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Time to put the sommeliers in the spotlight: Giuseppe Vaccarini

Italians are known for liking to talk a lot, the below interview actually confirms that :-) I actually had to add a few extra questions as he had so much to share :-) :-) Please meet Giuseppe Vaccarini, Best Sommelier of the world in 1978.

As the interview itself is longer, I'll keep my intro shorter and let you discover for yourself who Giuseppe is . Giuseppe grew up in a time where there were not to many specialized wine or sommelier course were available… or maybe even the recognition of the job as sommelier was not what it is today. So like most people Giuseppe started his working career after graduating. It can definitely be said that in his career Giuseppe had quit the nice start as in 1978, not only did he become world champion, on top of that he was hired at one of Italy’s most legendary restaurants of « Gualtiero Marchesi ». After 5 years he continues his career in other Italian restaurants like Locanda dell'Amorosa (Sinalunga) La Regina (venice), a Russian restaurant-bistrot "Yar" (Milan) and in ‘Son Bou’ (Menorca).

After his career in many wondeful restaurants, Giuseppe felt it was time to start sharing his knowledge and experience he had built up. This is why firstly he started teaching at several Hotel management schools and universities spread over Italy and the rest of the world like in Mexico, Brasil, Korea, etc… But next to that he is also author of many books and is qualified journalist in oenogastronomy for botha wide variety of Italian magazines as well as for international magazines.

Next to all of that he also still found time to be president of both the Italian sommelier association (ASPI), ASI and be judge in many national and international competitions.

But now I will not keep you any longer, please enjoy the read…

What is your favourite wine region to work with?

The question requires a subjective answer and therefore I cannot express myself because it is like asking a classical music enthusiast which composer prefers.

The logic wants that those who love music, love all the music. The preference of one composer rather than another is just personal taste. As for me and to leave no doubt, I reply that I like all the great wines, with personal preference for Italian ones.

What does it take to be a good sommelier according to you?

The qualities of a good sommelier, as for all the works that include art, culture, knowledge, experience, good personal taste, dexterity, etc. I would summarize them with: passion, humility, class, style, open mind, availability, continuous updating, respect for one's own work and that of one's colleagues.

Is the job of a sommelier underestimated/valued?

At present the sommelier profession is quite common in high catering and, depending on the country, more or less known by the general public. The ascent of the sommelier's role in the restoration with the revisiting of the cuisine and the service that highlighted the most suitable character to enhance the culinary preparations with the matching of food and wine. Therefore, two important factors have been generated that have helped the sommelier spread in the restaurant: the first one the great notoriety that the chefs collect worldwide and to some national sommelier associations that started the promotion and training of young people towards the profession. However, this growth has not been sufficiently supported on a legal level by most of the associations which, for various reasons, have not known or have not been able to obtain the recognition necessary to advance its development. We are faced with a profession that has received the applause and notoriety that it deserves from the general public but not a sufficient acknowledgment of its role by the restaurant and, above all, by the institutions. I think there is still a lot to be done if we want to advance the profession, offer young people job prospects and place the sommellerie in the right place, supported by the right recognition.

Giuseppe by Hotelier Middle east

When and how did you get the passion for wine?

My passion for wine was born at the age of 14 when, driven by an uncontrollable curiosity, I decided to choose a job that would give me the opportunity to be in contact with the public, to travel the world, to learn the foreign languages, to become a reference for future generations.

From the beginning I set goals, all achieved even in advance on my work plan, but I must say that all this led me to meet people of great talent and personality in the restaurant world, which inspired me and from which I have drawn I remember, in particular, Jean Valenti, my first teacher, founder of the first sommelier association in Italy in 1965, then inspirer and co-founder of ASI in 1969, then co-founder with me of ASPI, the association of professional sommeliers in Italy

Jean Valenti by AIS

After that I would say Franco Colombani, great restaurateur, president of sommeliers in Italy and then of ASI, Gualtiero Marchesi, the greatest and innovator chef of Italian cuisine.

Who is your big example in the wine/sommelier world?

I will be immodest and realistic, apart from some of my masters, I have no references from sommelier from whom I have drawn inspiration for my work. I rather believe it was myself as sommelier in Italy that inspired many of the young people to follow this profession.

What is your approach for pairing wines (or other beverages) with dishes?

