Verona: a prize place

(by peter)

“Ah, Verona,” said Susie’s mum when we told here we were off to Italy for a few days. “I’ll look that up on my tea towel.”

By way of explanation, Susie’s mum (a very well informed and delightful lady) has a tea towel that details all the major towns of Italy. Very much like the one we found on a stall in the Piazza Erbe the next evening (see photo, right).

As a life lesson, it’s worth some thought: who needs Google when we have tea towels?

We were off to Verona at the invitation of Veronafiere, organizers of the massive Vinitaly wine fair, and the International Wine and Spirits Competition (IWSC), to pick up our Communicators of the Year Award 2010.

We arrived late in the afternoon and strolled into town to pick up an ice cream. The Piazza Brà was thronged with all kinds of faces, from beady-eyed nonnas to bored kids on coach trips. All against a backdrop of stunning classical stone facades and a richly furrowed Roman amphitheatre.

We sat down on a bench and drank in the sunlit late afternoon atmosphere.

Later that evening, in altogether more glam attire, we returned to nearly the same spot but for a very different reason.

The gala dinner that officially marked the opening of Vinitaly was sponsored by Sicily and held in the Palazzo della Gran Guardia, a huge and imposing building that effectively constitutes one side of the Piazza Brà.

We were slightly nervous – having been told to prepare a speech for when we accepted our award – but nonetheless the occasion was grand enough to be enjoyably distracting. Check out the video below of Susie competing with some men in red tights brandishing trumpets:

Legions of uniformed sommeliers served us Sicilian wine; we had an interesting chat with Federico Castelluci, the first non-French CEO of the OIV (see our earlier piece on the latest OIV results here), about things ranging from Chinese “laxness” with official wine-related figures and the rise of global bulk shipments in recent years.

We were then herded upstairs to a grand dinner room with enormous video projector screens and a cookery stage at one end. This, it turned out, was to be the plinth from which tanned and hirsute chef Filippo Da Mantia (no, me neither) kept up a non-stop patter for the next two hours (or so it felt), effectively preparing our food before our eyes.

It didn’t work.

Someone, somewhere, had thought this a good idea (someone may still do). But something tells me that the next time Sicily sponsor a gala dinner like this (if indeed they haven’t’ already been banned for all eternity) they might opt for the burger & chips approach.

The chef, accompanied by giant project screen displays featuring the mixing of pasta in numerous different ways, proceeded to talk his way over several hundred people’s conversations during most of the dinner.

If that wasn’t frustrating enough, the food was. At the beginning, we’d heard him mention something about “shock cuisine” while using the words “pasta” and “couscous”.

We didn’t heed the warning.

All courses – and there were somewhere between 10 and 15 (I lost the will to count after a while) – featured pasta or couscous.

And I mean all courses. Even the pudding was couscous. To witness Susie’s pasta-and-couscous induced incredulity, have a look at the video below:

What’s more, the majority of the pasta dishes were served cold and al dente. Fine, you might say, especially for pasta purists. But the problem was the pasta – in its various formats, which seemed to be spaghetti hoops and basic penne – wasn’t fresh, it was dried, and similar in taste and texture to the most basic of supermarket dried pasta you buy in discount stores the world over.

Which, when you’re coating it with the most meagre of sauces and serving it al dente over 15 courses, is not the most pleasant experience.

Of course, we don’t mean to be ungrateful. We truly felt privileged and honoured to be there. It was just that the dinner, by the end, was something of a bizarre and gruelling occasion, and well worthy of recounting.

The awfulness of the food and patter was made immeasurably better by the company. The wines weren’t bad, too – an eclectic selection of Sicilian wines, the best of which included a perfumed Etna red from Graci, a funky floral wine from Valle dell’Acate in Vittoria, and a quite sensational Marsala (the best wine of the evening by a country mile, one of the true gems of this island), the Riserva del Centenario 1980 by Pellegrino.

And then came our award. We had prepared a grand-standing speech. In the event, we thought better of it. The chaotic organisation, very low stage and, by then, an audience inured to the microphone after two hours of cheffish banter, was not the time and place to go big on an acceptance speech. So Susie graciously delivered a 20-word thank you; we smiled; and then we sat down. (We later posted a few truncated thanks on our subsequent blog.)

The video below shows us accepting our award – albeit with a rather long preamble, mostly in Italian.

The next day saw us take in the delights of Vinitaly, apparently one of the world’s biggest wine fairs.

It’s a show devoted almost entirely to Italian wine, with each region taking over a huge swathe of the Veronafiere site and dressing it up to the nines in all kinds of elaborate designs.

We wandered round, dazed and very grateful not to have to be rushing from pillar to post as is the case at the London wine fair, until it was time to head off to the tasting we were giving.

Our session featured gold- and trophy-winning wines from last year’s IWSC competition, and was entitled, “What makes an award-winning wine?”

We were a little concerned about the session beforehand, given neither of us had judged in last year’s IWSC (I chaired at the Decanter World Wine Awards and Susie chaired at the International Wine Challenge), but in the event it was a great tasting and event, with an excellent crowd and some fantastic wines (the kind which are such good quality, and so expressive, that they make our job so much easier).

I won’t list them all, but those that stood out were the Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2005 (so young, with delicious complexity), De Martino’s Alto de Piedras 2007 Carmenere (beautiful marriage of ripeness and freshness), the Eagle’s Nest Shiraz 2007 (lovely cooler-climate style of Syrah from Constantia), the Sessantanni Primitivo di Manduria 2006 (funky, characterful style) and the Morris Old Premium Liqueur Tokay.

That evening, we headed out into Verona once again, our destination being the enchanting Osteria Guilietta (our review of which can be found by clicking here).

On the way, we were bustled off the street by security men while the President of the Republic ambled by.

We then spent time admiring the many different ways in which bottles of wine had been shoe-horned into shop window displays – from shoes to designer handbag shops. We presumed for Vinitaly, but you never know…

On the way, we also took in the delights of the Piazza Erbe, which you can get a feel for in the video below:

One delightful dinner, an all-too-short sleep and a blue chip Italian tasting later (click here for details) and we were back in the air, very proud, very over-eaten, and very much in love with Verona.