The ambassadors of Italian wine in the world: Canada by Marcia J. Hamm.
The portrait of Canadian wine market by those who live it every day, moving between importers and increasingly demanding consumers.
We interviewed Marcia J. Hamm, judge, educator and one of the 14 Italian Wine Experts in the world, the highest level of certification of the Vinitaly International Academy. We spoke about his journey in the world of Italian wine and her work in a wine shop, where she has the opportunity to first-hand experience the trends of consumption, and she gave us an insight of the market of his region, Alberta.
1.We would like to know more about your passion for wine and your job in the sector as seller, educator and judge.
I started later than most, not becoming interested in wine until I was in my forties. After a glass of wine with a friend, I felt compelled to know more about what was in the glass, and I started taking classes. I started out on the Sommelier Guild track, but later switched to the WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) as I felt that sector was more to my liking: I never developed a passion for working in restaurants. I received my diploma from the WSET in 2017, and during the last month of learning, I met Ian D'Agata, who spoke passionately about Italy and its native grapes and it captured me. I knew I wanted to specialize in something after I finished my diploma, but just didn't know what. It was through getting to know Ian, and taking the VIA program in Verona that I became thoroughly passionate not just about wine, but Italian grapes as well! I had the opportunity to then become an educator for Italian wines and I jumped at the chance, sadly only teaching the VIA Italian Wine Maestro program just once before COVID hit. I was doing some wine judging locally, and also for 5 star wines, again before COVID hit. The opportunity to teach and judge is always a continued opportunity to learn, and I look forward to doing more education and judging in the future! For now, I'm focusing on my job as Vintage Room Manager at Everything Wine and More: a separate space within the larger store with a focus on higher end wines that are niche and/or collectible.
2. You are an Italian Wine Expert, can you describe us how your passion for Italian wines has started and developed?
As I mentioned, meeting Ian D'Agata was the beginning of knowing I wanted to learn more about Italian wines. I became an Italian Wine Ambassador in 2016, in only the second year the program was offered. My husband was a great support to me and he encouraged me to just keep going, keep trying to become an Italian Wine Expert. I'd come this far, he said, so I kept learning, studying, and traveling to different locales to write the exam! Finally in Verona in 2018, where it all started, I achieved the designation of Italian Wine Expert and am proud to be amongst 14 other amazing Experts all over the world. I continue to love learning new things about Italian grapes and wines, and I get very excited when I get to share my love of these with others. The learning never stops. In fact, I just completed the Italian Wine Scholar Guild program too!
3. How past year of restrictions due to pandemic affected wine market in Canada?
I know it's been tough for restaurants all over the world, and here in Canada is no exception. Many have adapted well though and I applaud them. Some in Edmonton, Alberta, where I live, started doing a great curbside business, adapting to the needs of the consumer. For retail. depending on store size, larger stores seem to be doing ok, but smaller boutique stores had (and are still having) a tougher time. The ability to ship wines is certainly helpful and that's something we always did, so it just increased during the worst times of COVID. I work in a very large store, so we had no need to close our doors as it was easy to maintain that physical distance. The biggest challenge lately for importers is actually getting the wine HERE. Shipping has been a bit of a nightmare which makes it very hard to plan quantities. We are lucky here in Alberta with no monopoly that we have a lot of wine to choose from and in many cases, able to get wine we never had before as it was strictly on premise.
4. Can you describe how Italian wine is perceived in Canadian market and what is its positioning?
I can't speak for other parts of Canada, but Italian wine does very well in Alberta, and I'm sure in Saskatchewan and British Columbia as well! There are 3 Italian Wine Experts here in Alberta, and we are happy to sing the praises of Italian wine! In the store I work in, it's one of the largest categories, largely in part to the number of grape varieties in Italy that you can make wine with, and the amount of wine available here in Alberta. The prices are affordable and there is much "everyday drinking" wine from Italy, yet the collectibles like Brunello, Barolo and Amarone are highly lauded and for me, I need to stay informed about top wines and top producers. I'm not a big proponent of points scores, but consumers are, so it is indeed something that has to be taken into consideration as well when buying Italian wine. Because I'm considered a specialist for Italian wines, I can bring in some of those wines made with lesser known grape varieties because I can speak to them and sell them. In fact, our store was recently awarded "Best Italian Wine Selection" 2020 in Alberta from a local magazine with recognition from the Italian Trade Commission. We display that award proudly!
5. Can you give some suggestions to Italian producers willing to export their wines to Canada?
I think some Italian producers are "afraid" to export to Canada, and I can't blame them as it's confusing from province to province with the rules and restrictions. Alberta being an "open" market, it's certainly easier for a producer to export here. Obviously, in the past, it was easier if you had exporters coming to your winery to have the conversation(s) about representing your wine. As we all know that's been difficult this past year and a half, but I always encourage producers to get online, check the philosophies of different exporters, and then get on the phone or send an email to see if your wines might fit into something the importer wants to represent and sell. (Of course they will always want samples!) Maybe as a small winery for example, you want a small importer, but if you're a larger producer, perhaps you want the ability to have your wines represented across the whole country of Canada, so then you need a large import company who is more widespread. In the end, it's important to find the right "fit" for your wines! Once they're here, and the importer presents them to me, if I decide to have them on the shelf, then it's my job to sell them! I love talking Italian wines to my customers!