Friday, 26 June 2015

Training tomorrow’s Italian wine ambassadors

Stevie Kim, Managing Director and the face of Vinitaly International has big ambitions, one of which is to identify wine professionals around the world to spread the gospel of Italian wine. In 2014, Stevie took a step towards realising that dream. Together with Dr Ian D’Agata, a renowned Italian wine expert, she founded Vinitaly International Academy (VIA). After one year of promotion and recruitment, the first VIA Certificate Course was conducted in March 2015, just before Vinitaly 2015. By the beginning of the year, about 50 candidates had already signed up.

The objective of the course, according to VIA website, is to enable those who love Italian wine to speak of it in a unified and organised manner with truly in-depth knowledge. It is a 5-day residential programme after which students have to sit a multiple choice examination. Those who pass are awarded the title 'Italian Wine Ambassador' (IWA). Those who achieve a 90/100 score are invited to take a separate written examination to become an 'Italian Wine Expert' (IWE).

I was honoured to be invited to take part in the inaugural course. With the invitation only coming at the end of February, the course was less than three weeks away but I managed to get the must-read book, Ian D’Agata’s 600-page ‘Native Wine Grapes of Italy’, from Amazon with express shipping. My first chance to read the book was on the plane to Verona where the course was being held. Hardly ideal preparation, and my first reaction on opening it was, ‘Oh my God, I shouldn’t have accepted the invitation!’

Was the course difficult? Yes and no, but the syllabus certainly caught a lot of students out. Most of us expected topics on wine styles, regions, climate and so on, on which we might claim to have some prior knowledge, but in fact it was about the native grape varieties in Italy, focusing on classification and identification (ampelology), grape groups and families—unfamiliar territory for most of us. Take Malvasia as an example. We needed to know that there are 17 Malvasias in Italy. Most thought they are all from the same family (as they are often called Malvasia something) but in fact most of them are genetically distinct. Malvasia Bianca is mainly from the south (Puglia, Campania, Sicily) while Malvasia Bianca Lunga is from the centre (Tuscany, Umbria). And Malvasia is an easier one already! Those who read the book and prepared properly for the course probably passed but not those who didn’t take it seriously.

Was the syllabus relevant? This was discussed among the students over and over during the course...and even more so after the examination when we cleared the bar's entire stock of Prosecco because by then we all needed a comfort drink desperately! Most of us felt the information, while interesting, was too technical and niche to be part of a broad-scope Italian wine course whose aim is to turn out ambassadors who can charm general consumers into enjoying Italian wine without expecting them to differentiate Trebbiano Abruzzesse from Trebbiano Romagnolo. I was definitely on this side of the argument (after all I was the one who ordered the first bottle, and subsequently, all the Proseccos). And most in the wine trade back in Hong Kong whom I talked to agreed.

Yet, three months on and having had some time to reflect on the course's syllabus, its objectives and Stevie’s intent, I have now had second thoughts. Italy has over 500 documented varieties and probably a lot more in reality.  It is these indigenous grape varieties that makes Italian wine unique and what it is. Unfortunately a lot of native varieties have been uprooted because of low yield, disease, or, in the 70s, a perceived need to replant with more fashionable varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah) because of export market demand. A typical example is Timorasso, once a highly prized variety in Piedmont. Most vineyards ware replaced by the more productive Cortese after phylloxera killed many of the Timorasso vines. It was only recently that Timorasso was rediscovered, and plantings have expanded from only 6 ha to now some 20 ha in the region. Thanks to enthusiastic winemakers many of Italy's 'forgotten' native grapes are making a comeback.

Yes, it is true that general consumers do not need to know about ampelology and grape families. But to become a true Italian Wine Ambassador/Expert, one must understand the nuances and the details and what makes Italian wine different and unique. The point is that one should not just blindly pass the information along word for word to the audience—in fact this will be a disaster as it only demonstrates that the person does not know how to communicate. The power comes from having a great depth of knowledge and being able to draw upon it with ease when the situation demands it. I believe a true ambassador of any kind must have these attributes: to have the depth of knowledge to answer almost any question, and to be comfortable, confident and competent enough to impart knowledge and arouse interest in anyone at any level without intimidating them, in other words to talk to them at their comfort level of knowledge.

My point is that I now understand and appreciate what Stevie is trying to achieve and I think it is a sensible way forward for Italian wine—to train a small team of true Italian Ambassadors/Experts to advocate Italian wine. However, given that only 26 out of 55 professionals from around the world achieved the Italian Wine Ambassadors status and none at all the Expert status this time around, VIA may want to consider an intermediate course to bridge the gap between aspiring and ready ambassadors.

I was one of the lucky 26 who passed, but I still don’t think I have enough knowledge yet. I love indigenous grapes in all countries, and in Italy's case I am especially impressed by those from Piedmont and Mt Etna. ‘Native Wine Grapes of Italy’ will be my summer read and my thanks go to Stevie and Ian for giving me the opportunity.

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