Why I Will Not Boycott Vinitaly 2016...

A letter to Alfonso Cevola, who writes a blog on the wines of Italy and his post on Vintaly 2015:

Ciao Alfonso,

When I first read your post on to way to Vinitaly Tuesday morning, I tweeted that I “mostly agreed” with your comments. HOWEVER, as I walked the fair later that day, it grew on me that I foolishly acted on impulse.  Likely because I was still frustrated that the night before, due to the unusually heavy traffic ALL OVER Verona, our bus ride from the fair to Piazza Bra took longer than usual. By the end of the day, I regretted my immaturity and I deleted the tweet.

Now that the fair is behind, I have had a chance to sit back and think more clearly about #Vinitaly2015 versus your comments.  But first, the disclosures. 1) Unlike you, I have attended Vinitaly each year only since 2004; 2) One reason I went this year included my participation to the Vinitaly Academy (more in this below).  And, 3) I have paid my own way for this.

Looking more deeply into the fair as it is today, I have come to see that Vinitaly has grown beyond the limited vision outlined in your post. It now attracts people from all over the world – this year, of the total 150,000 visitors, 55,000 were trade people from 140 countries and 2,600 journalists from 46 countries.  Clearly, it is not the same fair it was in 1967; hell, it is not even the same fair it was in 2004.  

But more importantly, it is chock-a-block with a whole list of new initiatives that honestly need to be acknowledged to their right extent. Initiatives that are tremendously important to your beloved trade so that they can expand their business abroad. Take the "Talk Business" series of conferences provided for producers every day so that they can learn about markets in China, Russia, the USA and elsewhere.  This year, FIVI (the federation of Italian independent producers) had their own pavilion and this turned out to be a huge success for them.  And talking about small producers, a whole section of hall 11 was devoted to VinitalyBio, in association with FederBio, to promote family operators who work organically and biodynamically – most of them so small that they can not normally afford to participate in such a large trade fair. There was also VIVIT, in its 3rd consecutive year at the fair, ever growing and another incredible success story.  These show that Vinitaly is representative of all sectors of the Italian wine industry, not just the big producers and rich Consorzi.  Delegations from several countries, especially China, Hong Kong, Korea, and Russia were organized with very tight schedules of meetings by Vinitaly International to go around the various pavilions and expose them to a wide array of wines from all over Italy, not just the sexy regions where most people only focus on.  I mentioned above the Vinitaly Academy, an important tool in Vinitaly’s strategy to demystify Italian wines abroad; no other fair in the world has bothered to make the huge investments needed to make something similar – until now of course because surely, this initiative will be replicated elsewhere.  Operawine on Saturday night showcased 100 of some of the best wineries in Italy, which as you well know, is the only event that Wine Spectator has ever agreed, until now, to be involved with outside of on their own anywhere in the world. 

About the particulars of your post, I would like to address them point-by-point to further emphasize my disagreement:

Sundays: you of all people should remember that the fair used to be hosted on different days and Sundays have ALWAYS traditionally been an “informal” public day so that the producers would be able to bond with consumers.  In fact, though several producers admitted to me that it is not their favorite day because of the commotion, but they ALSO maintained that it is AS important for them AS the trade days that follow.  You could ask producers from Franciacorta, to Tuscany, Veneto, and Campania to vote on the issue and I bet you a bottle of your favorite wine that it would NEVER be voted down by the majority of exhibitors. Sunday is here to stay because it is way too important for the very trade that you claim to love so much (and represent). As above, the original fair used to be hosted from Thursday to Monday but since 2012, Vinitaly changed to host it from Sunday to Wednesday. For sure you must you know that this initiative saw a tremendous increase in HORECA business negotiations - the very objective the “leadership” wanted to achieve in making this unprecedented decision. Having said that, like you, I used to hate the Sunday of Vinitaly.  But this has changed and perhaps you can follow my lead and rearrange your schedule to work around it: first thing, I visit Gambero Rosso Tri Bicchieri in the morning where I can taste calmly without too many people and plenty of space.  Then I move to Doctor Wine’s Tasting room, where I am usually alone to taste some pretty amazing wines fitted to “Enomatic” type machines.  After what I usually consider a very productive way to spend a little more than the 1st half-day of Vinitaly, tasting a total of 120-150 wines (and spitting), I have a great lunch at the “Self-Service d’Autore” around the corner.  Afterwards, I finish the after-noon walking slowly around the entire fair to shake hands with my producer friends and reconfirm our appointments a little later in the week.  You should try, it is very satisfying and there is plenty of material to discover for future blog posts.

