So, you enjoy a nice glass of Chianti now and then? You savor a Barolo or two when given the chance? You've been known to throw back a bottle of Pinot Grigio with a friend on a summer's day?
If so, it's time for you to ask yourself a simple question. Do you think you could survive on Italian wine alone? Are the combined passions of an entire nation of rabid Italian winemakers and their thousands of precious indigenous grape varieties enough to slake your deepest thirsts and desires?
VinItaly, the world's largest wine trade show, can answer many questions, and this is certainly one of them. But even if your questions or curiosities or unbridled lusts don't exactly require such an answer, VinItaly would be worth going to.
Of course, you shouldn't go unprepared. Just like a 17-year-old boy shouldn't enter a strip club for the first time with $1000 in his pockets.
So it is with your sanity and bodily sanctity in mind that I offer my tips on how to immerse yourself fully in VinItaly and survive to tell the tale.
You're gonna need a few days
4,200 wineries. Need I say more? If you truly want to experience VinItaly, you're gonna have to show up for more than one day. Just finding the damn winery you're looking for in the Tuscany pavilion is going to take you an hour, let alone getting a chance to taste something. There is so much fantastic wine on offer, you shouldn't squander the opportunity. Plan to spend at least two days, maybe three.
Make a plan
Having some sort of plan in your head, or even better written down, proves essential at VinItaly. If only because when you walk through the gates the sheer size and chaos of it all is going to make your head explode. It's impossible to experience everything there, so decide how you want to prioritize your time. Perhaps you want to taste a crapload of Barolo because you normally can't afford to? Or perhaps you've never really understood the wines of Liguria and you think it's about time. Maybe you want to decide whether you actually like Prosecco once and for all. Or maybe you've got a hit list of wineries whose wares you'd really like to sample. No matter what the rhyme or reason for your quest, it's best you have a list or at the very least an approach to deciding where to go.
Make appointments for serious tastings
While not essential, should you be interested in tasting with some of the most prestigious wineries in Italy, it can be worthwhile to make appointments with them to taste. A very select few wineries seem to all but require them in order to taste their wines, but even for the vast majority of the wineries that do not, having an appointment usually lets you sit (as opposed to stand) and usually gets you access to the owner or winemaker for some uninterrupted conversation.
Ask to taste older stuff
As you wander around and walk up to booths for various wineries, make sure to ask if they've got any older vintages lying around for tasting. Most wineries do, but they're often under the table, or reserved for those bold enough to ask. Don't be shy.
Regional tasting bars are your friends
Most of the halls are filled with booth after booth of individual wineries, but usually somewhere in their midst you can find a big regional bar of sorts. And behind these bars you can find a staff of sommeliers (some of them even toting tastevins) and a wall of wines from the region. If you're interested in learning something about a region, or just taking a load off while tasting a bunch of wine, you can't go wrong with one of these outfits. The folks behind these bars usually speak English, know a lot about the region and its producers, and are there to serve. Anyone looking to educate themselves deeply about a DOC or a particular grape will be in heaven.
Check out the ViViT area
For many years a lot of biodynamic, organic, natural and otherwise eccentric and interesting wineries used to put on a separate show concurrent with VinItaly to showcase their wares. While there are still adjunct events (VinNatur and ViniVeri) a large number of those producers have been folded into VinItaly within a special area known as ViViT. Taking up about 20% of the Abruzzo pavilion this year, this selection of wineries was fantastic, and a great place to taste for a few hours for anyone interested in biodynamic producers.
Get the app
While it's not the most usable conference app I've ever seen, the iPhone and iPad application that VinItaly offers is invaluable for dealing with at least one maddening aspect of the fair, and that is finding your way to the winery you're looking for.
Most pavilions have wonderfully positioned and detailed maps of their interiors, coupled with long alphabetical indexes of the wineries present. You'd think that would be all you really need, right?
Until you realize that even though you know the winery as Il Palazzone, it might actually be Azienda Agricola Il Palazzone, Tenuta Il Palazzone, Podere Il Palazzone, Feudi Il Palazzone, etc. etc. etc. Rather than tear your hair out, I recommend having your iPhone handy so you can simply search by keyword and find your way where you want to go.
Know where the (good) bathrooms are
My buddy Alfonso Cevola has done the wine world a great service and scoped out all the best bathrooms at VinItaly (except for one, which I'm keeping secret until he -- or you-- pays me enough to know). You may think I'm joking, but just try standing in line for the porta potties for a while when you've really got to go and then you'll thank me. Or rather, thank Alfonso.
