Vinitaly International is the strategic partner of Vinitaly, the largest wine and spirits exhibition in the world, held every year in Verona, Italy. Vinitaly International devises wine marketing strategies for spreading the gospel of Italian wine, its biodiversity, culture, and history. Stevie Kim is the organization’s managing director. Quench editor-in-chief Gurvinder Bhatia sat down virtually with Stevie to speak about the wine2wine business forum and inclusivity in the wine industry.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Gurvinder: I wanted to chat about wine2wine because the approach that you’re taking with promoting Italian wine, in terms of democratizing it, but also bringing the international community together is, in many ways, very different than what a lot of people are doing in the wine industry. A lot of people want to appeal to more diverse groups, but there’s very few people who are doing it in a way that’s actually inclusive as opposed to just trying to sell more wine to a particular market. What was the objective when you first started wine2wine and in the context of the broader objective of Vinitaly International?
Stevie Kim: Well, I started wine2wine because I used to do workshops during Vinitaly, and no one came. The whole process was to give a value and give some extra tools for the Italian wine producers, and no one, nobody fucking came, and rightly so, because they were too busy in the halls trying to make a sale. Of course, it was the wrong time to do it. We had the best speakers, huge opportunities for the producers, but no one came. The rooms had 80 to 100 people when there should have been 1,000 because I was bringing true talents, business opportunities that they couldn’t have done by themselves.
I did it for a couple of years in the beginning because I was overly enthusiastic. But then I had to realign my expectations to a more realistic level. I said, the only way I can help the producers, the community is if I do it in another time – after their harvests, but before their Christmas season, so that was why it was always the end of November, during that period. Because that seemed like the right timing.
Of course, it was always bad timing for the Americans because it was Thanksgiving. But we were able to get enough true talents. It was the eighth edition last year, so we’ve been doing it for a very, very long time. What you’ve seen recently is very different from the way we used to do it when there were like 2,000 people coming to the events prior to COVID. We had to adapt. First year [of the pandemic] we did the digital platform and then last year we did this hybrid.
The reason why I do it is because, number one, it’s always about the Italian wine producers and, not just the producers, but the community, which also means the communications people and the business people, not just the production side. We often think that you guys are wine critics and wine experts, and you always think about the tasting side, but I wanted to create a moment for sharing wine business ideas, and I thought I needed an element where there’s no tasting involved. Although, we do have the tasting panel the day before, but I wanted to have two days dedicated to wine business ideas, and, I think, it has mostly become that. And the second part wasn’t altruistic, because I personally want to have a moment when I can learn from the best people in the wine business, and frankly, people I like, because I think you get to a certain age and you want to work with people you like, not because they’re the smartest or they’re the most beautiful, but because they are solid people that you have mutual respect for.
I think you feel that as a speaker, as a participant, when you come it’s about the community, and that gives rise to what you mentioned, which is that it is also about learning from others. I am Korean American and a women and it is not easy to navigate this world. You look at my team – in my staff I have Americans, English, Chinese, Japanese, Pakistani, I have staff from all over the world – and you know that I’m very, very committed to having a very diverse group – and that’s before inclusion and diversity was a trendy or fashionable thing – you’ve always known that I have completely embraced that. That is my life. My daughter is Russian. I have an Italian husband. I’m Korean American. This is what I’m all about because I truly believe in it.
I have always been a huge advocate of diversity and inclusion, not just by talking blah, blah, blah, but actually embracing and living my life this way. And that translates into everything I do, including wine2wine as a product. And sometimes it’s not easy.
Luckily, during COVID people were so busy with other things, I was able to do everything that I wanted. For example, if you go onto the website, I’ll only have women listed as speakers [at the top of the page], and then men [listed below]. Nobody noticed that right? I will do stunts like that, to give more visibility and more attention. When Julia Coney came, which was 3 or 4 years ago, nobody knew who she was, not even the Americans. When I made Yannick Benjamin the keynote, that was huge, but nobody knew who he was, not even the Americans, not even the wine people.
So, I feel like we do a lot of the stuff I do because I want to learn myself and it’s really about sharing and it is not about just exploiting new market potential. It’s not about that. I think first we have to learn. That’s the first step. And I think a lot of people forget that. But often when you make that first step, there’s an unspoken royalty program, a fidelity program if you will, and you’re friends for life. So yeah, that’s kind of the way it has evolved. And I’m pretty satisfied. I think innovation is also trying to keep up with the times, but it’s also about doing what is maybe not in your comfort zone.