Parking: after all these years, I am not sure WHY you still insist on coming to the fair by CAR. It seems that you have not taken the bus to the city and other destinations for a while. If you would have, you would have seen that Veronafiere has improved this aspect tremendously with a great number of buses making various circuits (5 in total) non-stop so that people have just a few minutes to wait between each. In fact, the last time I used a car to travel to and from the fair was in 2004 because of the very frustrations I felt as you wrote in your post. Ever since, I have seen the improvement year after year and this week was the fastest service I have seen by far; even the taxi drivers admit that the shuttle service works remarkably well and that traffic has diminished throughout the city in general. Of course, perhaps you stay outside Verona and you need a car to travel to and from the fair.  Have you considered parking at the Stadium where I have heard there were plenty of parking spaces with easy access and timely bus service? That would have saved you time.  Perhaps you stay in town and you need to visit producers in the hills of Valpolicella for their various dinners?  Why don’t they arrange a private mini-bus to collect you at the entrance and bring you to their location as many other do?  In any case, do you honestly think that Verona’s traffic problems and inability to set up light-rail are in any way problems that the “leadership” of Veronafiere can be held accountable for? Isn’t it a local city government’s responsibility to address these issues? Is the problem actually related to parking or is it in fact related to people who do not want to change their ways and insist on using their private cars to and from the fair?  

Smokers: I agree with you, smokers are the bane of a wine lover’s existence. I am not a smoker and frankly, I am highly allergic to cigarette smoke and so do not take kindly to people’s habits of hanging around the doors of the pavilions, or restaurants and/or public buildings anywhere around the world where non-smoking policies are strictly enforced for that matter. However, this is a FREE WORLD and not because people smoke outside a building that they are waiting for a hooker... If this was a joke, it was not funny Alfonso, let’s keep the discourse respectful...  In any case, this is a minor inconvenience for me.  You must surely remember the days when smoking was allowed inside the halls themselves.  Thanks heaven the no-smoking policy started the year before my 1st Vinitaly and that I never had to endure what must have been utter hell.

Toilets: I must agree: it is disgusting to respond to a call of nature in other people’s mess, especially with fancy Italian leather shoes such as mine... Let me give you a tip: go to the toilets between hall 11 and 12, not only are they very clean but barely anyone uses them. The same goes for the ones between hall 2 and 3 and those in the basement of hall A1 and A2. Clearly, the problem that you highlight here is an important one as it concerns hygiene and public safety and I clearly noticed that this year, the “leadership” added extra mobile toilet facilities between Hall A and A1 as well as around Sol & Agrifood, as well as in other locations in order to handle the congestion.  Obviously, there is room to improve here, but using some specific issues as if they were generalizations is not the critical thinking I expect for when I read your posts.

Heat: sorry, but it seems, that you have not walked (or perhaps only too briefly?) in the halls of Sicilia, Puglia, Viniternational, and Trentino where it was actually cool. In fact, in the VININTERNATIONAL pavilion, my brother-in-law had a stand and it was so CHILLY that he had to wear a jacket almost the entire fair. Again, this is yet another comment in which you seem to generalize out of specifics, something that only impressionable people can be excited with. Yes, it is true that it was hot in the areas devoted to Toscana, Marche, and Veneto. However, I doubt that this is an issue related to the “leadership.  Surely it is a question of how many people are in one place at one time, and it is also mostly related to how exhibitors decorate their stands. Some use an inordinate amount of lighting and this is decided by themselves only.  That they still use Halogen instead of LED is perhaps because they are re-using the same lighting year after year and to blame the organizers for this is not fair as they have rules related to this issue in the exhibitor application form and they actually control this issue very tightly. Surely, it would be a nightmare for them to analyze every single stand decoration plans to calculate the amount of heat each will generate.  Besides, are you not the first to chide that Italy is already over regulated as it is?  It would be ironic on your part to call for the organizers to restrict even further what can and cannot be done in terms of stand decoration, would it not?

