Eli Rallo: Vinitaly Verona
Vinitaly, Verona: The largest wine exhibition in the world, a vino lover’s heaven, a logistical nightmare, an Italian cultural celebration that is so grandiose it is nearly impossible carry out. Vinitaly is a festival spanning four days filled with wine, food, art and music in support of the Italian wine community. The fiasco is set in one of Italy’s hidden gems, the city of lovers and Juliet’s crumbling ancient home base: Verona, Italy. This is perhaps less of a festival and more of a production. The curtain goes up on day one, bright and early as wine lovers pour into the fairgrounds, longing to make connections over young, punchy whites and deep, thoughtful reds. For the next 96 hours, the curtain does not close. It is probably the only event in the world that brings together such a high volume of wine makers, vineyard owners, wine buyers and importers, restaurateurs and wine lovers in an amalgamation of wine tasting, negotiations and innovation surrounding viniculture and the Italian wine industry.
This is a place I could disappear into.
I had the pleasure of accompanying my father, a restauranteur, to the 54th Vinitaly festival this past week. Verona, a place I had not been since I was eight years old, has aged hardly a day –– her walls and roads still boast strong cobblestone and aged brick, romantic as ever. Her nightlife is hot, energetic, fashionable and lively –– pulsing brightly into the early hours of the morning. I remembered two things of Verona from my previous visit: The pigeons and the people –– both large in number, the latter bashful and subdued in the face of such an outpour of attention from tourists.
The first morning begins with an uncertain, intangible energy. The hotel we’re staying in is filled with other festival goers, and the whole city is teeming –– the air, bright and crisp in the early days of Spring, is awaiting something too. On a taxi ride to the fairgrounds from the hotel, we are told in half-Italian, half-English that we have to share the taxi we’ve ordered with another party, as the taxis are in high demand –– everyone in Verona today has a common destination. In the cab, we have our first strangely ironic, authentic connection of the day when we realize, through no common language, that we know our fellow cab members through their famous Italian vineyard. As we pull up to the fairgrounds, we swap business cards and promise to come visit their booth at the fair –– a promise, I learned, that is not easily kept once swept up in the camaraderie and commotion of the event.
Entering the fair is like trying to fit a beast into a dog’s cage. Thousands of people, elbows extended, surging toward three doors which open into a huge clearing that is home to the ten warehouses. Along with the warehouses is a display made of cork and flowers which reads, “Vinitaly 54.” Welcome, wine lovers — Verona has been waiting. It’s 9 a.m. and the scene inside the fair is utter chaos. In Italian, lovers and friends quarrel over which province to visit first. Important men in expensive suits carrying leather briefcases beeline toward their first meetings of the day. Everyone is smoking cigarettes, everyone is dressed their best, almost everyone is prepared to pace themselves through a dreamy cycle of wine tastings. Navigating by foldable map and iPhone app, we begin our journey through the world of Italian wine, one wine glass at a time.
Our magic on day one is found in Nonino Grappa. It’s 10:30 a.m. and we pass the Nonino booth on our way to visit some of my father’s friends and can’t help but stop. Each winery’s booth is executed for the festival with architectural genius. The flashier the presentation, the more likely the winery is to stand out amongst hundreds of other booths all marketing a similar product. Nonino’s booth is set on an elevated, glossy wooden platform and accented by a long, reflective glass bar. The colors of the striped awnings and accents echoed something of the Amalfi Coast, sunny and serene and cool. The sounds of chatter and the shaker of a white tuxedoed bartender are impossible to ignore.
We’re spied hesitantly on the outskirts of the booth by Cristina Nonino, one of three sisters who serve as the distillery’s female owners, and she quickly approaches us. She pulls us in, embracing us, kissing us, showering us in Italian sentiments and greetings. She tossed her perfectly managed curls. Before I knew it, we were saluting the world with icy glasses, toasting a newfound friendship and a newfound drink: the zenzero grappa spritz. The aperol spritz is all the rage right now in the states. I don’t want to be that girl, but it’s pretty much old news. The aperol spritz has been the drink of the Rallo household since 2016, and we’re moving on to a newfound love: grappa + zenzero (ginger) simple syrup + prosecco + seltzer water. I’m immediately infatuated by the zesty, refreshing beverage.
The most spectacular thing about Nonino grappa, however, was not the alcoholic beverage immediately thrust into my hand. The distillery, one of the most prestigious in all of Italy, is owned and run by three women. In America, a female run distillery or winery is somewhat of an anomaly. My father has always said women are better wine makers because they have a more cautious touch than men could ever have. He says they create out of love for the vine with a fierce toughness they’ve acquired from being systematically left out of the spotlight. As I walked around the festival throughout that first day, my legs nearly giving out and the jet lag threatening to put me to sleep, the one thing I noticed was where the women were. There were not many of us navigating the fairgrounds, and where we were, we were accompanied by men and outnumbered. But consistently, in a way I’d never seen in my life, the women I did see were at the top. Women are the winery owners, the backbones, the winemakers, the distillers, the queens of the major historical estates at which they grow grapes and make wine. I shook hands with more women in power than I ever had in my life, and the day had a specific feminine energy. Christina Oddero circumvented a growing crowd with kind grace and vigor, always stopping amid the chaos to smile, to remember that they create wine because it is what they love.
Paola Uccelliera, a tough wine maker, leaned in to me as I enjoyed a tasting at Uccelliera and said, “It’s a bit of a mess, no? But that is okay. Verona is the reason this works. Verona forgives everything.”