Marta Chiavacci

Italy's Sommelier of the Year

March 2, 2008

By Gary Stephen Ross

How does the daughter of a Coquitlam shoemaker end up winning such a prestigious award?
My father emigrated from Lucca to Trail in 1954. Like every good Italian, he made his own wine. Unlike a lot of immigrants then, my parents wanted us to hold on to our heritage and insisted we speak Italian. So I grew up in both cultures. During Expo 86, when I was 22, they had a contest at the Italian Cultural Centre, and I was Miss Tuscany—I still have the crown and sash to prove it! I moved to Lucca in 2003 after falling in love with a man there.

You’re back and forth between Tuscany and Yaletown. What’s the most striking difference between the two worlds?
Here things flow, they make sense, they get done. In Italy it’s disorganized. I’d tell you about getting my Italian driver’s licence, but this would become a very long lunch. And there women tend to get shuffled aside. I managed a lumber company for years—I’m used to being listened to.

Italy isn’t the most feminist country. Were you surprised to win, when all seven of the other finalists were men?
My partner, Francesco, warned me, “Even if you’re the best, you’ve got two strikes against you: you’re a foreigner and a woman.” But I think I studied harder than they did. I did very well on the written portion.

You obviously have superb technical knowledge of wine. Do you also have a fine palate?
It’s getting better. And the nose, too. When you grow up in the city, as I did, you’re not exposed to the same smells as you are in the countryside. But you learn as you go. The first step is simply to pay attention.

The Playhouse wine festival has an Italian theme this year. What’s the state of the Italian industry these days?
Since 1997 Italy has had consistently good vintages. They’re also changing their vineyard practices to emphasize quality over quantity. North America has become an increasingly important market as people become more knowledgeable about wine.

Are there wonderful Italian wines we never see?
Oh yes, many. When I do tours, I con-centrate on wineries that North Americans have never heard of. I notice that here in Vancouver a lot of people go for expensive Brunellos. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which is also made from sangiovese grapes, often has the same perfect structure at a fraction of the price.

Do Canadian consumers approach wine differently than Italians do?
Italians grow up with home-made wine on the table. Canadian consumers are relatively new to the wine game. I think that’s the main difference: Italians drink wine as part of their lifestyle, whereas Canadians tend to buy wine for a particular occasion.

When you take B.C. wines to Italy, how do people react?
We have theme dinners, with masked bottles, and there are always lovely surprises. I remember I took a Mission Hill Chardonnay and everyone rated it in the top two or three of the 10 wines we tasted. Another time I took an Nk’Mip Merlot. Everyone thought it was great, but they guessed it was a Syrah. The terroirs are so different.

Is the Okanagan region even on the map in Italy?
It is now—I’m teaching the sommelier course on the Americas.

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