My approach to food and wine is based on a technique that I helped to create in the early 70s of last century, when in any country in the world the subject was being talked or studied. Until then in some countries well known for their gastronomy, of which Italy was part, everything was based mainly on traditions and personal taste. The technique of which I speak, based on the principle of concordance and contrast of sensations, obviously takes into account traditions, habits and customs, the seasonality of personal taste, but at the same time minimizes subjectivity, allows everyone and in an objective way to choose correctly the most suitable beverage for food in order to create a perfect harmonization, criteria I have adopted in all my books I wrote about food, wine, mineral water, beer, coffee, chocolate, ice cream, etc that have been a great success in my country.

Which wine region would you recommend everybody to visit and why?

If in the past the wine-growing regions to visit were limited to France, today, with globalization and with the innumerable possibilities of travelling around the world, I think it's reassuring to tell a young sommelier who besides the classic French regions, should seriously consider other countries in central and southern Europe, including Italy, North and South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. However, due to the expansion of tourism and the consequent development of wine exports to the countries of Southeast Asia, Japan and China, a visit to some of the aforementioned countries was also advised to include the consumption of wine.

For which wine would you make a big sacrifice to be able to taste?

I'm not fanatical for wanting to taste a wine at all costs. I believe that in the course of a sommelier's life, there are the opportunities to taste all the greatest wines of the world, including for myself that found in the amphorae of a Roman ship sunk several centuries ago off the coast of Sicily.

picture by AP Photo/GUE, Ingemar Lundgren

What is your most wonderful memory of hotel management school or viticulture studies?

The question is interesting but not very suitable for me because when I wanted to start the profession, there were no in the world schools or courses to train sommeliers. I was self-taught, even though I attended some tasting courses, among those available in the '70s, but I have greatly exceeded this limit because I strongly contributed to the dissemination of the profession with my studies, my research and my books, that have been and still are adopted in Italy and are of reference in many countries of the world.

With this I also want to clarify that , was not the only one to play this important role. For honesty, I would like to quote, among others a great French sommelier, a sommelier-professor like me, Mr. Paul Brunet, whom I have always taken as an example.

A culinary or wine experience everybody should have had besides have a meal at your restaurant, shop, winery, etc.?

For a certain number of years since 1990 I was co-owner in the first restaurant of Russian cuisine in Italy. Environment, decorations, material, food, staff, all authentically Russian. A fantastic experience that made me discover a country then was still unknown. Wines and lots of vodka were consumed. An experience that opened my mind to the possibility of combining with food other drinks besides wine.

How did you prepare yourself for the world championship?

My preparation for the 1978 World Competition in Portugal began in 1971 when I participated as a spectator in the previous one world competition held in Milan. At the end of the final, I declared to my friends that they were watching the event with me, that one day not far I would have won it! I had made a declaration and a promise. I could not disappoint them as I did not want to miss my commitment. Since then I focused on the study of wines and beverages by buying the few books that existed at the time and using teaching materials that I had requested from all the embassies of the producing wine countries. For the tasting I attended four courses in France, two in the Loire and two in Beaune and I practiced tasting in Great Britain, where I worked, but also the only country where it was possible to find wines from all over the world.

Commitment, will, study, passion for the profession, and maybe even a bit of luck, I was chosen to represent my country in the world competition and, despite my young age I made like Julius Caesar when he conquered Gaul. He wrote in his De Bello Gallico "Veni, Vidi, Vici" (I came, I saw, I won). In fact, in 1978 I was 26 years old, I participated for the first time in the world competition: to date no other sommelier has exceeded my record.

How much the winning of the competition influenced the choices of one's career?

The winning of the world competition in 1978 was a great satisfaction from the moral point of view, but completely unknown in Europe and especially in Italy. As a curiosity I have to say that my winnings was published in an Italian newspaper only two weeks later it in addition to a short article on the winner of the national sommelier competition.

Instead Gualtiero Marchesi, the chef who revolutionized Italian cuisine, had just opened his new restaurant, that was the first to get the three Michelin star in Italy), who, having understood my role and title, used it in an intelligent way to promote the restaurant and, all in all, my image. Even the Italian association of sommeliers, did not do any particular action to communicate and make known the result of the competition or to promote the profession. I had to wait several years to make myself known and appreciated as a sommelier, restaurant manager, etc, in short I had to create a profession that was not yet there.

How much the BSW have been able to give back to the sommellerie in terms of support, collaboration, promotion of the profession, diffusion of the enogastronomic culture, training of young people, etc.?

Among the lines of the previous answers I made mention of some initiatives that motivated my career. Wanting to deepen the subject, to make it more usable to the reader and the youngest sommeliers, divide it into two parts: the first concerns the activities at the national level, while the second part is the international one.

National Sommellerie

I joined the Italian sommellerie in 1968, three years after its foundation, at the age of 16, when the association at that time had very few members.