Sometimes working in Verona is not easy, but I think wine2wine is proof, it’s living proof that we can still make a difference. All the small little differences can make a big difference. And I think people like yourself, or Yannick or Julia, or all the great talents that we have from all over the world – even like at that dinner we had at the end. For me, even that dinner alone was worth it. Since the pandemic, when did you get a chance to just have that kind of exchange among professionals? So it’s not just what happens at the event, during the conferences, but it’s what happens outside of that.
GB: In the fall, I had this experience in Portugal, and I had this experience in Bordeaux, where a producer and a wine educator, on separate occasions, both were lamenting the fact that since the murder of George Floyd, they weren’t able to tell racist jokes anymore. But they wanted to make it clear that they didn’t mean anything by it, and that they’re not racist. The Portuguese producer then says to me that they really want to try sell more wine in China, and in the next breath, he starts making fun of their culture. I find that there is almost a step backwards in terms of how the wine industry is dealing with inclusion. In some cases, it’s progressive, but in some cases, it’s lamenting that things aren’t the way they used to be. Are you finding, in terms of the attitudes of the Italian producers, by having something like wine2wine, where there is this great mix of cultures and ethnicities from around the world, do you see the Italian producers’ perceptions changing in terms of different markets and how they approach different markets?
SK: I don’t know how to make a gross generalization. I can just speak for myself from my personal experience.
With wine2wine, frankly, I think there are two worlds. People who attend, who are part of a community, they really appreciate [the event]. Nobody comes because they’re in a straitjacket. It’s by choice. Especially now also digitally, no one comes because they’re forced to come. They come because it’s a conscious choice. So those people have chosen and continue to choose to come and [be a part of] what we are about, which is just reality in a way, right? Whereas people who don’t attend, don’t think it’s important. First of all, they think they know everything, but that is much more of a bigger problem. Our biggest battle is ignorance. It’s not racism. Racism and misogyny are just subcategories of this ignorance. So, that’s kind of a long round-about way of answering your question. But I think people appreciate it, and luckily we have a critical mass of the people who appreciate what we’re doing. So that’s important. And then of course, there is the old school, where they think that only old white men can rule the world.
GB: What’s the next step for wine2wine and how would you like to see it evolve?
SK: We are planning the 2022 edition in its normal slot in November. We are going to integrate the digital participation and embed it directly into Vinitaly, without 3rd party platform, outlining thematic subjects and tracks, focusing more heavily on participantsʼ requests. We will be gathering information, suggestions, requests from the participants and speakers. The dream is that wine2wine becomes a true community based platform for the industry and the communicators and decision makers — like the motto; “sharing business ideas,” thatʼs the DNA and soul of wine2wine.
GB: How do you measure your success professionally?
SK: Itʼs when we can give a value add to participants, whether its new contacts, new ideas, more education, high quality content. It’s always about facilitating the Italian wine business.
GB: Do your bosses measure your success the same way?
SK: Mostly the success has been measured on return on investment, and since wine2wine has a lot of intangible value, itʼs probably true that we donʼt measure success the same way.
GB: Going a little bit off topic, but I think in some ways it falls along the same lines in terms of democratizing wine – one of the things that you’ve been so involved with is the technology side. Digital marketing. For the wine industry, that’s something that’s a little outside the box. It’s a very recent thing. What was the biggest challenge, initially, in moving in that direction?
SK: I think the biggest challenge is that you have to do things at the right time. I’ll give you an example. When I first started, I had the walkaround tastings in Hong Kong, Russia and New York. I had the walkaround tastings with an iPad. It was called Vinitaly International Interactive. Every desk had an iPad, and everyone had a bracelet and a QR code so you can scan in, you can choose the wines and you can vote on it. This was 10 years ago. It was a complete fucking fiasco because, number one, the natural thing for anybody to do is the classic thing – a guest, they take their glass, and they put it in front of the producer and what does the producer do? They pour the glass of wine. It’s on autopilot, right? So they didn’t want to scan and they didn’t want to vote. It was too early.
I launched Vinitaly wine club because as you know, I’m a serial entrepreneur. It was too early for people. Italian producers were not ready to sell their wines online. But look what’s happened now [during the pandemic].
So the biggest challenge is not the technology in itself. It’s about the potential timeline for adaptation. Is the market ready for that product? Look at Zoom. We use Zoom in our company. We were probably one of the few companies that used Zoom before the pandemic. But look at the pandemic and look at e-commerce and all the online sales. I started a podcast with Monty in 2017. Nobody wanted to do it. Nobody knew what the fuck it was. It’s not radio. So in 2017, I had 23,000 listens. In 2021, I had 900,000 listens just on SoundCloud. So I have more than 1 million listens. You are a digital publisher. You know what that means. It’s fucking lots.
