Without ever attending, it is easy to see how Vinitaly might be mistaken for just another large “walk-around” trade tasting. It is far beyond that. Created in 1967, as an idea that was germinated during thesis research done by Sandro Boscaini of Masi, the fair was originally called the Italian Wine Days. Envisioned to allow producers to showcase their new wines to clientele, it remains true to its original mission. Part wine show, part cultural experience (including impressive food), part B2B arena, and part education, Vinitaly has grown with the times. But even for those who don’t normally struggle with navigating large, multiday winetasting events, Vinitaly requires extreme crowd management skills and careful planning.
Set in the Veronafiere fairgrounds complex in Verona in northeastern Italy, Vinitaly—now in its 48th year—takes place every spring. The 2014 iteration, April 6–9, is expected to exceed 150,000 visitors from all over the world. With more than 4,000 vendor-exhibitors, visitors need to plan their days well—and in advance. (Sandro thinks that the first fair had maybe 20 exhibitors.) Leisurely wandering around the 19 buildings/halls (see 2014 Vinitaly map) can be entertaining, but if you are going to the show to get business done, here are some tips on maximizing your visit.
Although it will be difficult to stick to a tightly woven schedule, it is important to make appointments to see key producers. Many of the larger consorzi have booths with open-style tasting bars, but the majority of individual producers set an appointment schedule, as their spaces for proper sit-down hosted tastings are limited. It is not uncommon for highly regarded producers to completely fill their days with prearranged appointments, leaving no space for walk-ins. Remember, there are importers and distributors from all over the world visiting suppliers. The stream of buyers and agents in any one booth from hour to hour reads like a geography lesson: China, Sweden, the U.S., Brazil, Germany, Canada…and that’s just before lunch. So reserve your spot.
If it is knowledge you seek, do not miss out on the top-notch seminars, divided up into two categories called "conferences" and “tastings.” Last year, I attended a seminar organized by the Trentino consorzio in conjunction with a renowned chef, and the foods presented with the wines were as impressive as any major culinary conference I have attended. Some of these seminar events have an added cost; others are included with the price of your admission ticket. Regional stands also host additional seminars (for details, see Italy at Vinitaly). At time of writing, no listings for the regional stands were yet posted.
Tickets to Vinitaly run €50 per day or €90 for a four-day pass, with discounts for purchasing in advance online. However, members of the trade may qualify for complimentary admission through the end of March. Print your ticket and bring it with you—this will avoid lengthy lines at the gates. Be aware that your ticket will not work until the gates open at 9:30, even though you will see exhibitors floating in before this. There are special lines for each type of ticket; look at the signs for the queues so you don’t end up in the wrong line. Also, not all entrances accept all tickets. The average ticket holder has to use the four publicly listed entrances (see map). Whether you come in by car, taxi, or train, be sure to study the transit info provided on the Vinitaly site. Parking is extremely limited and fills up every day by 9:00. Veronafiere is in the middle of a thickly populated area just off the autostrada and traffic is heavy, so plan well.
While you are not attending a fitness boot camp, being in good shape for the show is important to maximize each day. If you go overboard at the gym and strain a tendon, the doctor is likely to prescribe RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. At a huge event like Vinitaly, REHS—Rest, Eat, Hydrate, Sleep—is the mantra.
If coming from another continent, arrive a day early if possible and get a good night’s sleep. Starting out with a sleep deficit is an amateur move; the days only get longer. You need to be fresh when you taste wine. You can spend an afternoon napping, but you will miss a lot.
Have a good breakfast before you begin each day. There are plenty of places to grab a pastry or eat lunch inside the fair, but not all live up to the lofty standards of what most of us associate with Italian cuisine. There are three major restaurants where a civilized lunch can be had, but be prepared to pay upwards of €40 per person. There are also a number of self-service food spots (see Vinitaly Restaurants), but without reservations, waits can sometimes be long and lunches can sometimes run 2+ hours. A few special-entrance restaurant tents appear every year, such as Le Cittadelle della Gastronomia, and there are myriad snack bars scattered everywhere throughout the halls offering decent panini sandwiches, bottled water, coffee, and even ice-cold beer. Some are better than others; be discriminating.
