The Painful Pleasure Of Vin Italy

Lyle Fujioka
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Friday - May 05, 2006 - MidWeek the weekend

In the past, I’ve conveyed insight into my pleasure/pain life as a wine merchant and my love of everything Italian. Vin Italy, Italy’s most prestigious wine fair, provided the setting where these two life forces collided and left me wondering why my airbag failed to deploy.

The setting: Every April more than 10,000 wine-industry-related personnel descend upon Verona for five days of Vin Italy. Over the years, this city has become my favorite destination. Even with a coliseum much more intact than Rome’s, and Castle Vecchio, where Franco Zefferrelli’s Romeo and Juliet was filmed, Verona remains relatively unscathed by the hordes of tourists swarming over nearby Venice. The wine fair is staged at the convention center comparable in size to Ala Moana Center.

Approximately 1,000 producers exhibiting their wines can make you feel as if you’ve been swept away by a tsunami of vino. Here’s the equation: 1,000 producers with an average of four wines = 4,000 offerings divided by 45 hours of showtime = 89 wines per hour.

It doesn’t make sense!

Fortunately, at the fair, etiquette requires sitting down with each producer, and discussion of each wine is expected. Obviously, spitting wine is a prerequisite. Those who view this professional exercise as gross fail to understand that being grossly intoxicated is the most grotesque behavior. One exception: Over the years a legend has emerged about a tall, striking, well-dressed Asian man whom no one has ever witnessed spitting. The living legend is none other than Hawaii’s Warren Shon, head honcho of Southern Wines & Spirits.

I have never gotten over being star struck by the presence of all of Italy’s winemaking nobility: Altare, Antinori, Cottarella, Conterno, Scavino, Tachis and on and on. You start the fair at 9 a.m. and depart at 7 p.m. quite weary and hungry.

This story, however, is not about the fair, but rather the dinner parties that followed each night.

On my first pilgrimage to Vin Italy, I accompanied my close friend and wine mentor Michael Reyes. As an importer of products from Vespa Scooters to wine, Michael is extremely comfortable with everything Italian. Initially, I felt fortunate that we were invited guests of Winebow Imports. The heavy toll that would be exacted upon us for this all-expense-paid trip was yet to come.

Ominous signposts became evident. We, along with 150 other guests were expected to follow Winebow’s nightly schedule. We were loaded onto buses and taken to a destination - the location of which to this day I have not a clue. At about 9 p.m., we were delivered to a restaurant where our host (the late Dr. Cosmo Taurino) used the occasion to celebrate the opening day of the fair as well as to announce the engagement of his daughter. A 40-foot table lavishly adorned with endless dishes awaited us. We summarily ravished the table thinking it was the antipasti course. Upon being seated at about 10:30 p.m., I realized that the menu detailed a 12-course antipasti start, six pastas for primi (first course) and four meats for the secondi (main course). I asked Michael how we were supposed to order, to which he replied that we were to be served all dishes listed. Mama Mia!

As dinner progressed (I was done before we started), focused observation made me realize that the veteran Winebow reps spent more time circulating the room than eating. The Italian Catch 22 of Eating: Not finishing your food is an insult to the host, but an empty plate, in contrast, makes the host appear less than attentive resulting in more food being served. The appearance of conducting work seemed to be the only window of opportunity to excuse oneself from eating. Michael ate - I walked the room.

The second night is black-tie, and was hosted by Marilisa Allegrini at her picturesque villa. A helicopter depositing VIP guests clued us in as we arrived via bus. A bit wiser from the previous night, I cautiously approached the appetizer spread. At about 10 p.m., we were escorted to a room where we were to be treated to a recital of opera arias. Limited sleep, 10-hour tasting days, arduous bus rides and cramped seating all forced me to employ every “stay-awake” trick I knew: pinching myself, meditative breathing, closing the eyes to appear in rapture - absolutely nothing worked! My head constantly jerked up and down as I involuntarily dozed off. I was not alone. Dinner began promptly at 11:30 p.m. ... black-tie ... karaoke I vaguely recall, commenced at 2 a.m. Return to hotel???

On Saturday, I convinced Michael that we should break off from the Winebow Group and find an interesting restaurant. We settled into an establishment specializing in seafood. What was supposed to be a recuperative evening soon descended into chaos. Michael informed our waiter that our selected bottle of Soave was slightly corked. The room’s sommelier was called over to resolve the issue and he contended nothing was wrong. Michael then introduced me into the discussion with my qualifier as being a wine expert from Hawaii. The sommelier, obviously agitated, countered by summoning the proprietors, all available kitchen and wait staff to confront the barbarians. At this point, I informed all concerned that the long flight from the islands had left me with poor palate judgement, thus the wine was just fine. The path of least resistance was more prudent in lieu of possible “unknown” kitchen retaliation.

Sunday night gave new meaning to “fear and loathing.” Once again, we were on the buses and delivered to the winery of Fausto Maculan. His annual presentation is themed around grilling. The finest meat purveyors are gathered around a Goliath barbecue pit and portions are cut to order. Wheels of cheese are displayed, wines are drawn from barrels, salami of all kinds is offered, Champagne bottles are opened by a slashing saber sword - the ultimate Bacchanalian feast.

Boarding buses at 2:30 a.m., it was announced made that we were off to Fausto’s vineyards. Dismay and concern set in because we were to depart the hotel at 5:30 a.m. We still needed to pack. Fausto’s sendoff for everyone was to gather at the highest slope in his vineyards and launch a 20-foot hot air balloon. The loathing that overcame the majority of us became overwhelming standing in the freezing vineyards. Michael and I ended up literally running through customs to the boarding gate.

The beauty in life is that pain has a short-lived memory. I still look forward to next year’s Vin Italy. Gracie Mille! Ciao!

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