I am just arriving back to the states after a whirlwind trip to Italy. I had the chance to judge wines from 27 countries in the “Concorso Internazionale Emozioni dal Mondo: Merlot e Cabernet Insieme.” This was the first time I was invited to be a judge in an international competition. In reflecting on everything that happened, I realize just how much I gained. I acquired a deeper respect for wine, but an even greater love for people. The best place to start with this story is at the very beginning. The story leading up to the competition is the best introduction for the experience as a whole. An experience like this makes me believe that everything good in life is connected to seizing opportunity and valuing people. In thinking about everything that I happened, I am reminded just how much life can give.
The beginning of the story actually started quite awhile ago in Napa Valley at Inglenook. I was still living and working there, when a man and his son came into the tasting room from Italy. At this same time, I was planning my trip to Europe to explore several wine regions before my move to New York. The man I met was Sergio Cantoni and he was heavily involved in winemaking and a figurehead in promoting the wines of the Bergamo and Valpolicella. I shared with him my interest in wine and that I would be in Italy soon. He gave me a card and his son told me that he wanted to show me around some wineries and be my guide if I made it to Valpolicella. His kindness and willingness to show me around encouraged me to make the arrangements to visit. Subsequently, I made the travel plans and emailed him the day and time I would be at the Verona train station. He emailed me that his daughter and himself would be there to take me around. I was continuously stunned at the generosity he showed to someone he didn’t have to do anything for. My trip could not arrive fast enough.
I was finally in Europe and the day for Valpolicella had arrived. I took a train from Bologna to Verona to met with Sergio and his daughter. I got off the train at Verona Station and only then realized this plan could have some hitches. I had little cell service and nothing but a month old email from Sergio, confirming they would be there. I had a brief moment of thinking he had forgotten, he isn’t coming, or this was too good to be true. Next thing I knew, a white BMW pulled into the parking lot and two warm faces flagged me down. This began my unforgettable day in Valpolicella.
It was like being greeted by an old friend when I saw Sergio again. I met Sara Cantoni and she had the same warmth and kindness of her Dad. She acted as our translator. We all hopped in the car and began driving through the majestic Verona and the vineyards of Valpolicella. We all shared lunch, wine, and visited several wineries. They answered all my questions and gave me so much real world knowledge about the region, wines, and culture. I think my mouth may have been slightly open the whole time out of sheer disbelief at the opportunity I was being given. I learned even more about just what Sergio and Sara did in the region. They told me about a competition that they were responsible for organizing. I gained a broad overview that the competition brought together wine professionals from around the world to judge wines from cabernet sauvignon and merlot from 27 different countries. It seemed like such a prestigious event.
Sadly, the day came to an end and they took me back to the train station where we exchanged big hugs and I couldn’t thank them enough. As I was turning to go, Sara let me know that they wanted me to return to be a judge in the competition. For some reason, I didn’t take her that seriously. I, of course, said I would love to (who wouldn’t) and waved goodbye. I thought to myself what a dream that would be to return in October to be a part of it, but it seemed so uncertain and out of reach. I boarded the train still on a cloud.
The next few months following my European adventure were filled with moving and getting settled into New York. There were so many other thoughts about my new life. I was kept busy by continuing to work with, study, and write about wine. Italy was almost out of my mind completely. However, one day in the summer I received an email from Consorzio Tutela Valcalepio. I couldn’t believe my eyes. This organization was inviting to host me as a judge for 12th International Oenological Competition “Emozioni dal Mondo: Merlot e Cabernet Insieme. It felt as though all my studying, all my travels, and all my passion had built up to this event. In my mind, I knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime. I would always regret it if I let anything stand in the way. My mind was already made up and my answer was a huge yes. All I had to do was be at JFK airport on October 12th. I was going to be there no matter what.
The journey to Italy began with a direct flight from JFK to Milan last Wednesday night. It almost didn’t feel real returning to Italy after such a short time. I really had no idea what to expect once I arrived. Generally, every time I go to Europe I spend hours organizing transportation, tickets, accommodations, and everything in between, but this time everything was planned out for me. So, I resolved to give up the reigns and just let this experience guide me wherever it wanted me to go.
The 8 hour flight was not without its eventful moments. It was one of my smoothest flights, due to the flight attendant having a heavy hand with the complimentary wine. While on the plane, I spent time reviewing my wine notecards and the flight attendant took notice. There was a slight health scare on the plane and an announcement came over the speakers for a doctor. To my surprise, the flight attendant rushed over to me and asked if I would be willing to offer assistance. I let her know I probably wouldn’t be of much help, since I was a sommelier. The notecards threw her off and she thought I was a doctor. The passenger was completely fine and my section then knew who to turn to for any wine emergencies. As soon as the wheels hit the tarmac, a rush of excitement shot through me.
I practically floated off the plane and briskly walked to make it past customs. I thought it was safe to take a quick pit stop to the bathroom, since the line was fairly short. Five minutes later I headed back to line to see it nearly tripled and at a stand still. My jaw dropped and I began to think I may never leave the airport. I trudged all the way to the back of the horrendous line and prepared to wait. I resolved to not let this be a negative start to the trip. I mentioned to the girl next to me, “5 minutes ago there was no line, worst bathroom decision ever.” We both laughed, while still thinking we are going to be here forever. Then, I whipped out my notecards to do a bit more studying. They were always a conversation starter and the same girl next to me asked what I was studying. This began the conversation that got us through the 45-minute wait. She happened to be living in New York, as well. It goes to show you can gain a friend and a lot of laughs even in the most annoying of situations.
Adaora and I made it through customs and it was on to the main event. I was told a driver would be waiting to take me to the hotel. First off, the thought of having a driver waiting for me was something I didn’t mind. I headed to the exit and it must have been easy to spot the young, tall, american. A man named Franco whisked me away to the car to take me to Bergamo. I shared the ride with a fellow judge, who had just arrived from Japan. Yasuko was a wine journalist and this was her second time back to this competition. The car ride was filled questions and conversation. My age, energy, and comments were very intriguing to her. We discussed many things and the most important being the love of wine. Having three different cultures come together and interact was foreshadowing for what I was about to experience. The car pulled into the hotel and I could tell I was in for quite the ride.