I’ve been dismissive of trade shows in recent years. I let the personal become professional. They are large and loud. The din and excess, the raw aroma of booze alone gives me anxiety. When I leave I feel I’m exiting an area of grave danger, like a paintball course or a Coldplay concert. But it’s unprofessional to dodge the accumulation of knowledge simply because the experience is a mild irritant.
I hit upon a strategy. I’m a little guy in the wide ocean of wine. To attend the massive fairs filled with industrial sangria makers and vodka floozies and literally thousands of exhibitors, including a fragment that are appealing to me: it’s a mistake. But I need context to grow, to understand if I am importing wines as good as my ego and palate lead me to believe. I have a feisty, healthy ego. To seize hold of a wine and shove it into people’s stemware requires ego. But I don’t value ego at the steering wheel of human character so… there is some roiling tension under my blotchy hide.
I’m at Sorgente del Vino because it is one of the oldest Italian natural wine fairs, well established, with a diverse but ultimately not overwhelming number of exhibitors, and because I’ve never been to it. And because Piacenza is a convenient location, close enough to Piemonte, Emilia-Romagna and the Milan airport that I can do a good deal of what I normally do (visit farms) and also commit 48 hours to grazing through the halls of Piacenza expo.
And I’m here to graze. A few estates that I represent have tables, and it is nice to see them (always) but I’ll see them all at their respective farms on this trip anyway. I want to wander, taste the names I don’t know, with a focus on Liguria and Val d’Aosta, because I know little about what’s happening in those regions today. Calabria and Sardegna, too. On day one I wandered for a couple hours, talking and tasting (35 wines maybe, enough to red-line my palate but not so much as to feel exhausted by the influx of sensation) and formed a few impressions. Sorgente del Vino has a higher population of dogs than any professional wine event I’ve wandered around, including some draft animal sized Newfoundlands. The percentage of smokers is high relative to the general population. Even in Italy smoking is plummeting out of fashion and mercifully the fog of nicotine that covered VinItaly of yore is absent in the sunny concrete causeways around Piacenza Expo. Clusters of smokers drift like last bison on the Great Plains, looking furtive, delinquent, and occasionally quite happy. I’m 16 years beyond a 13-year smoking habit, long enough to feel the creep of disdain. In honesty I like smokers and like smoking, even if it stinks to me now. There are more smokers here than you’d find in a normal population sample because we buy and sell alcohol! Drugs is drugs on some level, drugs have gravitational pull on particular humans. So: no judgment. We’re tasting hippie natural wine of the cosmos, but we’re all in it for the buzz, even if it’s a mellow high that we seek.
I didn’t expect organic cheese. Food throws me off course. Wine is my everyday, the chance to chat with a cheese-maker from the mountains of central Sardegna: that gets my blood moving. And then the raw milk Pecorino slows the blood down again. Balance!
The smell of alcohol is still here. To clarify, alcohol often smells lovely. This is the smell of your college dive bar parking lot. Old rejected alcohol oxidizing into a putrid hangover aroma. We all know it. A reminder of mornings after unthinking evenings.
I’m not sure I covered the whole room. Distractions on day two came in the form of the inspiring/necessary dried pastas of Casa Tajarin from Alba (I bought two kilos) and a particularly beautiful pane lieviti madre, bread the size of my torso that I immediately compulsively purchased and furtively hid in my rental car. Mine mine mine! Why do I need this charred cracked giant bread? The answer is probably hidden deep in my DNA. In between rounds of grocery shopping I run into Daniele Saccoletto, whose farm I’d visited the previous week: he seemed genuinely happy to see me. He has a cult following at this event, which is really great. Later I see Chiara Penanti from Oltretorrente. I have fun walking around with Chiara, getting recommendations of wines made by her friends, and bottles she simply enjoyed tasting. We’ll see each other again on the last day of my travel. This first brief visit after over a year with no contact feels positive, warm. She possesses a mix of my favorite characteristics in a wine partner (or in a human.) She is perceptive, thoughtful, funny, generous, analytical and a little worried, but not held back by her fears. Chiara and Michele take action at Oltretorrente: more on that soon!
I’m not sure if attending trade shows is the greatest commercial activity for wine estates. I’ve heard from winemakers in our portfolio that the costs are high, and that few long-term clients emerge from the scrum of tasters. At least, not enough as reward for vital days away from their farms. Other estates that I represent attend many trade shows and do significant business as a result. I wouldn’t import a wine without visiting where it is made. I have to dig deeper than these events allow, for assurance, to dispel any fears that would otherwise bubble to the surface of my consciousness at 5am, kicking me out of gentle somnambulance and into my frequent state of sweaty, irrational pre-dawn terror.
I see value for the wine buyer in broad critical analysis of wine’s vast unknown expanses. Sorgente del Vino was a low stress situation for me. I scrupulously avoided the temptation to run around trying everything. Consequently I had a good time. And Piacenza is cool. Low impact participation gave me the free time to wander its diverse and architecturally impressive city center. And to eat a pasta or two!