Heady Bouquets And A Sharp Headache

It's 9 a.m., and I'm on my, let's see now, fourth bottle of Chianti. I'm not a lush (yet), nor am I trying to relieve the stress of working for BUSINESS WEEK's Rome bureau. I'm taking part in one of Europe's toughest wine competitions: Vinitaly, a three-day affair in which almost 1,000 wines will be sampled in a splendid 16th century villa in Verona.

Unlike the other 60 members of the international jury--mostly distinguished wine writers and cellar masters from as far away as New Zealand--I am no oenophile. My appreciation of the grape is of the instinctive, tastes-O.K.-to-me school. But the powers that be at Italy's Foreign Trade Institute apparently viewed my potential readership as credentials enough. When they asked me to sit on a panel of wine experts, I just couldn't refuse.

So here I am, marinating in some of Italy's finest wines: Barolos, Barbarescos, Brunellos. They are becoming a must in fancy restaurants from New York to the Seychelles. Thanks to giant leaps in quality throughout the 1980s, upmarket Italian wines--those that retail at $20 or more--are gaining on their more prestigious French cousins. In the process, a big market is developing for the more affordable midlevel brands.

In fact, the whole point of this somewhat pompous competition and the gigantic wine fair that follows is to lend luster to lesser-known quality wines and dispel any lingering stereotypes of Italian wine as cheap plonk. Says Pablo Harri, marketing director at U.S.-owned Banfi Vintners in Montalcino, winners of the competition for the second straight year: "We're fighting a distorted image of Italian wine as lowbrow, ordinary table wine."

Victory may be at hand. Because of their surging popularity, "some `Super Tuscans,' such as a 1990 Sassicaia, are almost impossible to find in New York wine stores," says Edward V. McCarthy of New York-based Wine Enthusiast. In addition to such premium wines, even some lesser Italian stars are getting scarce on shelves and racks, despite the fact that 45% of America's wine imports are from Italy.

But running out of wine is the least of my problems. A battalion of sommeliers, with what look like oversize tea strainers dangling around their necks, march into the room carrying dozens of anonymous, hooded bottles. I sniff, slurp, and swallow. At first, I can't bring myself to expectorate the wine--maybe because my mother always told me ladies don't spit. Anyway, this sample doesn't convince me. It smells like soap.

If the Italian vintners don't do better impressing the real experts here, their industry--the world's largest--could suffer. The Italians' move upmarket is aimed at keeping ahead of a flood of cheap wines from South Africa, Chile, and Australia. Companies that bottle cheap and cheerful Lambrusco, such as Cantine Cooperative Riunite in Reggio-Emilia, are having to upgrade their product or risk having sales evaporate. So they are making big investments in wooden casks, innovative vinification methods, and experimentation. Already, upmarket wines account for 17% of total Italian wine production, compared with only 10% in 1985, according to the Milan-based producer group Wine Union.

SOGGY NORWEGIAN. But defending the honor of good vino isn't enough. Italian wine houses are also having to rethink their marketing strategies to meet growing overseas demand while domestic sales languish: Wine consumption in Italy fell from 120 liters per capita per year in 1985 to 50 liters today as health concerns prompt Europeans, particularly the younger ones, to drink less wine--but wine of a higher quality. Florentine winemaker Marchesi De' Frescobaldi has just launched a light, Chianti-style Sangiovese wine that's tailor-made for the U.S. market. And Zonin, a major producer in the northeastern Veneto region, is forging joint ventures to export wine to India and China that could boost its $60 million annual revenues.

Perhaps I should stay away from figures, though. As the sommelier fills up my 51st glass, I gulp down a spicy red number that's simply too good to spit out. I later regret this intemperance as I begin to have problems adding up the points on my form and get told off for getting the arithmetic wrong. I'm also getting deadly glances from my Norwegian neighbor, who occasionally gets sprayed by my attempts at spewing the wine into a bucket. Apparently, I haven't mastered the tongue work needed to spout the wine like a fountain.

Soon, I'm slinging back the wine at full force, and my senses are buzzing with the taste of everything from exotic flowers to mouthwash. As my first day on the job draws to a close, I adjourn---for a drink with the lads in a local taverna.

LINGERING TASTE. At dinner that evening, we are only allowed watered-down house wine in glass jugs. No sponsors must taint our exemplary impartiality. The Irish oenophiles at my table guess that it's a local Valpolicella, a popular, light red wine. After the 10th carafe, the wine has us musing over the virtues of plastic bottle tops--over 6% of wines are ruined by bad corks--and why the top Miss World contenders invariably include one from Venezuela.

In the morning, it's back to the grindstone at the villa. The first wines of the session mingle with the lingering taste of espresso. I inhale the oak-scented fumes of a red potion and hold up my glass to the light. The room's frescoed walls and beamed ceiling are reflected in the halo of wine circling the glass. As I let the wine slip down my throat, I feel the aura of four centuries of the villa's history. But the sensation fades. As the day wears on, from my strategic back-row table, I can chart bald spots turning a darker shade of purple.

DARK DEED. By the third day, I feel more at ease with all the ritual. I even swirl and sniff the mineral water in my glass at lunchtime. Surprisingly, there is very little winespeak going on apart from the odd, otherworldly snippet: "Did you capture the subtle hints of vanilla and soft seductive character of Sample 201?" Mostly, the oenophiles and the sommeliers prefer to talk about sex--which is all very amusing until they attempt turning words into deeds.

Peeling away from the competition in the afternoon to join a tour of the Bertani Estate--a prestigious winery up in the hills outside town--I wind up on a merry canteen crawl with a group of local wine fiends. After hitting a 1928 Amarone in the dark cellars of the villa, I am grabbed by the arm and slurped on the cheek by a mustached reveler.

Suffice it to say, all that is history now. Back in Rome, I'm fighting my way through traffic jams to reach the office with a throbbing hangover. Getting down to work is like moving mountains. Vague memories of drunken predators, bulbous red noses, and biblical floods of wine swirl in my head. Subtle hints of vanilla indeed.

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