Mobile phones and the internet: how did you manage in the 70s? The 80s?, the 90s, and even the 1st decade of this millennium for that matter?  Let’s be honest, I have not experienced any public event any place in the world with as many people congregating in the same place where this sort of technical problem did not occur. And believe me, I travel a lot. A dear friend told me that Prowein had the same problem last week.  This kind of thing even occurred last May at Vinexpo in Hong Kong where I live, a city known for having one of the most sophisticated communication systems in the world. 

Vandalized stands & stolen goods:  In a “previous life”, I exhibited extensively in prestigious trade fairs elsewhere around the world, including Germany and the USA for products of much less value than wine and each time, fair organizers clearly requested that we arrange our own security if we needed it beyond the one supplied by the fair.  Vinitaly is no different and my brother-in-law showed me that they provide each exhibitor the options for EXTRA SECURITY should they request it.  They also automatically cover all exhibitors under their own insurance policy in case of damages and theft.  Again, things must be put in their right perspective for the information to be other than impressionable. You know of 3 producers who had problems, I am sorry for them. But what about the other 4,000+ exhibitors at the fair?

Frankly, what does bother me tremendously about Vinitaly is the drunkenness. However is it unique to Vinitaly? I have been to London and seen so-called trade professionals drunk out of their minds and vomiting in a tasting room at 11 AM on a trade-only event.  And what of Vinexpo Hong Kong, when 3 years ago, ambulances had to be called because participants, supposedly carefully selected by the organizers, had passed out from too much intake?  That is not to talk about “Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne” in Burgundy, an event that has the reputation of being the most selective in the world in relation to who can attend (I had to ask 3 sponsors to vouch for me before I could finally get my entrance pass).  When events brought us to Nuits-St-Georges, Musigny, and Vosne-Romanée on the 2nd day, it turned out to be a total waste of time with not enough wine by mid-day in several stands and many participants literally crawling back home by the end of the day.  I was flabbergasted.  Here I am talking about prestigious and selective events attended apparently only by trade professionals in countries that are always compared more positively than Italy. To be sure, to control this matter better, I think Veronafiere should involve the city and have more policemen and women patrolling the fair during the event. Perhaps they should distribute disposable breathalyzers to sensitize participants to their intake? And for sure, as Angelo Gaja called a few years ago, producers must encourage people to spit more the wine they “taste” by having more spittoons available at their stand.  

Yes, there are problems at Vinitaly, no doubt about it.  However, these problems are no different than what they are at the many other fairs (wine related or otherwise) that I have attended around the world in the last 20 years of my professional life. In fact, I would honestly say that for an event of this size, it is proportionally pretty well managed and uneventful.  We must frankly consider Vinitaly in its right context.  The exhibition is extremely large and extremely important for the economy of the region and the whole country.  It is unfair to state that the “leadership” is avoiding the huge responsibilities they have every year towards receiving so many visitors from so many different countries from around the world as well as towards so many producers who absolutely depend on this event for their livelihood. On the contrary, for what I discovered and learned this week at Vinitaly, I say that they are extremely dynamic and competent to help bring Italian wines ahead in the future. Tonight, I will raise a glass of something bubbly, certainly Italian, on their honour!

Should you decide not to come next year, it will be your own decision.  Do not worry though, I will report back to you in great details on the many wonderful wines that I intend to dig for and will surely find at #Vintaly2016!