© Dimore Verona
| VinItaly has been the showpiece for Italian wine for more than 50 years, but can it continue?
Major producers are questioning the wisdom of staging the jewel in Italy’s wine-show crown.
UPDATE: On March 16, VinItaly organizers canceled the event.
Each spring, thousands of Italian wine producers gear up for the most important wine fair in their country, VinItaly.
Held in Verona, this is a four-day event featuring several thousand wine estates, ranging from large commercial companies to small artisan producers, each of them looking to greet new and long-time customers, hoping to attract business tasting out their newest releases.
While the majority of the producers at the fair are Italian, vintners from other countries, including the United States, France and Chile are also present; the combination of 100,000 visitors with the dazzling array of winery exhibitors makes this one of the largest wine fairs in the world, and among the two or three most influential.
VinItaly has been held each year since 1967, except for 2020, when the coronavirus situation first temporarily delayed and then ultimately forced the fair’s cancellation. As the pandemic has now lasted one year, there were naturally doubts in most producers’ minds about whether the fair would be held in 2021. After reasoning that the typical dates in April would not be feasible, the VinItaly organizers announced that the fair would indeed take place this year, from June 20-23, at the usual Veronafiere buildings.
Not surprisingly, the reaction from Italian producers has been swift and in most instances, highly critical of this decision. Francesco Ricasoli, proprietor of Barone Ricasoli, the largest estate in Chianti Classico, is frank in his reasoning why he will not be participating this year. “The great majority of Italian wine associations, consorzi [producer member groups] are against VinItaly this year because it does not make sense [to host the fair] for several reasons. Few Europeans will attend, while no international buyers will attend. Also, June is too late for such a fair, as wineries have already arranged to ship samples to their partners and journalists.”
Ricasoli believes that “given the limited number of attendees, the cost of attending the fair is too high”. He adds an even more basic reason why he is against participating in VinItaly this year with all the fears of Covid-19. “I have a responsibility to my employees, and do not wish to send them to such a risky situation.”
In Piedmont, Andrea Ferrero, director of the Consorzio di Tutela Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe e Dogliani issued a statement revealing that of the 200 member producers that responded to their inquiry regarding the fair, 92 percent raised doubts about the upcoming VinItaly dates, “deeming it appropriate to postpone the event until 2022”.
Noting the “certain rigidity” (in his words) of the organizers in respect of cancellation of this year’s fair, Ferrero hopes that “these positions will soften quickly, given that the current health situation places strong organizational limits on events in attendance”.
Vittorio Marzotto, senior director for business development for Santa Margherita USA in the United States – their producers include Masi, Ca’ del Bosco and the eponymous Veneto company – notes that their group will not participate at VinItaly this year. “We don’t anticipate a real return on the investment because the timeline in June could still be distressing with the COVID restrictions in Italy. As we speak, we are going into the third lockdown because of the variant of this virus in the UK. The real issue in Europe is that many countries, not just Italy, are far behind in vaccination plans.”
Buyers be where?
For Maurizio Rosso, proprietor of the Gigi Rosso winery in Piedmont, the decision not to attend is an easy one. “I don’t think it’s safe and I don’t think we should encourage large events,” he remarks. Speaking about a VinItaly fair in June, he says: “I don’t even think it’s interesting for the wine business because June is late in the season. It’s already getting hot in Italy, and I don’t think buyers welcome that.”
Even more basic for Rosso is the reality of the lack of attendees in large numbers at such an event. “We the producers may go, but if we don’t have buyers on the other side, what are we showing? Why are we there? We know that VinItaly is more than 4000 producers, but if you have 4000 producers and only 400 buyers – almost all from Italy or other nearby European countries – this is ridiculous, it doesn’t make any sense.”
One important factor as to why the Vinitaly organizers want this year’s fair in June (requests from the organizers for their side of the story for this article were not returned) is because of financing. To register for the 2020 fair that was ultimately cancelled altogether, producers paid 70 percent of the fee, as they do every year. Commenting on this, Marzotto says: “VinItaly kept the money, saying ‘OK, we’ll do it next year’. But now they have the money and if they don’t have the fair in 2021, they have to return the money. In my opinion, they don’t want to do that, as they are trying to avoid a financial crash.”
Marzotto has heard from some producers who are willing to leave this money with Veronafiere because Veronafiere has had some financial distress and hardship over these past two years. “I think they are willing to leave this money on the table and help Veronafiere with their financial impact somehow for the fair in 2021,” he says.
There is some talk that the fair could be moved to September, but Marzotto is opposed to this. “Honestly, it doesn’t make any sense, except for the safe cushion from June until September for the Covid. It would be an extra three months, but should we start showing the new vintages in September? Also, the harvest is in September.”
While producers throughout the country are having their say about VinItaly in June of this year, Rosso has gone the extra mile and made a more long-term decision. “We’re talking about VinItaly 2021 or 2022, but it’s not that simple. I’m not going back to VinItaly ever,” he declares. “Things have changed so profoundly, that I’m not going back to previous habits. If we don’t take this opportunity to change what we’re doing, the marketing we do … it’s time to use new technology, which is very easy, which is inexpensive, fast and is extremely effective.
“Things are changing. It makes no sense to make a phone call that costs 20 Euro when you can have a Skype conversation that costs nothing. We have to follow up with those changes,” he said.
“I think that large wine fairs like VinItaly are dinosaurs. They belong to a previous age and that age is over.”