Take a load off
Being on your feet all day is tiring as hell. Sit down and collect your thoughts once in a while. Drink some water while you're at it.
If I was more of a VinItaly veteran I'll bet I could tell you some places where you could even take a nap, but for now I'll just have to point you in the direction of good places to plant yourself, which are usually near the main consorzio areas of each region. They've often got whole lounges of comfy chairs just waiting for someone like you to sit in them.
Um, that booth babe? She's probably not a booth babe
Those who are used to large trade shows in other fields, such as electronics or media will be all too familiar with the concept of a booth babe. These highly attractive, well dressed (or sometimes spectacularly or badly dressed) young ladies are often hired to attract the attention of a mostly male crowd for whose time all the exhibitors are competing. At many wine events in the United States, more than a few wineries seem to be strategic about who they put behind the table to pour wine for the public, if you know what I mean.
VinItaly has its share of gorgeous women (and, it should be noted, men) standing in wine booths, but unless that individual is wearing a one piece, zip-up, tighter-than-paint, patent leather unitard, she is quite likely the winemaker, owner, or daughter of the owner. So watch your manners, if you get my drift. Especially if you don't speak Italian well.
But of course, by all means, enjoy the view. Italy has many charms, among which are the quite well dressed populace.
Don't eat the paninis
If there's anything worse than the porta potties at VinItaly, it's the food on offer in the various cafes and cafeterias that dot the sprawling grounds. You might think to yourself, "Hey, this is Italy, the food at their big tradeshows must be a lot better than the crap that you can buy at most other such events." But you'd be wrong.
If you fancy a little cardboard like bread with some crummy melted cheese and too-salty-meats in between, knock yourself out, but if you actually want to eat real food, you'll have to work pretty hard at VinItaly.
As far as I can tell, there are really only three sources for decent grub at the fair.
First, and best, you want to find out which producers have paid to have serious food brought in. For instance, Arnaldo Caprai brought in a food truck staffed with 2 Michelin Starred chefs every day, and took reservations for a four course lunch that looked unbelievable. (I saw pictures, but didn't taste it).
Secondly, you'll want to keep an eye out for producers in the halls that have brought snacks for nibbling on while you taste. There's a lot of little bits of bread to dip in olive oil, but that's not what I'm talking about. Some of the producers bring in salumi, cheeses, or other delectables, and they can be amazing. A few of the best things I've put in my mouth in a long long time came out from behind a to-remain-nameless-for-now counter in the Sardinia pavilion.
Finally, there are street food vendors that set up outside of the fair, just opposite the main entrance. While the quality looks only modestly better than the food inside the fair, it's hot, prepared fresh, and will doubtless satisfy much more than yet another panini.
Of course, if you're connected, you can eat in the super swanky restaurant L'Auteur in the PalExpo building, where the food is quite good. But make sure you've got a reservation. I did, but that didn't keep them from throwing me out.
Get invited to a special tasting
If you're a writer, and the folks from VinItaly know you're coming, you'll almost certainly get invitations to various special tastings that take place at VinItaly or in the evenings at wineries and locations nearby Verona. Some of these events can include spectacular dinners as well.
But some are merely vertical tastings or other comparative tastings in the halls of the fair itself, and can be quite fun to attend.
The party is at Bottega del Vino, but that doesn't mean you can get in
Industry types tend to descend at late hours on the small restaurant known as Bottega del Vino in the heart of the old city of Verona. It's a madhouse of a restaurant with an incredible wine list, but it can be pretty challenging to get into, even just to stand around and drink, during the fair. But if you
Take public transportation
While you'll be in the crush of the throng both in the morning and evening, taking the city buses or the free VinItaly shuttles to the fair from downtown Verona is by far the best way to get to and from the fair. Traffic can be a nightmare around the Veronafiere center, and you can easily add an unwanted 2-3 hours to your (already very long) day by going and coming by car. Taxi's are a little faster, but the buses are the way to go.
Get your schedule sorted out, pronto!
Getting room reservations way in advance (like a year in advance if you don't want to be fleeced) is a good idea. Getting plane tickets early also makes sense. Getting dinner reservations a few weeks ahead at restaurants in Verona you'd like to eat at would be quite smart.
The town of Verona books up to well over full capacity during VinItaly. Room rates triple and getting a table at a decent (non tourist-trap) restaurant in the center of the city can be a real struggle. I recommend the Slow Food Guide to Italy as a good starting point for where to eat.
Next year's VinItaly is April 6-9, 2014!
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