True to the philosophy of what Italian wine was created for—food—most producers offer you a little snack while you taste in their booth. This can range from a few slices of delightful prosciutto and their local cheese to an array of items that they may have brought with them all the way from Tuscany, Calabria, or Molise. Unless you have severe gout, do not turn these down; they are all good, and you will need the fuel. Some producers even serve fully plated lunches in their stands, but 99 percent of the time you have to know someone and you need a reservation, as their space will be quite limited.
Drink water at every opportunity. Not only will your palate thank you, but you will remain hydrated, a key to survival as you walk, walk, walk and sample prosciutto, salame, and other savory snacks. On a related note, spitting wine and perhaps having an afternoon caffè is important (you’ll see a lot of tipsy people by day’s end—don’t be one of them). Of course, hydration inevitably leads to the restroom. The best (and only) guide to restrooms at Vinitaly is available on Alfonso Cevola's blog. Invaluable.
This is different than your first day of rest. That was to catch up on the sleep you lost on the way there. This is to keep you fresh for the athletic event that walking the halls of Vinitaly can be. Bring your pedometer—it will easily hit 10,000 steps a day if you’re a busy taster.
Despite my advice to plan out your days, there's a lot of merit in a bit of leisurely wandering. Do take some time to look up and study the booths as you walk the halls from one appointment to another. Booths (they actually call them “stands”) are often an extension of the winery and its philosophy. Everything can be found from small re-creations of a winery’s intimate tasting room to uniquely designed, two-story edifices with roped-off entrances that resemble a posh city nightclub. Often they will be crowded, but if you happen to see one that look interesting and has some space at the bar, drop in, introduce yourself, and see what they have to sample.
Remember, this is Italy. More jeans have crept in over the years, but if you bring them, you’d better know how to dress them up. Most men wear business suits, and even ties, and women wear dresses, suits, and other highly fashionable creations. Whatever you wear, be prepared to peel it off in layers. The weather in Verona in early April is supposed to be moderate, even cool. However, in the 10 years I have attended the show, I have seen everything from bone-chilling rain to the 80 degree days of 2012. And because most tickets allow only one in-and-out entry per day, plan your shoe choice (or bring backup) accordingly. On shoes, though not the heralded Milan runway show, the avid fashionista can use Vinitaly to become well-read in the latest footwear—clearly an aspect in which Italy still excels.
In addition to the wine tasting and business-dealing visits to producer stands, a few other noteworthy events are staged around the same time. Opera Wine, held on the Saturday evening before Vinitaly kicks off, is a tasting jointly organized by Veronafiere, Vinitaly, and Wine Spectator magazine that showcases 100 wines from the “greatest Italian producers,” chosen by the magazine. In the days preceding the fair, an International Wine Judging (March 26–30) competition takes place, and before that, there’s an International Packaging Competition (March 14).
A few years back, the organizers created Vinitaly in the City, an evening wine-and-food extravaganza held in the Palazzo della Gran Guardia in Piazza Brà during the event. Wine, meats, cheeses, and chocolates will be on offer, along with cooking demos from renowned chefs. And at the fair itself, if olive oil is your passion, an entire building (Hall C) is dedicated to highlighting the olive oils of Italy as well as beer and other foods. If large machinery excites you, then head over to Enolitech (Hall F) to see the latest in vineyard and bottling mechanization (added bonus: one of the nicer restrooms at the show).
In order to accommodate the ever-growing number of exhibitors and to organize the producers more efficiently by region, Veronafiere has renumbered the halls (see the new 2014 Vinitaly map) and added the new VinInternational area (Hall I) for international exhibitors from such countries as France, Australia, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Slovenia. Complementing this will be the International Buyers Lounge, where first-time international buyers can sample selected Italian wines in a guided environment with help from sommeliers. The Vinitaly Bio Area is a new venue dedicated exclusively to certified organic and biodynamic wine production from not only Italy but around the world.
I was lucky to have my friend Kristin Milles show me the ropes at my first Vinitaly 10 years ago. If after reading, you feel overwhelmed, don’t be. Spend some time at the Vinitaly website to learn how to enjoy one of the greatest wine shows on Earth.