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Letter From Vinitaly: Sip 'n' Swirl Forever


VERONA, Italy — I've made it through another Vinitaly, the Woodstock of wine festivals. Four and a half days of wine, food and conversation.

About 90,000 visitors, wholesalers, restaurateurs and retailers from all over the world came to taste the juice of nearly 2,500 winemakers. As always, nine huge convention halls--padiglione or pad they call them, which sounds mighty cute, given their enormous size--were filled with stands from the 20 provinces of Italy. A 10th one was filled with wine-related items--glasses, corkscrews and just about every tchotchke one could think of, and the second floor of the entrance hall housed about 100 olive oils. Should you ever attend, I recommend you make this floor your first stop--to coat your stomach before you start tasting several dozen wines at 9 in the morning.

When the gates opened on the first day, there indeed was an aura of a gigantic rock concert. Droves of over-laden taxis descended on the fairgrounds and thousands of people virtually stormed the gates. Winegeek locusts. This year, the organizers decided to blast very loud music to the entrance square, adding to the mayhem.

There was lots of moaning and complaining this year because, for the first time, there was an entrance charge, even for the "professionals." About $25 for 4 1/2 days of unlimited tasting. Not a bad deal if you ask me. I plunked down my 30,000 lire without blinking an eye. I always love this about Italy: 30,000 for this, 100,000 for that. No problem. It makes me feel like a big spender.

Finally, equipped with my bar-coded name tag and the hefty exhibitor book that is the fairground map, I got the show on the road.

I headed straight to pad 37, booth C7, where Marc de Grazia, who looks like Oscar Wilde on an overdose of Bardolino, holds court. He represents several first-rate estates from all over the Boot, particularly from Piedmont and Tuscany.

As I approached a table full of the latest vintages from the likes of Sandrone, Altare and Il Pallazzino, I almost had an anxiety attack. It was like taking my kids to a candy store and telling them, "just taste anything you like and tomorrow we'll try 100 new flavors."

Each stand, for that matter each padiglione, has its individual look, ranging from small, very simply decorated spots, each with a little desk and two chairs, to elaborate mahogany-paneled mega-booths that could give many restaurants a run for their money.

Some decorate in the style of their provinces. The booths of the Alto-Adige producers, for example, always have that Alpine look with lots of carved wood and hearts and edelweiss everywhere.

De Grazia's hangout is always one of the most lively and popular. This year was no exception: The place was so crowded that after a couple hours of tasting Barolos, Barbarescos, Barberas and Dolcettos, I felt like I was related to some of these people.

Tuscany is the Bordeaux of Italy and the Tuscan temple / hall is always the ritziest. It's the power pavilion, and almost everyone there was wearing the checkered sports coats that seem to be the official business uniform of Italy.

Some of the exhibitors have reached such prominence that a visit with them is like an audience with the pope, or even Jimi Hendrix.

Piero Antinori, Marchese Incisa della Rocchetta of Sassicaia (a Marchese, for Pete's sake!) or the Nonino family of Grappa fame are just a few of the awe-provoking superstars. Wine nerds are drawn to them like ants to a grounded Popsicle.

When I visited the stand of Piedmontese legend Angelo Gaja, who, to his credit, stayed with his peers in the tucked-away Piedmont pad, I felt as if I really was caught in the crush of a rock concert. Hordes of people crowded into the large stand, and periodically Gaja appeared, as if for an encore. He smiled broadly and shook about 40 hands a minute, signed books and waved to those out of reach. What a spectacle.

I finally ambushed him in the last few hours of the last day.

"Buon giorno . . . ah, Manfred! How is the business?"


I was flattered. He remembered my name. What a guy! Now I really think he is a great winemaker.

Of course, the expensive and fantastic Riedel glasses from Austria are obligatory everywhere and you can see them in a million shapes. Some are so large they could house a synchronized swimming team. How George Riedel keeps himself from yodeling with joy when he walks these fairgrounds is beyond me. I saw him walking around and he wasn't even smiling. Perhaps sales are down this year in Cape Verde.

Almost everyone served food, from simple bread sticks to all sorts of salami, prosciutto, speck and even polenta. A number of exhibitors had unbelievably fresh pecorino. I almost forgot that I was there for the wine. Unlike the stodgy winefests of Bordeaux or Aspen, Vinitaly has a fun, party atmosphere, even in the Tuscan hall.

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