By Craig Camp
Monday, April 26, 2004
SHE IS tall and seems even taller on top of her spike high-heels. She has long shiny black hair and is wearing an extremely tight black mini-skirt only slightly longer than her hair. The cleavage of the tiny dress is cut dramatically low and this, combined with a push-up bra of considerable power, creates a beacon that the eyes of the thousands of passing men just can't miss. There are three other girls just like her and they look so much alike under the layers of makeup they are almost interchangeable. Each girl is surrounded by a crowd of men easily twice her age holding on to oversized wine glasses while holding in their stomachs and trying to be as cool as possible.
Welcome to Vinitaly: the world's largest wine tasting. For five days in early April Verona is descended upon by representatives of every facet of the Italian wine business from every corner of the world. Verona is overwhelmed by the onslaught. This is not the time of the year to visit Juliet's Tomb.
The size and scope of the Vinitaly wine trade fair is staggering. The organizers recently announced that, to taste every wine on offer, you would have to sample over 2,000 wines an hour for all five days the fair is open. I believe more than one person attempts this feat. However, most of us must choose what we attempt to taste and this is where the models in the mini-skirts come in handy. The first thing you do is eliminate the producers that hire models to push their wines with push-up bras. Wine shows are like Italian television programs: the more girls in skimpy outfits, the worse the content of the program -- or the bottle -- will be.
One thing for sure is that every type of wine and wine marketing that exists in Italy is on display in Verona for five days every April. The character of the producers' stands range from mini-discos with dancing girls and loud crowds slugging prosecco, to the quiet, formal nature of the small Gaja stand where the walls glitter with the full range of Riedel crystal, but nary a drop of wine is to be found. If you never visit Vinitaly you can never truly feel the immense sprawl of wine that is Italy.
This is not the kind of wine event that American's have come to expect. First of all the scale itself is far beyond any other wine exposition except VinExpo in Bordeaux. The sheer number of choices available overwhelms even the most organized. The fiera in Verona was long ago outgrown by the number of producers wanting to participate and an increasing number of huge circus-like tents have been filling the remaining open spaces between the exhibition buildings. Unlike gleaming exhibition centers like the McCormick Place in Chicago or the Javits Center in New York, the fiera in Verona is a sprawling group of dreary airplane-hanger-type builders that are not connected -- a major irritation as it often rains in Verona at this time of year. The buildings are also not air-conditioned (or at least they don't turn it on) and bursts of warm Italian spring weather combined with the halogen lamps of the exhibitors' stands can make for less than ideal tasting conditions. The result is a disorganized patchwork of regions divided into various buildings each filled with a confusing array of small and large producers with wines of wildly varying quality -- come to think of it, it's just like Italy.
Another surprise for first-time visitors is the lack of tables with winemakers standing behind them pouring wine to anyone that shows up with a glass. You do not get a wine glass when you enter Vinitaly and if you want to have a guide you have to buy one. Although there are some producer's stands that have welcoming tasting windows, most are constructed more like an office where you are expected to sit down and have a business meeting along with your tasting. Vinitaly is only about the business of selling wine and it is constructed in that way. Particularly famous producers or elite importers may require reservations and business cards before you are granted entrance to taste. However, there is no need to worry as there are over 4,000 producers and you are sure to find many willing to show their wares to anyone who will listen. For the politically unconnected there are also the general regional stands and consorzio stands that feature a broad range of their member's wines and welcome all to taste as many wines as they want.
Tickets for Vinitaly are theoretically available only to members of the trade, but this is a theory yet to be proven. It is clear that many attendees are there for less than professional reasons and the weekend is overrun by packs of chain-smoking Italians willing to taste whatever comes their way. Sunday is so packed that many of the most serious tasters take the day off for a little sightseeing. Monday, the last day, seems quiet after the smoky, loud crunch of Sunday, but many producers start to leave by lunchtime. Ticket prices have soared in recent years, but at €30.00 a day or €80.00 for a five day pass they are a relative bargain.
If you want to see Verona, do not go to Vinitaly. The 265,000 inhabitants of Verona are buried under the onslaught of the 135,000 people attending the fair. Traffic is impossible and all the hotels are booked solid months in advance at the highest prices of the year. The restaurants are all overbooked and do not put on their best face for the exhausted customers waiting an hour after their reservations to get seated. Under this kind of strain even the finest kitchens do not produce their best food. As you can imagine this is a wine drinking crowd and a few restaurants have been known to publish a "Vinitaly" wine list with some, shall we say, special pricing during the event.
Perhaps nothing represents the chaos of Vinitaly better than the insanity that overtakes the trattoria Bottega del Vino during this week. The famed wine bar features an outstanding wine selection and serves good, rustic local food at long picnic-style communal tables. It is always very busy, but during Vinitaly this charming place changes into an over-run madhouse that is like eating dinner in a subway car in Tokyo during rush hour. As you turn the corner down the quiet little street to Bottega del Vino you see a strange sight: 30 or 40 people milling about with giant Reidel glasses in hand as there is no room to wait for tables inside. When the door opens and a few customers pop-out from the bursting internal pressure you can glimpse the waiters pushing through the crowds in a desperate, almost futile, effort to serve their well-lubricated customers. Most people go back every year -- some every night.
For all of its discomforts and strangeness, Vinitaly is not to be missed. That is if you are absolutely crazy about wine; otherwise don't go near the place. Nowhere else can you experience the true scope of the Italian wine industry and the full panorama of the direction it is going. Almost everyone is there and few producers stay away. A walk through the Tuscany or Piedmont pavilion for the first time is a religious experience for those have only experienced these wines from afar. Nothing ever replaces a vineyard visit for knowing a wine, but nothing replaces Vinitaly for knowing and feeling the experience of Italian wine in its full breadth and complexity.
As the last hour on the last day approached, my purple teeth and I headed for the gate. True to the spirit of inconvenience that you live with at Vinitaly, my car was parked about 5 kilometers away. After about a kilometer I stopped at a local bar for a cold beer and as I sipped on a much-appreciated Beck's I watched as thousands of producers packed up their remaining samples and displays into a patchwork quilt of trucks so intermeshed most could not escape until the outer layers of other trucks were peeled away. As the cold beer began to wash away the tannins from my teeth and tongue I was already looking forward to next year. I better start looking for a hotel room tomorrow.