I was lucky enough to work immediately in the biggest restaurant of the time, Il Gourmet, the only one and the first to have obtained the two Michelin stars, with the only Italian sommelier in Italy, Jean Valenti.

I was noticed for my desire to do and for the curiosity that animated me, so much so that I had the honour of participating in the foundation of ASI in Reims, in June 1969.

From then on it was a crescendo of interests for wine, for its table service and for pairing with food. I was then involved with some sommeliers to create the first path of studies and training course for the staff of the restoration to address them to the sommelier profession. Between the '70s and' 80s I participated with a restricted group of restaurateurs to create a tasting method suitable for the work of the sommelier, a method that sanctioned a different approach to the tasting practiced by winemakers. In practice, from the search for wine defects, we passed to the poetic description on a technical basis of the sensations of the wine, to make it more understandable and pleasant to the consumer. Then it was passed to the development of the objective method of food-wine matching, already mentioned above. Finally, with the passing of the years and the experience gained first in the restaurant, then in teaching, I began to write books on the topics necessary for the training of the sommelier. Methods and texts still used today or that have inspired other books dedicated to the training of the students. Among the various initiatives in favour of young people, thanks to the foresight of the director of the school where I was teaching, I created the sommelier training in the Italian public school.

Also at the associative level, I had the honour of developing the national competitions sector to all levels, starting from the hotel school with the junior sommelier, up to the selections for international competitions, adding to this the fact of having personally covered various roles when member of the the previous association of sommeliers, including the vice presidency and then the presidency.

But not only that, I tried three times since the first years of '90 to promote a Law in the Italian Parliament for the recognition of the profession of sommelier who, unfortunately, has not had a positive outcome because of envy and jealousy of other associations present on the national territory.

After various vicissitudes, I founded ASPI, the Association of Italian Sommelier Professional in 2007, of which I am still the President, to continue the work of divulging the sommellerie and its ethics.

International Sommellerie

Here are only some of the main initiatives I have devised and promoted to innovate the A.S.I. make it modern and project it into the future:

When I was elected president of the ASI in 1999, there were only 18 member countries.

From 1986 to 2007 I chaired the Technical Committees of the Competition for the BSW and that of the MSE.

Established the use of e.mail (I would like to point out that at the end of the 1990s the use of the Internet was only just beginning and few people were using it) and created the first website of the ASI

  • Created the first magazine of the A.S.I. in two languages ​​(French, English), "The Sommelier" and printed three "ASI Directory" with the presentation of the Association, its members, international sommeliers competitions, etc.

  • Created the first HQ of ASI, with offices and salaried staff (partially paid by ASI and partially by myself), in San Colombano al Lambro (Milan, Italy).

  • Created a new and revolutionary Statute that, as far as I know, has preceded the times and is still current, even if some changes have been made, because of new needs. In this Statute, for the first time the Commissions were set up, the Continental Vice Presidents, the opening to sponsor / partners such as S.Pellegrino / Acqua Panna and Nespresso, and perfected a very solid partnership with Moët & Chandon.

  • Improved the trials of the World Competition with new tests and elaborated for the first time the evaluation sheets, still used today as the “new” Technical Committee composed of the Best Sommeliers in the World.

  • Elaborated the first ethical code.

  • For my personal conviction and vision of international sommellerie, in order to give it a role worthy of its rank, begins the path for recognition of the profession of Sommelier at the OIV, hindered by several countries, suspended for a certain period by the ASI Board and then finally resumed ... this recognition had to follow two others: one at the European Parliament and then at the UN or the UNESCO. The slowdown of the first did not leave me time to continue and complete this important positioning of the ASI.

  • At the end of the second term the ASI there were 45 member countries, most of them born thanks to my personal initiative.

  • Made the first manual "Sommelier Profession of the Future", translated into 16 languages, still in use in some countries.

  • Implemented and approved by the General Assembly the educational path for the training of the sommelier at the international level, with the intention of awarding the ASI International Sommelier Diploma.

  • The registration of the ASI name and logo was carried out for the first time.

It is important to point out the importance of the Presidency period of Touloumtzis my successor who I stood side by side for three years, as I had the idea, supported by the President himself, to have the ASI adopted the Continental contests, taking advantage of the fact that Champagne Ruinart had decided to abandon the European Competition. An idea that proved to be a success thanks to intuition and a futuristic vision of the ASI. I have always served national and international sommellerie, never asking for anything in return. Actually and thanks to past ASI president Shinya Tasaki, I am the Director of the Committee for the ASI International Exam since 2011.

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