Visiting another country and feeling lost or out of place for a little while is normal, but living in another country and trying to make it professionally, where the language is not your own, is another thing.
I’ve been living now for three years in Italy, and every day I encounter new hardships. First it was ordering bread at the bakery, then the quantity of prosciutto I wanted, and then my latest endeavor, trying to get my sommelier degree (okay, the hardships aren't sooo bad).
Being Italian means that wine and food are a big part of your life. Drinking a glass with dinner at 12 years of age is considered normal, and almost every Sunday is spent with the family eating for hours. So, after my first week there, as an American I realized I had a lot to learn about the Italian culture. My husband has always been an advocate of wine and he really pushed me to taste and drink whatever there was.
We started going to tasting and fairs, and then one day someone gave us a number to call to take a course to be a sommelier. And so it began.
There are a few different associations in Italy that offer courses, but the most prestigious (and the one which we decided to take) is AIS or the Associazione Italiana Sommelier (www.sommelier.it
). In order to get a degree, one must take the three intensive courses (each one is about four months long), pass a mini exam after each, and then pass the final exam at the end. Not easy! In fact, about half of the people who take the exam at the end fail.
The first course is the introductory course, but also the most important and difficult. We learn about land, climate and atmosphere or terroir and how it affects and changes the taste of the grape, as well as trellising systems, harvests, musts, fermentation, and how different types of alcohols are made--port, madiera, sherry, grappa, champagne, beer, etc. But most importantly, we are taught HOW to taste wine. If it's tannic, acidic, alcoholic, etc. Just a lot of information.
The second course consists mainly of grape regions. Since this is an Italian association, 10 out of the 14 classes were about the different zones within Italy, explaining not just what areas and grapes there are in each region of Italy, but also the wine lawas (IGT, DOC and DOCG) and how they affect each vineyard.
The four other classes taught us about European and New World wine (including American--which I already knew about!) The three wines we taste at the end class (which is something you do for every level) were from each region. We learned not to just determine whether the wine was acidic or tannic, but also if it was true to its type--a pinot noir is going to be on average less tannic than a cabernet sauvignon.
The third and last class combines wine with food. Probably the most fun and interesting of all three. Here we learn about how each ingredient in a dish creates a different reaction or taste in our mouth (succulence, dry, spicy, fatty) and how when you match a certain type of wine with that dish, the wine can enhance or take away from the food. Needless to say, we are both really scared for the final exam which we will take this June.
Even though each day now is spent studying for the exam, I’m glad--espcially as an American--to be taking this course. Until recently, nothing even similar was offered in the states. The only place that offered any type of class was in California. But things they are a-changing. Last year Italy and the AIS joined forces with the U.S., Germany, Japan, England, Belgium, the Caribbean, Spain, Luxemburg, Norway and Sweden to create the WSA or the Worldwide Sommelier Association (www.worldwidesommelier.com
) to promote wine and food knowledge all over the globe. This means that classes are starting up in places like New York, and competitions, events, and fairs will be on the rise throughout the states.
Although wine knowledge in America is relatively limited, soon enough people will be asking for Amarone and Greco at restaurants and these wines will actually be available--a day I can't wait for!