Vinitaly — the event held each March that (pretty much) everybody in the Italian wine business has visited…at least once. It’s overwhelming, chaotic, impossible to park, and even more impossible to find a clean bathroom, but all in all, worth it. It’s a chance for trade and the common wine lover to visit Italy’s most famous (as well as lesser-known) wine regions from north to south in four days, a lofty endeavor for even the most dedicated aficionado of this nectar of Bacco. Participating wineries invest in a space/stand, ranging in size (and decor) from square-meter table tops in shared group spaces to multi-level luxurious booths with velvet ropes that resemble discotecas. The event is an opportunity for Italian and international salespeople, importers, clients and everyday consumers to convene in one location to taste the new vintages, discover new producers and/or transact business.
VinConnect’s President Kevin Sidders came from the U.S. for the event, during which we packed about 30 appointments into three days — meeting with our existing winery partners, updating producers we met last year when VinConnect was in its early stages, and introducing ourselves to other wineries who would be interesting to partner with. Rather than listing all the producers whose stands we visited and wines we tasted (which others often do), I thought it might be more useful to create a sort of Vinitaly User’s Manual, with tips and advice from personal experiences for those of you who might consider making the trip next year.
Besides booking one of the hotels adjacent to the fair grounds, the most convenient option in terms of proximity is finding a place in the center of Verona. Free shuttles run back and forth from the city center (Piazza Bra) every 10-15 minutes. Otherwise, it’s about a 25-minute walk to the fair from the center – not a bad way to start a long of day of wine tasting. Personally, I find Verona an incredibly charming city. There’s a lot more to it than Romeo and Juliet (although the famous balcony is free to visit…and plastered with blobs of chewing gum with couples’ heartfelt declarations of love), boasting vibrant winebars (among the most famous, Bottiglieria Corsini), great traditional Venetian food (highly recommend Osteria Giulietta e Romeo just off the Piazza delle Erbe square – thanks for the discovery Giuliana and Giacinta @ Castello del Terriccio!), and is literally overflowing with must-see sights from the Arena to the local markets.
However, rooms in central Verona tend to sell out quickly…and tend to be “specially priced” for the fair – i.e. expensive. A great alternative is to stay in one of the nearby and beautiful lake towns along Lake Garda, Italy’s largest body of freshwater. I’m lucky as my husband’s family has a small apartment in Sirmione, an incredibly charming medieval town, famous for its thermal springs (also good post-wine tasting) situated on a peninsula that divides the southern part of the lake. Other nearby hamlets include Peschiera del Garda (home of Gardaland, one of Italy’s most famous theme parks) or Desenzano del Garda, a stylish resort town and the heart of Lake Garda’s nightlife. You can find a wide range of hotel options from camping, classic business hotels, to super luxury villas.
If you opt for one of the nearby lake towns, the train is by far your best bet for getting to the event. From Trenitalia’s website, you can view timetables to and from Verona Porta Nuova station and purchase tickets directly (assuming the website is working properly that day…). I am a declared supporter of public transportation and anything that cuts down on non-essential automobile use (besides important environmental issues, gas is running around $10 a gallon these days), but I must confess I am not a fan of regional Italian trains. Even though I spent the short ride from Peschiera del Garda to Verona pressed up against the door and my fellow passengers two out of three days, I still think it’s the best option (especially after seeing the long lines of cars waiting to exit the freeway and hearing the horror stories of fellow visitors stuck in hours of traffic and parking lines). A ticket is cheap (€2.85 one way), the ride is short (13 to 17 minutes depending on the train) and parking at the station is plentiful. From the Verona station, free shuttles run nonstop back and forth to the fair (though during peak hours you run the risk of spending the 3-minute bus ride as crammed as the train station. Walking is also an option, as it’s only about a 20-minute stroll from the station to the fair.
Where to eat/drink
Though I often associate touristy cities with overpriced, generally not very good food, I was pleasantly surprised to find a couple of gems in Verona. In addition to the Osteria I mentioned earlier, we enjoyed a simple, but tasty, meal at Osteria Casa Vino with an excellent selection of seasonal local specialties and incredibly reasonable prices. It’s tucked away on a little side street and has a nice little patio dining area for nice weather days/evenings.
If you do have a car and want to venture outside the city, I recommend one of my old standbys in Sirmione, Osteria al Torcol, right in the historical center. The food is quite good and features a wide variety of fresh salt and freshwater fish, while the wine list is varied with a focus on small, lesser-known producers. The ambiance is incredibly charming, whether seated indoors in the cozy dining room or under the canopy of vines on the outside terrace just across the street. The place tends to fill up quickly though, so reservations are essential. (+39 030.990.4605)
This year we ventured up in to the hills above Verona to San Giorgio della Valpolicella, where you’ll find the delightful restaurant Trattoria della Rosa Alda. We enjoyed some of the best traditional food I’ve found; all of the pasta dishes are fresh and handmade as well as the desserts and everything in between is just as authentic. The wine list is obviously Veneto-heavy, with an excellent selection of Amarone and other Valpolicella-based wines from the top producers. The underground cellar (literally carved out of stone) is well-stocked with a range of national selections as well. Though in Amarone country, we risked odd looks from fellow diners and our waiter and ordered the cellar’s last bottle of 2001 Antinori Tignanello. It was a great deal we just couldn’t pass up…and a fantastic wine.
Tips for the fair
Buy your ticket online. Entry tickets as well as tickets for separate tastings are available for purchase online. It’s definitely worth it to take care of that ahead of time to avoid additional lines at the entry gate. There’s generally a mad rush to get through the gates at the opening time (9:30 a.m.) in any case, but if you have a printed ticket you just scan the barcode and you’re good to go.
Arrive with a plan. The program of participating producers and scheduled tastings throughout the event is also available on the Vinitaly website well ahead of time. I highly recommend making use of that information and creating a sort of agenda of which regions, producers and wines you’d like to taste and perhaps even setting up appointments with the producers ahead of time if necessary. Generally each booth has a sort of tasting bar for walk-up tastings with an additional area with a few tables and chairs for conducting business meetings. Once you walk through the gates to the fair, it’s pretty overwhelming if you don’t have an idea of where to start. Each region has it’s own separate hall (with some exceptions, so check the producer guide online or in the Vinitaly guidebook to be sure), not necessarily one close to the other, so wear comfortable walking shoes as well.
Eat a big breakfast. Vinitaly is not generally known for its gastronomic offerings and I’ve never managed to eat much more than the cheese and grissini some kind producer has offered while tasting or a colorless (and tasteless) panino from one of the outdoor kiosks. There’s rumor of a pretty good self-service stand on the first floor of the Tuscany hall, but you have to arrive before noon and, the atmosphere throughout leaves much to be desired. I’ve started toting almonds and apples and other snackable foods to keep me going until it’s time for the post-fair aperitivo.
Last, but not least, enjoy! Though immense, hectic and crowded, Vinitaly offers a great opportunity to explore new wines and wine regions, meet your favorite winemakers, and taste some amazing wines all in one go. Especially if coming from the U.S., it’s a great stop as part of an extended trip to one (or more) of Italy’s many remarkable wine regions, where you can see in person where all the wine magic happens.