The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

On Visiting VinItaly

Posted on | April 18, 2011 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

Imagine a beautiful day. It’s spring in the Veneto. The sun is beaming down. The air is mild with the scent of blooming flowers. Bees buzz in lazy circles near enough that you’re aware of nature’s bounty, but not so close as to raise alarm. Hundreds—no, thousands—of like-minded people stroll happily enjoying their one uniting passion: the tasting of wine.

For under those white tents and artfully decorated structures fabricated from corrugated steel and other high-tech materials there is wine. Miles and miles of wine, much of it from the best producers in Italy, poured for you in an endless river by knowledgeable winemakers. Row after row, row upon row, rows crisscrossing one another like a giant crossword puzzle, rows and rows and rows of hopeful producers pouring wine. Wine runs like water at VinItaly, and it should be something of a paradise to the oenophile.

The truth is that it is—and it isn’t.

I had read Passion on the Vine, the memoir by IWM Founder and my guide for VinItaly, Sergio Esposito. Sergio has some vexed feelings about the annual gigantic wine show. He describes his arrival at the fair one year in his book:

The first event, meant to be an industry affair, had taken place in 1967. By 1969, the organizers had attracted 130 producers of Italian wine, who introduced their products to the buyers and sellers attending ­lectures and meetings. Now, there were nearly four thousand producers—and, it seemed, at least ­one-­third of the global population.

I found an overflowing building, crowds pulsating in and out, English words tossed around. There were thousands of people, from New Jersey, New York, Hawaii, Missouri; from Germany, Norway, Singapore, South Africa. The buildings—makeshift green metallic structures erected for just this purpose—sat upon a fairground, a sort of Las Vegas convention-hall affair. Wildly attractive women staffed the entrance, all of them in a ­standard-­issue uniform: a pine green cloak, tight black skirt, pressed white shirt, and red cap. Throngs of people were registering at the different doors, their notebooks and digital cameras in their hands, their faces plastered with that avid look most often spotted on rock music fans pushing to get into a venue for a Stones concert. Above it all rose a billboard, one hundred feet wide and thirty feet high, across which was sprawled in burgundy: Vinitaly.

When Sergio and I arrived the Friday before last, I found his description to be accurate. Although the outfits of the “wildly attractive” women had changed, it was very much the madhouse that Sergio depicts. Outside the venue, cars were parked with the chockablock inelegance of toddler’s toppled blocks. Inside, scrums of people glommed around any signage that could tell you how to find the booths you were looking for—likewise, people gathered with that ineffable herding instinct in front of popular booths. I suspect that you could cause any booth to become wildly popular just by placing a flash-mob on its doorstep, but that’s pure speculation.

While there was some semblance of order in that individual buildings (“roughly the size of airplane hangars,” Sergio’s book accurately reports) were dedicated to individual regions, there the organization broke down. Cheek-by-jowl, you could find producers from Umbria, Piemonte and Toscana—all located within the tent for Alto Adige. It’s kind of as if the logistical planner just gave up partway through his or her task, and it is a big task, no doubt about it. I can envision giving up myself.

I’ve never seen so much wine nor so many people ready to consume it. There was just so much wine. It’s almost defeating how much wine there is at VinItaly; if there has ever been an embodiment of too much of a good thing, it might very well be VinItaly. The only factor that checks the veracity of that statement is the simple fact that there was also too much of a mediocre thing (and probably too much of a bad thing too, though I didn’t taste much that was downright bad).

The excellence of VinItaly is the chance to taste a producer’s wine and find that it makes your hair stand up with excitement. In this respect, I was very fortunate to have Sergio as my guide. An experienced VinItaly hand, Sergio had mapped out groups of producers whose wine he wanted to check out, and while a few were damned with faint praise, several got a nod of genuine approval. He found wines that were really amazing—beautiful, complex, interesting, unexpected and nuanced. I don’t want to give too much away, but Sergio discovered some extraordinary wines from Alto Adige and Sicilia. Thinking about them makes my mouth water with anticipation.

And yet, at the end of the days I spent at VinItaly it wasn’t the size of the event, its glitziness that sometimes verged on Vegas levels, the sheer vertiginous number of its spittoons, or the various goofy ways that the different regions tried to distinguish themselves (“In Veritas Lazio!” read that region’s banner, while Sicilia paraded a partially clad girl painted green to represent…something), it was the fact that something like VinItaly happened at all. For indeed, not only did Sergio and I attend VinItaly that weekend, we also attended VeniVini, an exhibition of all organic and biodynamic wines that was much more manageable in scope. And, had we wanted to, we could have gone to yet another show of only biodynamic wines.

Wine is, of course, a huge export for Italy, but this cavalcade of events is bigger than just being a testament to the commercial success of Italy. It’s more than wine; it’s national pride. It’s regional pride. It’s something so deeply ingrained in Italian culture that I as an American have a hard time parsing it. For it wasn’t just industry people, though they were there in droves; everyone was there. People who like wine go to VinItaly, a trade-show. There is, in fact, nothing analogous that I can come up with in America, nothing that unites us and divides us with the same kind of messianic fervor that wine does  Italians.

And that for me was the truly amazing discovery of VinItaly. Yes, I tasted some truly remarkable wines, but what I really got a glimpse of was how Italians feel about wine, and it’s something so much more profound than mere passion.

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