The most difficult challenge is that [timing] – because I feel like I tried to do things maybe even just a few months before everybody, but it’s too early. The market is not ready for you. So even wine2wine. I feel like it wasn’t ready in the very beginning. So this whole technology with the hybrid [version] like we have, my office never closed during the pandemic because it’s a media agency. Everyone thinks all I do is event management, but it’s a media agency. The first thing when people start at my company, I give them this [holds up a laptop], right? So when COVID struck for me, we were able to actually accelerate the podcast. We did a lot of the digital products. We are really working a lot. We’re working more than ever. COVID also allowed me to focus on digital media, digital social media, whatever. I always tell people just take out digital and social. It’s just media.
I think the biggest challenge also is having people think digital marketing is social media and that’s it just Instagram and Facebook, and it’s not just that. This is why I think we will always have work, you and I will always have a job because people don’t quite get it yet. This is why I launched Mamma Jumbo Shrimp.
GB: Give it to me in a nutshell.
SK: Mamma Jumbo Shrimp (MJS) is our new brand umbrella which encompasses all our products and activities: Italian Wine Podcast, Italian Wine Academy, Italian Wine Book, our YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Pinterest channels all in the name of Mamma Jumbo Shrimp, a new set of wine maps, and ongoing content creation. The concept of a jumbo shrimp is an oxymoron; the goal of MJS is to distill large complicated ideas about wine into smaller “bite size” formats that are more accessible to a wider audience. The concept of “Mamma” is the embracing of all the “shrimps” — the podcast, the books, the videos, the maps, etc.
A lot of available wine information is too dense, complex, dry or written in ways that make it exclusive. Our mission is to be inclusive and our language and style reflect that everyone is welcome from wine beginners, wine enthusiasts, on up to wine professionals and people who want to take the deepest dive into Italian wine study. In particular, our podcast is the only wine podcast with a daily show, featuring a different topic for each day of the week:
Monday – wine business
Tuesday – wine, food, and travel
Wednesday – diversity, equality and inclusion,
Thursday – intimate conversations with Italian wine producers
Friday – wine science
Saturday – On The Road Special Edition with Stevie Kim going directly to visit producers for in-depth explorations
Sunday – wine communication
Our YouTube channel carries the videos from the ‘On The Road Series’ and they are quite unique, combining travel, conversations with producers, wine tasting, vineyard and soil information, learning about grape varietals, and much more. They encompass the ethos of making complex ideas easy to understand by giving a visual depiction as well as the audio conversation
I’m not a wine expert. So the way I talk about things, it’s very layman terms. So I think that there’s the connectivity with the audience.
GB: You’re a huge, huge believer in education as am I. One of the things that’s come up is how wine is taught, whether it be through WSET or other traditional courses, or through the sommelier program. And there’s been this question that’s come up in terms of, is it democratizing wine, or is it indoctrinating and homogenizing the way people think about wine. Because when we talk about inclusion, inclusion is also about allowing people to forge their own paths and not necessarily thinking about things in the same way that they’ve been traditionally looked at. So, how do you particularly think about WSET because it’s come under a lot of scrutiny in terms of how a lot of the classes are taught.
SK: First of all, I’m a WSET provider, but I’m not a wine expert by any means. I enrolled actually in the diploma. I did Level 3, and then I started the diploma program because I wanted to understand what the students went through. So there are two sides to this the way I see it. I think it’s very much indoctrination. It’s very Anglo. it’s very homogeneous. Because, even if you look at the tasting, you’re like, ‘What the fuck is gooseberry?’ Nobody knows what that is. I don’t know what that tastes like. All of these terminologies and the tasting profiles, it’s only Anglo.
However, I think what WSET is like for me, it’s not about becoming an expert of wine. It’s about learning another language. It’s like learning Russian. If you want to learn Russian, you will have to understand how to pronounce it, how to speak it, how to listen to it, how to understand the dialects. That’s the way I approached WSET. Because also, I’ll tell you my personal experience, I failed my first D1 exam, which was viticulture and wine production. Not because I didn’t know the answers, because I thought it was easy. But it’s not about writing the right answer. It’s about writing the way they want you to write the answer, which is completely a different story. I teach at many business schools. I’m all about bullet points, don’t waste time, get to the point. I’m the Cliff Notes version of everything that you’ve ever learned. I’m not about the preamble. But that is not the way you can get through WSET. So I think it’s the approach, where WSET or the Court of Somm or whatever, or even Master of Wine, it’s about learning a different language and it’s about standardizing to give you that certification.
