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ROME – Early yesterday morning, on a bus parked outside the gold-tipped fence of the Hotel Cavaliere, a cadre of Italian sommeliers made their preparations. They adjusted their uniforms, white button-down shirts contrasting with black pants, jacket, and apron. They tucked in here and tied up there, straightening ties, smoothing fabric, adjusting the chains and tastevin cups around their necks.

There was a charge of excited energy in the air, as the sommeliers were joined on the bus by some of the Italian wine world’s most recognizable faces, from winemakers to management to journalists. At the appointed time, two more bus loads just like this one – carrying about 150 people in all – made their way to Vatican City, winding through the streets of Rome as dawn broke and the sun rose over the city.

Wine as Religious Metaphor

The delegation was on its way to an audience with Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to represent Italian wine. The Pope’s family roots in the Piedmont wine region, before his grandparents immigrated to Argentina, are well-documented. He also uses wine as a metaphor in his teachings. On one occasion, for example, he compared the heart to a fine wine, saying that “a heart that isn’t luminous is like bad wine: with time it spoils and becomes vinegar.” On another occasion he said that the elderly are like a “fine vintage wine” with the “power to give us this noble inheritance.”

So it was logical for the Italian wine delegation, initiated and organized by Franco Ricci of the Fondazione Italiana Sommelier as well as the Italian wine guide Bibenda, to request an audience with the Pope. General audiences, which take place in Paul VI Hall on most Wednesday mornings throughout the year, include representatives from religious and business organizations around the world. Marco Caprai, from the Arnaldo Caprai winery in Umbria, was one of the winemakers in yesterday’s delegation; this was his third papal audience, and for an earlier visit he was part of a group representing agricultural interests.

How Can the Pope Help the Wine Industry?

The idea of winemakers visiting the Vatican may have been logical and in keeping with the tradition of the General audiences. Yet, for me, it was a curious initiative as well. I wondered what, exactly, the group thinks that the Pope can do for Italian wine? Why did they come, and what did they hope would come from the event?

These were the questions I asked throughout the morning yesterday, to different members of the group as we made our way from the Hotel Cavaliere to the bus to the Paul VI Hall. Their answers reflected a range of opinions.

These three bottles of wine, made from Sangiovese, Syrah, and Merlot grapes, were part of a gift from the FONDAZIONE to the Pope on the occasion of the group’s visit to the Vatican yesterday. Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

These three bottles of wine, made from Sangiovese, Syrah, and Merlot grapes, were part of a gift from the FONDAZIONE to the Pope on the occasion of the group’s visit to the Vatican yesterday. Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

For some, it wasn’t at all about asking the Pope to do anything. It was about honoring the office of the Pope and this Pope in particular. “It’s important to separate the business of wine from the religion here,” said Angelo Gaja from Barbaresco, as we joined the stream of people walking to the entrance of Paul VI Hall. “I’m here to pay respect to this Pope,” he said, clearly enjoying his first papal audience, as well as the opportunity to see so many colleagues gathered together at once.

Others pointed to the importance of a cohesive Italian wine industry at this particular moment in time. “I think it’s important for us to be united,” said Nadia Zenato of the Zenato and Sansonina estates near Verona. “It’s important to recognize the producers and our passion for the territory and our families.”

Others mentioned the opportunity for this time away from the work of the industry. “We are all together because of the same passion,” said Carlo Guerrieri Gonzaga of Tenuta San Leonardo in Trentino. “And it’s nice to have a moment where we are not thinking only of the wine. The important thing is to have a moment where all the world of wine is hearing the message of this Pope.”

Still others saw it as a missed opportunity. “It would have been a good idea to speak between ourselves, in a guided way, about the meaning of wine at this moment in the world,” said Florence-based journalist and sommelier Andrea Gori. “It was a good occasion wasted, because it’s not easy to bring all of these people together.”

And still others saw it simply as a PR event or, put another way, as an opportunity to bring attention to Italian wine and specifically to the culture of wine in Italy. That was the motivation of Franco Ricci, who requested the audience on behalf of the Fondazione Italiana Sommelier.

If the Pope Pays Attention, Everyone Pays Attention

The common thread of the responses from the winemakers and sommeliers was their recognizing the relationship between Italian wine and the position or endorsement of the Vatican in Italian life. If Papa Francesco pays attention, everyone pays attention.

Attention, according to Ricci, is exactly what the Italian wine industry needs, in the form of marketing and communication about wine, particularly at a time when domestic consumption is decreasing and essential knowledge and appreciation of wine is lacking, especially among younger generations.

“It’s not easy to communicate the quality of Italian wine because it’s not easy to communicate about the land and the producers,” Ricci said. “There are maybe 10 million Italians who know wine. There are 51 million who never will.”

At the most basic level, the first steps need to happen within the government, he said. Even Italian school children can be taught to taste, starting with things like milk and olive oil. “This could be a good start, to lay the foundation of wine culture in this country,” said Paola Simonetti, Bibenda wine editor.

Petitioning for the help of government support is one path forward. Another path leads back to this Pope. Giovanni Mantovani, CEO of Veronafiere, said that he has been talking with Vatican representatives about organizing a smaller, more direct meeting with the Pope and representatives of Italian wine.

Mantovani hopes that such a meeting can take place later this year.

Cathy Huyghe writes about the business and politics of the wine industry. Find her online at cathyhuyghe.com and on Twitter @cathyhuyghe.