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|The Global Soul is Hidden in the Langhe|
La Stampa - November 4th 2012
As we gathered for a convivial Piemontese dinner in Torino on our first evening, and as we drove out the next day into the perfect, vine-laden hills of the Langhe, we ought to have been thinking about friendship, about shared memories, or at least about Barolo and vitello tonnato. And of course we did. But we are journalists. So we are condemned by our craft to look also for patterns, for bigger themes. What we thought about was the meaning of modernity and tradition, the real impact of globalisation, and what it is that remains unchanging about our countries.
For the “we” to which I refer is a group of old friends who all met when we were stationed as foreign correspondents in Japan, more decades ago than we care to recall (but in my case, I moved to Tokyo 29 years ago last month). Every year or two we gather together in a different country, to reminisce, to talk, to enjoy. This time the organiser was the wonderful Fernando Mezzetti, who was La Stampa’s correspondent in Tokyo in the late 1980s, having previously worked for il Giornale in Beijing and Moscow. It was this globe-trotter’s idea to bring us all to Piemonte.
Japan was, for all of us, a formative experience. We lived there when it was considered the epitome of modernity, of efficiency, of an eastern challenge to western economic supremacy. It was the China of its time, the unstoppable force that was bound to overtake Europe and America. It was the future. But then suddenly it wasn’t and it didn’t overtake anyone.
It had a financial crash, beginning in 1990, a huge bursting of a credit bubble that was a forerunner of the crisis the West is living through now. The causes of the Japanese crisis were like a laboratory experiment for what happened later in the US and Europe: failures of financial regulation, the capture of government by powerful interest groups, the failure of politics then to sort out the mess. And this supposed master of change and adaptation proved unable to change and to adapt to its new circumstances, leaving Japan in a 20-year stagnation.
We have Japan in common, but we are from very different backgrounds. As well as me and Fernando, our group included another Englishman (ex-BBC), a Frenchman (now working for Mediapart, previous AFP), a Canadian-Hungarian (now with Stanford University, but still in Japan), and an American (ex-CBS News), while among our wives are one South Korean, one Japanese, one Englishwoman, one Portuguese and one Italian. Yet this varied group nevertheless learned the same lesson from our Japanese experience. This was that we should not take things, and especially trends, as ever being permanent. As we say in English, appearances deceive.
Entering the Langhe, and visiting wineries such as those of the Ceretto family, of Gianni Gagliardo, president of the Accademia del Barolo, and of Contratto, gave us a strong reminder of this. A Japanese principle has it that with everything there is an appearance, a tatemae, but also an underlying reality, or honne. The tatemae of the Langhe is what tourists see, or want to see, in many of Italy’s beautiful landscapes: a sense of tradition, of permanence, of having always looked more or less as it does today.
Yet the honne, as La Stampa readers doubtless know but we didn’t, is very different. It is that the beauty and character of the Langhe is a very modern creation. In fact, as we began to think and talk about it over our favoritas, nebbiolos and chinatos, we came to wonder whether it might in fact be part of the very essence of western modernity in our globalised age.
To us, it was a surprise to learn how poor the Langhe had been in modern times, and how recent was its true emergence as a centre of high quality wine, food and tourism. At the Ceretto winery, we were told of how the current family’s father and grandfather had argued fiercely about whether it made sense to start putting the wine in bottles. In all those villages, in those vineyards and small farms, everything feels and looks extremely local. But the truth is that the biggest influences are global.
When we were all in Japan during the 1980s, wine was quite costly, and even hard, to find, especially good wine. When Fernando was in Beijing, it would have been virtually unheard of outside western compounds. Now, Italian restaurants are among the most common non-Japanese restaurants in all Japan’s big cities, and wine is both cheap and widely drunk, especially by women. And Chinese demand now drives the global wine market for premium wines, just as it most likely will drive the market for cheaper wines in ten or 20 years’ time.
In all those vineyards, beyond the grapes, the cellars and the tasting rooms, the most obvious element was the technology. The gleaming stainless steel tanks, the control systems, the analytical tools. The next most obvious was the marketing sophistication: the label designs, the strong visual identities, the positioning of different wines at different price levels for different consumers. And the third was the global view being taken by the proprietors. For all the long history of winemaking in the region, this was modernity writ large: globalisation meeting technology meeting clever image-making.
There has always, I am sure, been an element of all of this. Yet now it is dominant, and it meets another, more recent phenomenon, the creation mainly of the past decade. That is an emphasis on quality, among both consumers and producers.
A few weeks later, this time without my group of journalist friends, I returned to Torino for Slow Food’s wonderful Salone del Gusto. That, certainly, is a celebration of many things: of ideas of purity, of nature, of traditional farming methods. Yet also it is a celebration of quality, and a desire to present that quality to the world: that is surely the essence of Slow Food’s presidiums, in which quality is certified and farmers are empowered to present that quality to a wider market and at a higher price than they otherwise would.
In the three or four decades my band of friends and I have spent in journalism, the biggest change we have all lived through (and benefited from, as foreign correspondents) is globalisation: the rise and fall of Japan, the continuing rise of China, the spread of economic development across much of the rest of Asia and even into sub-Saharan Africa. Economically it has been of huge benefit not just to the emerging countries but to Europe and America too. Culturally, not to mention politically, there are more doubts.
It was those doubts that we talked a lot about in the Langhe and in Torino. Many Europeans feel buffeted and battered by the winds of globalisation, especially by immigration but also by the way cultures have become so much more intertwined, through media and the internet but also through the interpenetration in all our countries of each others’ food, drink, music and more. Mass, global scale production of all these things, just as for sofas or clocks, can feel as if it drives quality and individuality down to a lowest common denominator.
And sometimes it does. But the Langhe, along in truth with the renaissance of Torino over the past 20 years, seemed to all of us to offer a glimpse not of the past but of the future. It symbolised for us a Europe that succeeds by doing what it always did best during the finest periods in its history: focusing on knowledge, ingenuity and creativity, exploring the world for new markets and new lands, emphasising quality rather than quantity.
Japan used to do that too. It took in foreign ideas and made them better, it revolutionised its society and way of living, but while always preserving what it meant to be Japanese. For the time being, it seems to have lost its ability to do that, wearied by a long stagnation, afraid of the rise of China, recently dispirited by its tragic tsunami.
Italy has lost it too, for its own reasons amid its own long stagnation. But as our merry band of old foreign correspondents left the Langhe and Torino, we left with a feeling of hope. These places we had visited felt, in the end, more modern and better adapted to the new world than had been the case with some of our other reunion tours, such as Hungary (2007) or Portugal (2010). No one could say that they had lost even a gram of their identity as Piemontese and Italian, even as they had changed, quite radically.
For our next gathering, we will probably be going to Britain. I wonder what the group will think of that country and how well it represents modernity? Well, next time it won’t be me who writes the conclusions.