifestyle yet. But I'm hoping cultural phenomenons like the White Lotus making everybody all of a sudden obsessed with Sicily and Sicilian wines and things like that are going to kind of help open up this market of new interest for us.

JULIANA:

Yeah, we hope so, definitely for the future of the industry. We need new consumers coming into that space. Do you think there are any opportunities that wineries (Italian or not) that can tap into engaging a younger collector audience? You mentioned cultural phenomenons like the White Lotus bringing opportunities. But do you think there are other key opportunities that maybe we're missing as an industry in order to engage that new collector audience?

MELISSA:

I really think that the big designations are going to be experiential events and being able to do private luncheons, private dinners. Something beyond just cave tours and standing in tasting rooms. But then there also needs to be something where we're reeling in what these costs are. Napa Valley prices are insane to get into some of these wineries just to taste the wines is a challenge, and then you're lucky to get a cheese and charcuterie plate. But you're spending well over $100 per person just for the opportunity to taste these new release wines, which is not super educational. It's not the best way to sell wines. If you're going to be doing an experience like that, for me, especially in these really, really high bracket categories, I want to be able to taste library wines next to the new releases. I want to see how it ages to determine if I'm going to invest in their $100 plus bottles of wine. I want to see what it's going to look like in 10, 20, 50 years and say okay, it's going to be worth me spending this much money on a case of wine, where I’m ideally not going to touch the wines for that long.

I just had a really incredible experience at a winery recently where there's this beautiful view over the valley and the hospitality was amazing. It wasn't just a stuffy experience. You felt so much love towards the brand by the time you leave. You want to make the investment and buy from them.

I don't think that a lot of people realize when you go to Europe, it's not like standard tasting rooms in California, Oregon, and Washington where you can just make a quick call or see an open sign and just walk in. You actually need to plan these visits months in advance in order to visit these wineries. And for those of us in the industry, we're used to having everything preset for us, prearranged where we're going on a buying trip or things like that. So when you go as a consumer…yeah, we're totally spoiled.

JULIANA:

We're definitely spoiled.

MELISSA:

But when you go as a consumer, it’s like, What do you mean I can't just walk into a winery and taste their wines, and sit down with the winemaker and have their homemade charcuterie from the boars they just killed in their vineyards, opening bottles of birth year wines like I did when I was a buyer. Knowing what to expect as a consumer traveling to other countries' wine regions are really important. I've run into that at a restaurant in Bordeaux, where a group of young people from Silicon Valley were visiting, And they're like, “Oh, yeah, we're going to go wine tasting in Bordeaux.” And I asked if they had appointments set up and they said. “No, we're just going to drive around and go into places.” I had to tell them that it's not set up the same way it is in Napa Valley. You have to make plans well in advance.

If the Italian market wants to be selling to collectors in the US, they should really be planning visits to Napa Valley to see how we do things here, because we do things really, really, really well with hospitality in many cases. I learned to appreciate that about our domestic wine regions. Being able to offer these incredible experiences makes a huge impact. I think Antinori had a really good example when I visited several years ago.


Marchesi Antinori in Chianti Classico

JULIANA:

So the experiential component, and adding more value to the tasting experience. More educational value. Also you mentioned adding in those library wines and older vintages into the tasting, which you are marketing wines to people that are meant to be cellared and aged. It is important for the consumers to understand the potential of those wines as they age. So I think that that seems like a no brainer and a really valuable insight from your experience.

Thinking of the wines, let's just dive into talking a little bit more about what you are seeing among the collector audience that you're working with in terms of the wines they are collecting. Is it the tried and true classics, or are you seeing new categories emerge? We'd also love to hear, of course, what's trending in the Italian wine category in your space.

MELISSA:

Right. So the biggest area that I'm seeing growth in right now for collecting, are vintage Champagnes. And Burgundy, of course. But then we're also seeing a spike in Nebbiolo, Barolo and Barbaresco, and people are getting away from Bordeaux (sadly for me, as someone that's a huge Bordeauxphile) and the Bordeaux blends of Italy, and the big Super Tuscans that were the most sought after for a long time. I think that those are starting to take a step back and instead, we're seeing Barolo producers really come to the forefront, the wines that are snatched up the fastest, and they're also increasing in value the fastest. Then there is Soldera (Brunello), which will always be one of the tops and then also Quintarelli, which is so sought after that it was the focus of a major theft in the Los Angeles area earlier this summer. Those are two big ones. But I would say that the Brunello category in general, some Brunello di Montalcino are going to be up there, but those are the trends that I'm seeing. People are getting away from the big big big, bold wines and going more towards that more elegant Burgundy and Barolo, Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo based wines.


From the tower in Barbaresco

JULIANA:

Yeah, and that seems generally like the trend in consumption too. Not just in the collector space, but in restaurants and retail as well. People are moving towards lighter styles of wine across the board. What do you think are some of the reasons why that is?

MELISSA:

Well, I think diet has a lot to do with it. Americans are finally realizing that you want to enjoy wine with food, and with those bigger wines, they're not going to go with everything versus Pinot Noir and a Nebbiolo are going to be much more food friendly. They're lower in alcohol, you know, they might not age as long. But I've had incredible Barolos from the 60s that are still really beautiful and lively. So I think that has a lot to do with it.

I just appraised 2 collections back-to-back and I was amazed at the range between Burgundy and Bordeaux and that Bordeaux had basically plateaued and Burgundy we're just off the charts.

But then like I mentioned, White Lotus and Stanley Tucci, between those two shows, there is a huge spike in Sicilian wine interest.

