Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Mutual benefit, by Nicolas Belfrage MW and Franco Ziliani

Published:  18 January, 2007

Many years ago the Italian Trade Commission, fondly known as ICE (EE-chay), came up with a great idea. In conjunction with several of the major wine-producing regions, they would sponsor a series of week-long trips on the part of (relatively youthful) MWs keen to improve their knowledge of those regions.

Each MW would, at a time of their choosing and with ICE's help, organise all aspects of their trip, including air travel, car hire, hotels and visits to producers, and all expenses - no fees, mind you - were to be paid by the Italians. I can't remember exactly how many of the regions were involved, perhaps around eight, but I recall that Piedmont, Tuscany, Veneto, Puglia and Sicily were among them.

I personally pulled Veneto, about which I was very glad, because I knew little about the classic wines of Verona at the time and less about those of points further east. For my part I got a huge amount out of the trip and have been writing about and dealing with Veneto zones and producers ever since, I hope with some enthusiasm. Others, I know, were similarly inspired, and 20-odd years later the regions visited continue to enjoy a special place in the hearts of the visitors. It was brilliant. Everyone - Italy, the regions, the producers, the visitors, the British wine trade - a winner, and as far as I know, it never happened again.

Why not? Who knows? Perhaps it was the usual fear on the part of Italian bureaucrats that some dissatisfied party is going to take a pot-shot at you whatever you do, so it's safer to do nothing. Anyway now, the Australians having conclusively demonstrated that vineyard visits get writers writing and buyers buying, and after many years of fruitless campaigning on the part of rompi-coglioni like ourselves for more sponsored trips, there is a way for members of the trade or press to visit parts of Italy that can never apparently be reached via ICE, which seems determined to remain rooted to the bottom of the league of national wine-promotion bodies.

A few years ago, fed up with official inactivity or incompetence, Jane Hunt and Tina Coady set up, without official help, the excellent Definitive Italian Wine Tasting, now an annual fixture in the British wine-calendar; now Michle Shah, an English journalist resident in Tuscany, has organised a whole series of visits to various parts of vinous Italy. We took the opportunity of being together at the recent series of Tuscan tastings to interview her.

The programme only really took off this year, although I began about three years ago,' she said, having identified regional visits as something the market needs. I knew quite a number of consortia and I decided to go that route, avoiding ICE because they're so ineffectual. Of course, like everything in Italy, it can get quite political, so that, for example, in a trip to Trentino you would have to visit Cavit and the other powerful co-ops, while missing Foradori and San Leonardo (probably the most interesting private producers) because they're not members of the consortium. But I try to be as inclusive as I can, at least giving participants a chance to taste the wines of the smaller producers with less clout. The most challenging people to deal with are from the south - they can never make their collective mind up and indeed you're never quite sure they'll do it at all. You could get a whole programme together, then the regime changes and it's back to the drawing board. It's all politics.

The participants are of all origins and types, not just from Britain but also from America and the Far East: wine journalists, food and travel journalists, editors from specialist and non-specialist publications, buyers, people in the trade. I'm looking for people who will write something, or influence imports. The consortia know they can rely on me - I'm pretty rigourous, not just about who I invite but about how they behave on the trip. Any lateness, no-show, drunken behaviour and I get my whip out. You'd be surprised what people try to get up to. But these trips are meant to be educational, not fun freebies. They don't get their air fares refunded until the programme is over. And people who are there for the ride don't get invited again. I don't tend to get the major writers, nor the principal buyers - they do their own thing, or have it done for them. But I'd estimate that 85% of the writers who attend write something about their experience.'

Needless to say, we strongly recommend taking part in these visits which, for Italy, boast the maximum of organisation and opportunity with the minimum of official bullshit.

Michle Shah's programme for 2007 includes forays to Alto Adige, Abruzzo, Basilicata, Veneto, Sicily, Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, Puglia and Piedmont, as well as Vinitaly and the Salone del Vino in Turin. Trips may not yet be confirmed and may be aimed at a restricted clientele, so it is advisable to check with Michle about what exactly is available. She can be contacted on