In Memoriam: Lucio Caputo

Earlier this month, Lucio Caputo died at the age of 84. His passing didn’t attract a lot of attention outside the wine world, but within that micro-universe it reverberated enormously.

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From 1974 to 1982, Caputo was the Italian Trade Commissioner in New York, at that time a position of incredible importance for Italian products in the United States, and most especially for Italian wine. He left the Italian civil service in 1983 (declining a fat government pension) to stay on in New York to found the Italian Wine and Food Institute, an agency he successfully headed for the next 30 years. The IWFI did a tremendous job over that period of promoting the best of Italian wines and food products. Its annual tastings and awards dinners were always highlights of the season for wine professionals.

But for those of us who remember what the situation of Italian wine was in this country before Lucio Caputo, his greatest accomplishments came in his years as Italian Trade Commissioner.  Before then, Italian wine in America was largely “Soavebolla” – the popular portmanteau term for what was often pale, watery, nearly flavorless, overcropped, and overproduced plonk. After Caputo’s stint as trade commissioner, Italian wine in America had become a broad spectrum of many kinds of wine from many sorts of grapes from all over Italy. Caputo didn’t simply promote Italian wine – though he did, actively and passionately: But in terms of the American market, he could be said to have invented it.

Big claim, eh? But here are the stats: Before his campaign, Italy was exporting 362,000 hectoliters of wine a year to the United States. In 1983, the annual export reached 2,400,000 hectoliters, an almost sextupling in volume. Initially, as I recall, the big increase was in inexpensive wines, but as the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, higher-quality wines increasingly made their mark.

By the end of Caputo’s term as trade commissioner,  Italian wine imports to the US had surpassed French wines – the market leader for decades before – first in quantity and then in value.  These were the years when many now-famous Italian wines, then small-market cult wines even in Italy, began appearing on shelves in New York, Boston, and Washington; then in Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles. The great wines you now can get easily and regularly first showed up then.

This all came about because of Caputo’s tireless efforts. Wine journalist old-timers will remember as fondly as I do the regular tastings at Italian Trade Commission headquarters on Park Avenue. This was a spacious, stylish venue, sporting an extensive wine library and a museum-quality Di Chirico oil painting.
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The tastings, which occurred every week (and sometimes twice a week), were every bit as stylish and extensive. They were also thorough, informative, and often quite intensive. You could always sit and taste comfortably, often at your own pace, and you had ample space to take notes – luxuries not always available today to the assiduous taster.

The Trade Commission tastings might be of a wine type, or a region, or a grape variety. Whichever they were, you were sure to taste and learn about some grape varieties and wines that were new to the American market or still hoping to get there, because not just journalists attended these tastings: retailers, sommeliers, restaurateurs, distributors, and importers also came. Those sessions opened the door to this country for many of the wines we can now take for granted, and they were Lucio Caputo’s finest achievement.

In the past few years, we have lost a lot of the pioneers and masters of Italian wine. Lucio Caputo was not a great winemaker like Bruno Giacosa or Beppe Colla or Antonio Mastroberardino, but his contributions to Italian wine stand in the same range of importance. One more giant is no longer with us.

3 Responses to “In Memoriam: Lucio Caputo”

  1. Alfonso Cevola Says:

    That old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” applies here. I was guilty of making an assumption, seeing a dapper man in a stylish Italian suit, always impeccably dressed and with the requisite perfect tan. I’m sure most of us over 60, if we don’t have our cloaking device on, are assumed to be something other than that which we believe ourselves to be.

    Thank you for the illuminating (and humbling) tribute to Mr. Caputo.

    Two takeaways:

    1) He was Sicilian. He had to “try harder.” Something in the genes or the water on that island. Or maybe the wine. Well, he tried. A lot.

    2) His September 11, 2001 story of survival. And for a man at the time he was 66, running down almost 80 flights of stair, often two steps at a time, to escape with his life. That was amazing.
    We didn’t fare as well here in flyover country with respect to getting the Italian Trade commission to promote Italian wines here in Texas in the 1980’s. there never was enough critical mass for them to make it worth their while. I fought for the exposure, many of us did, but New York just had it all – it was one-stop shopping for Italians. And after all, it was New York City, for God’s sake. Who didn’t want their wines on those fabled wine lists?

    Anyway, it’s hard to put one person’s life on a sheet of paper and give it justice. But what you did was give food for thought and reflection. And I thank you for that remembrance.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      And I thank you, Alfonso, for your thoughtful and pertinent comment as well for your own lifelong efforts. I know you are one of those who “tried harder” and who contributed importantly to Italian wine and to the American wine world.

  2. Kerin Says:

    Hi Tom,
    Very nice tribute to Lucio, well done. The Italian wine world will certainly miss him!

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