JULIANA:

That's really interesting as well. I know we've definitely seen that love affair with Sicily boom the last couple of years with everything obviously going back a little further with Etna wines, but now the entire island in general with the tourism. And that goes back to what you said earlier about experience as well. And there's more Americans visiting Sicily now than ever before because of that cultural phenomenon. And then they're coming back from their vacations and their trips and probably drinking more Sicilian wine. So it shows you that the power of those cultural moments. How about for the future? Are we talking about Sicily as a category that's up and coming within the space, but maybe just more generally as well. For collectors, what do you see in some of the future trends outside of the classic categories that we would typically think of Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy Barolo. Are you seeing any other interesting categories on the rise for the wine industry?

MELISSA:

Well, for the collector audience, I think that there's definitely going to be a lot more interest in spirits. Whiskey has obviously been a big one, but you see this insane growth with things like Chartreuse where you can't find bottles on the shelf anymore, and there's a whole black market going on for them. I think something might happen with Amaro’s, actually. Where there's going to be a collector that's going to focus on these terroir driven products where it literally is the herbs and the flowers and the spices that are grown in those regions made from wines from those regions. A couple of my collectors have Chinatos in their collections, and I think that those are going to continue to age beautifully and just get more and more interesting. The production level for them is so small that I think that long term that might be a really, really interesting category to follow.

And then as far as other regions? It's really interesting to me to see the direction of the market, and obviously, these natural wines aren't something that are ageable or collectible. I think there might be a couple of categories or a couple of producers where people might want to collect them, but overall, you need a shelf stable product. So minimal intervention is definitely going to be the key going forward. I don't think natural wine is going to be something that I advise people to collect. Minimal intervention is always going to be important. Making sure that everything is sustainable and wine aren't over-oaked, or have a lot of additives and things like that, that we've seen over the last 20 some years from producers in Napa Valley in particular, and they're getting away from that. They're showing a little bit more restraint in some of their wines. That's definitely something of interest.

And then as we saw at the Wine and Spirits Top 100 event recently, there's a huge interest in island wines. Those wines from the Canary Islands that I think we were all really really fascinated by. But again, it just it goes back to quality, but also exclusivity is huge as well

JULIANA:

That's interesting what you said about the Chartreuse and Amaro categories in particular. We know that spirits consumption has been on the rise, and taking away some market share from wine consumption like you said, that they still have that terroir driven approach. So they provide a collector or wine with some of those same values, which is interesting to think about that in the space. I think your point about the natural wine space and the collector world is well taken too, because that's the category we've seen a lot of excitement and energy over, but what's the sustained future of it? It will be interesting to see for sure.

Well, Melissa and I were getting to the end of the episode. So we do our rapid fire quiz each episode just to help our listeners really master the US market. Which is what we're here to do. So 3 questions, and if you can do your best to answer these in one sentence or less. That would be great.

Question number one, what is your number one tip for mastering the US white market?

MELISSA:

I would say experiential events. Whether you're inviting buyers or consumers to your winery and providing in person opportunities, those are what are going to stick with people for a lifetime. That's going to get people really, really passionate about selling your products.

JULIANA:

I think that's really great advice. Question number 2, what is something you might have told your younger professional self about working in the wine industry?

MELISSA:

It's something I tried to do, but I wasn't always financially able to do until fairly recently. But traveling as much as possible so that you get that first hand experience with the products that you're selling. We can all read books and watch shows about wines and even taste them in person, but until you visit those regions and get a true understanding of the terroir, the local cuisine, the people, the winery, that's what sells, and that is information education you can always go back to, so taking any opportunity to travel to wine country within the US and outside of the US, I think is the most important thing.


Somewhere in Northern Italy

JULIANA:

That's really, really great advice. And speaking of travel, what is your favorite travel hack when you're doing market work and traveling for work?

MELISSA:

Oh God, I've got an entire blog post on hacking travel for wine. My number 1 tip, and people think I'm crazy for it, but I take the NoDoz caffeine pills. It's 200 milligrams of caffeine. That's the same as a cup of coffee but it doesn’t mess with your palate. You want to have something solid at the beginning of the day, and then a NoDoz, go through the tastings. Sometimes, depending on if I'm doing back-to-back winery meetings (these are long hard days as we know) and so another one at lunch and usually just those two will get me through the whole day without having to stop and have coffee and mess with my palate. The alcohol from the wine tends to even out whatever jitters I would get from the NoDoz.

There's also a great supplement called No Jet Lag. It continues to sell out on Amazon. I discovered it before my first trip to Italy in 2016, and I have not gotten jet lag since. It's just a homeopathic tablet that you take every two hours on the plane and it has really been a game changer for me.

JULIANA:

Oh my gosh. OK, I can't believe this. Is the first time I'm hearing about that. That's sounds incredible. I'm definitely gonna add them too to my list for sure.

Well, Melissa, thank you again so much for being here today on the Italian Wine podcast. How can our listeners connect with you?

MELISSA:

Enotrias.com is probably the best place. There's a link to the Wine Collecting Master Class there. I'm also on TikTok at Enotiras, I do some little videos on wine and wine collecting there. And then Instagram is @winechef. It's a lot of personal consumption stuff, but it's a fun way to follow along and see what I'm eating and drinking.

JULIANA:

Alright, well fantastic. Thank you again for being here today. It was great to have you.

MELISSA:

Thanks for having me.

JULIANA:

Thank you for joining me today. Stay tuned each week. For new episodes of Master Class, US wine market with me, Juliana Colangelo and remember, if you enjoyed today's show, hit the like and follow buttons wherever you get your podcasts.


To listen to the full interview click here.


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