In a way you need that, but you don’t need WSET diploma to enjoy wine. You can teach wine the way WSET taught you, but is that the correct way to teach everybody? No. Are they the better communicators? Not necessarily because people who are the top students who know how to teach WSET are not necessarily the best communicators. And I think that’s why there will always be room for journalists and for what I try to do with bridging that gap. Jumbo shrimp is this oxymoron, right? Because it’s distilling this huge amount of information into the shrimp size output. And I think that’s what I’m good at doing. Taking difficult ideas in a very simplified manner, so even people like myself can understand and if I can understand, anyone can understand. That’s kind of the way I come to know these things.
GB: You’ve been at Vinitaly for a number of years. How have you seen the perception of what you’re doing change in terms of at the beginning, were they, “okay, crazy Korean American just doesn’t make any sense.” And now are they going “crazy Korean American actually does make sense.”
SK: I think one of the really great things about COVID was that it allowed me to travel in Italy. You and I both think about what do you leave behind as your legacy. We’re legacy driven now. I mean, let’s face it, we’re no spring chickens. And I think it’s really nice to meet with the producers because actually, I haven’t traveled very much in Italy because I just didn’t have the time. So the Mamma Jumbo Shrimp channel allows me to travel and also speak with them and break bread and have normal conversations. And there’s so much love coming back. And it almost feels like it’s worth it. You know, it was worth it and it is worth it. I didn’t used to get that usually just because I’m so fucking busy. You see me running events and I don’t have one second to myself. So I think I’m in a good place right now. Whereas in the beginning, my husband used to always say, ‘I don’t understand why you do this job. You’re not making any money.’ Because I have to pay 30 people, so I have to make enough money, but it all goes into the company and then I invest in digital products and advancement. That’s what I do. I reinvest completely into my company.
And in the beginning, I was in my honeymoon phase. I was like, I can conquer the world and make a difference and then you get to a point, after five, six years, I got to a point where I was you know what, this is not worth it. I could just go back into finance, make some money and just do my own thing. Write a book, I don’t know. And then I met Attilio Scienza.
And I have to say he completely changed me. Because he’s the most generous professor I have ever met. He shares everything he has. When I call Scienza, he’s like, ‘okay, I’ll send you some slides.’ He sends me 3000 slides the next day. And he’s a walking encyclopedia. But he never belittles you. He gives you information just enough that you don’t understand 50% and you want to understand more. That’s why I enrolled in WSET diploma so I can understand what this man is talking about, especially the production, the viticulture side. And it’s been really, really great. He has been my lighthouse to say, ‘oh my god, there’s something so much more we can do.’ And I’ve been working with him on lots of different academic projects and it’s been really great. And also traveling with him – very different, because, you know, he’s done 50 zonations also. He’s so modest and just a wonderful, generous person, that I feel like I want to spend every waking moment with him because he’s old. You know, we’re all old.
The 2022 edition of the wine2wine business forum will be held on November 7&8. Now in its 9th edition, wine2wine returns with a 100% in-person edition, once again held in Verona. The theme is on the world of Wine Communication, but various topics providing insights for all aspects of the wine business, from wine markets to education, from wine trade to sustainability will be presented by experts from around the world. This edition challenges both speakers and guests to fight the so-called “virtual fatigue” caused by overuse of digital platforms in recent years, encouraging them to building business ties face-to-face.
One of the sessions of note will be held by Dr. Hoby Wedler. Wine Educator and Ph.D. chemist, Wedler will walk participants through how wine is a near perfect example of the intersection of art and science. Completely blind since birth, Wedler uses his highly-trained palate and acute sensory insight in his work as a sensory expert and product development consultant. He developed Tasting in the Dark, a program that has rolled out globally, helping corporations educate their staff. Over the years, Wedler has become a motivational speaker, a mentor, and an educator committed to making the world more inclusive and accessible for all. Instead of the traditional session format, the presentation by Dr. Wedler will take the form of a blind tasting, where guests will be blindfolded and asked to prime their aromatic vocabularies with a series of aroma samples prepared by Wedler and his team. These aroma samples define olfactory vocabulary words, much like a dictionary provides definitions of words in written and spoken language. The experience will conclude with a wine tasting where the guests will smell, taste, and analyze the wines in detail as a group.
Wedler says, “A large part of how we perceive and understand communication is based on sight. We use all five senses to take in 100% of the information we experience in life. Eyesight comprises 85-90% of this information. Therefore, we have four additional perfectly good senses that we only use to obtain 10-15% of information.” At the same time, our sensory literacy is created and shaped only through the ability to take in data from all five senses, parse that data, and make logical conclusions. This session will aim to explore sensory literacy with a focus on wine, encouraging participants to understand what happens when we remove sight, often identified as the first step in any wine tasting experience.
Tickets are currently available via the website.