So, you would like to become a VIA Italian Wine Ambassador…or, dare I say it, perhaps even Expert?
This is an excellent decision, and I’m going to tell you why. But first, a bit of background.
VIA stands for Vinitaly International Academy. For successful participants, the course offers certification of expertise in Italian wines. The program is taught by Ian D’Agata, quite possibly the world’s most recognisable and acknowledged expert in Italian wines – but the course itself is the brainchild of Stevie Kim, that indomitable, diminutive doyenne of Vinitaly. For her, Mr. D’Agata was the only candidate considered to lead the program. In all honesty, a better choice to meet the aims of the program simply doesn’t exist.
Well, not quite.
Talking about Italian wines and grapes is made difficult by the lack of a common understanding of exactly which grapes are being used. There are so many synonyms, homonyms, biotypes and simple, old-fashioned false identification that a coherent discussion can be very challenging. It is the objective of the program to equip wine professionals with a common approach towards discussing Italian wines, grape varieties and terroir. This is achieved using rigorous, scientific analysis and a thorough understanding of the grape varieties and the conditions in which they grow. The appellation system of Italy is not examined, but all participants are expected to be well-versed in it.
A lot of knowledge and industry experience is needed for the course, so it is aimed at professionals who work with wine: sommeliers, journalists, educators, winemakers and the like.
A WSET Diploma is highly recommended, if not actually required. What isn’t specified, however, is passion for Italian wines. Every single classmate of mine – from every corner of the globe – is in love with Italy and Italian wine, and wants to know more. It makes sense; you have to be crazy about Italian wines to want to learn everything there is to know about them. There has to be an essential enjoyment of the minutiae, or the studying that needs to be done to prepare adequately for this course is going to be so very much more difficult to achieve. You can’t teach passion, but you can communicate it…and it can be infectious.
Beyond his encyclopaedic knowledge, the reason Ian D’Agata is the single, best person to guide candidates through the Ambassador program has everything to do with the aims of the qualification itself. The fundamental idea is to increase the profile and knowledge of Italian wines worldwide, based on Italy’s greatest strength: diversity. Italy is home to more indigenous grape varieties – by far – than any other nation on earth. Due in large part to historical factors like the mezzadria, poverty and local pride, these varieties continue to be used to make wine in small communities throughout the nation. Yes, the usual international varieties are also to be found, but the true joy of Italian wine – and its inherent complexity – is found with these indigenous varieties (well over 500) and the wines they make. More on that later. But there is no greater expert in the native varieties of Italy than Mr. D’Agata. He has, quite literally, spent his life walking the vineyards of Italy – usually in the company of the winemakers and growers who know them best – examining the vines, describing and cataloguing the varieties, and tasting the wines that they make. This becomes even more important when one considers that so, so many of these nearly-forgotten varieties are not generally made into monovarietal wines. Due to his persistence and near-omnipresence amongst the vines and winemakers, Mr. D’Agata has been able to try barrel samples and family bottlings of wines that never make it into shops – and this over decades.
Ian D’Agata’s definitive work on the subject – titled, unsurprisingly, Native Wine Grapes of Italy – is the textbook forming the foundation of the course. It is a thorough, scientifically-based (yet extremely readable and entertaining) treatise dealing with each and every grape variety with a halfway-reasonable claim to being native to Italy, and also includes a wealth of information about how vine identification takes place, from genetic testing through enzyme analysis to ampelographical study. It is also the recipient of the Louis Roederer Wine Book of the Year prize for 2015. And it is the most current resource on Italian wines in any case. What it doesn’t spend much time on is the DOC and DOCG system, about which more than enough ink has already been spilled – and whose problems are well-known.
The program itself has not existed long. In fact, 2017 marks just the third year that it has been conducted. But, already, resonance in the industry has been excellent. Applications for the course in Verona for 2017 (taking place just before Vinitaly) neared 500, with 60 candidates chosen to take part in the five-day program.
Four of those days are classwork, with each day broken up into two halves. Mornings were occupied with theory, including discussion of genetics, grape varieties, geography and geology – and a very liberal dose of Ian’s stories and tangents. Afternoons were devoted to tasting grape varieties both obscure and regionally significant. No Brunello, Barolo or the like were poured, as it is expected that all participants are already very familiar with such well-known and easy-to-source representatives of Italian vinous culture. All the tastings were oriented on what is difficult or even nearly impossible to find, with the goal of expanding the palates and broadening the knowledge of all the participants.
The fifth day is the test day. The exam consists of 100 multiple-choice questions, each question presented with five alternatives for a correct answer. To pass – and be awarded the Ambassador designation – requires a grade of 75%. To become an Expert requires a minimum of 90% and passing the verbal exam: a blind-tasting exam that takes place in the afternoon after the written exam, and for which one is only invited to attend after the papers are graded and the necessary 90% is achieved.
Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
In all honesty, if you are not already very well-versed in Italian geography, appellations and wines (and by “wines” I mean far, far more than just the famous ones) and show up without having prepared – most likely for a number of months – in advance, you really have little hope of getting through that test. The questions are not trick questions, no. But they do require a depth of knowledge that goes far beyond anything from the WSET, for example. This is in no way intended to denigrate what is required for the infamous Unit 3 exam of the WSET Diploma, which has more than earned its reputation for difficulty. This test is a different kind of difficult. Instead of needing to cover the entire world of wine, the VIA test is, naturally, focused on Italy and assumes a very high degree of previous expertise. Passing it requires serious ampelographical knowledge (leaf characteristics, grape cluster sizes, berry shapes), intimate knowledge of the environmental peculiarities of hundreds of different vines, familiarity with terribly obscure regional synonyms for varieties that you probably have never heard of to begin with (as well as what the wines made with those varieties taste like, even if you’ve never tried them personally), and comfort with all of the requisite scientific analysis and terminology. Oh, and don’t forget those famous wines and important vintages, either. Not everything on the test is obscure.
I’m not trying to discourage anybody, although I realise that all this might be quite discouraging. The thing is, it is all worth it. Before I get to the (hopefully) inspirational bit, let’s look at what’s in store for the Ambassadors and Experts.
The role of the Ambassadors and Experts is to communicate and to educate. This will be done in the day-to-day business of every program participant in the course of buying, selling, recommending and teaching.
Stevie and Ian have big plans. They want to achieve a kind of critical mass of VIA Ambassadors and Experts to start leading courses based on the principles outlined above all around the globe, and the groundwork has been laid. The next step is to start in the USA and in China – made possible due in large part to the fact that a significant number of graduates live in those countries. But, of course, they are also seen as two of the most important growth markets for Italian wines.
The new courses, taught by Ambassadors and Experts, will lead to a qualification called Maestro.
The Value of the Qualification (or, why it is an excellent decision to try to get it!)
1: It Inspires Respect
By now you certainly realise that passing the test is no cakewalk. Cards on the table: I didn’t pass (but I am absolutely committed to doing so at the next opportunity)! Edit 03.12.17: retook the exam in Verona and passed, I can now proudly lay claim to the title of “Ambassador”. The difficulty is by design, of course – and it is one of the main reasons why the qualification is very worthwhile. If it were easy to get, most people could end up with it. You would basically just be buying it, and there are enough “certificates” offered by wine schools that function as expensive participation badges as it is. This one is the real deal, and the people that hold it have all invested greatly in time, passion and resources to become intimately familiar with and, yes, expert in even the most arcane aspects of Italian wine culture.
2: It Opens Doors
This should require little explanation. Suffice it to say, achieving and maintaining this qualification all but forces you to meet, work with and relate to Italy’s winemakers and wine-decision makers. Big and small, famous and not. There are so many wonderful people along the way. Furthermore, Stevie and Ian are working hard to get the word out there about what Italy has to offer, and they need a lot of help. This means: opportunities.
3: It Strengthens Community
Then there is the somewhat mundane “business networking” aspect of such a qualification – but with a twist. The program is very intense, albeit brief. Nevertheless, all the participants are put up in the same hotel, which naturally leads to socialising, dining (and wining…also a bit of whining) and studying together. And let us not forget that the wine industry is dynamic, social and inherently interesting, leading, quite naturally, to it being filled with dynamic, social and interesting people. You will become fast friends with your colleagues, who also happen to be motivated, ambitious wine professionals from all corners of the globe.
4: It Improves Our Lives
There are some more prosaic reasons why the qualification is valuable – perhaps not as much to you personally, but to the greater wine-loving world and, indeed, the world in general. The program focuses on native grapes, on raising awareness of them and communicating their quality and even their quirkiness. Getting people interested in, and thereby increasing the demand for, the great variety of wine grapes beyond those commonly seen on retail shelves benefits all wine drinkers directly by increasing the amount of choice we have. And it is good for the world because it increases or safeguards biodiversity. Just like those heirloom tomatoes, rare varieties of apple or any other crop or plant that is at risk of being reduced to a single high-cropping variant. How boring.
5: It Will Enrich You
But the most important reason I can think of is quite simple: making the effort to achieve this qualification will improve how you think about wine. Perhaps you will be a little more analytical or approach things a bit more scientifically. Maybe the relationship between soils and grape varietal characteristics will “click” for you. Or perhaps all those little bits of information will start to resolve into a larger picture, like one of Seurat’s great works. Whatever it is for you, it will happen, and you will certainly be exposed to wines and grape varieties you have never encountered before – and you will fall in love with them. What better reason could there be?
Find out more about the program – and apply for it – on the website. Click on the banner.