Gabriele Gorelli’s phone rang at 8:30 am on Friday, February 26th, with the news that his name would be on the list of newly minted MWs about to be released. At the age of 36, Gorelli had become Italy’s first Master of Wine.
The hurdles for achieving the MW are high, including rigorous blind tasting and theory exams as well as a research paper. Gorelli joins 416 other current MWs, the largest contingent from the UK, where the Institute of Masters of Wine resides, followed by the US, Australia and France. The IMW now has members in 31 countries, yet Gorelli is the first ever from Italy, one of the largest and most important wine producing countries in the world.
Gorelli attributes this, in part, to a lack of awareness about the MW in Italy, and a lot of confusion between the MW, MS (Master Sommelier) and even WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) credentials. In fact, Gorelli never undertook the WSET program of study, typically a precursor to gaining admission to the MW program. Instead, he participated in an IMW master class in Florence in 2014 and was one of just five students out of 46 to pass the final exam.
Beyond this lack of awareness, Gorelli says, “there were some big cultural differences we had to overcome.” The first has to do with availability of wines. MW exams require detailed knowledge of the wines from every important wine region in the world. Gorelli lives in Montalcino, a relatively small village that is known worldwide for its Brunello di Montalcino wines, but just try to find Hunter Valley Semillon there, or anywhere in the country, for that matter. “It’s very provincial in Italy,” he says. “In Montalcino restaurants you find 60 pages of Brunello, ten pages of other Italian wines-—mostly Barolo—and then two pages of Champagne. For the rest, you can’t even find a Sancerre. Australia is off limits, California is very difficult, Oregon and Washington (State) impossible.”
Gorelli acknowledges that wine availability can be an issue in other places, and has been exacerbated throughout Europe because of Brexit, which has made it very difficult to get wines from London. Yet he also sees a bigger cultural hurdle in the ways that Italians typically approach studying and communicating. Gorelli first sat the exam in 2017 and didn’t pass either the theory or practical parts. It became clear to him that the MW program requires a highly structured approach to blind tasting and to writing exam papers, one that differed from the approach to which he was accustomed. “I saw that I had to change my way of working from a Mediterranean one, and to develop a style that was more Anglo-Saxon in classifying things in a very detailed way.”
Gorelli formed a study group with two other Italian MW students—Andrea Lonardi, director of operations at Bertani in the Veneto, and Pietro Russo, a winemaker at Sicily’s Donnafugata winery—as well as some native English-speaking students. “We woke up every day at 5 am to start blind tasting together, and this went on for months. There was no Christmas or New Year’s Eve, no Sunday. It was very useful to keep the momentum going.”
Perhaps even more important was the influence of Yiannis Karakasis MW of Greece, a mentor and former navy helicopter pilot who worked with the three Italian students. “He borrowed that military approach and applied it to the exam. He was very strict with us and worked on how we could reply to the questions in a very hierarchical way. He really evaluated us on style, which became a new approach for us.” Gorelli credits Karakasis with helping them bridge the differences between a Mediterranean perspective and an Anglo-Saxon one, and he also insisted on an arduous travel schedule to gain knowledge of other wine regions. “I visited more than 20 countries in two years, with 50-plus flights per year, to visit and explore, always together with other MW students to create connections and discuss what we were seeing. It was very beneficial.”
Gorelli passed both parts of the exam on his second attempt in 2018 (re-sitting one theory paper in 2019), and submitted his research paper in December 2020 on the topic of quercetin precipitation in Brunello di Montalcino. He will continue working on KH Wines, a consulting company he founded in 2015, and he has begun teaching some WSET classes on Italian wine. “My idea is to be an Italian ambassador in the highest sense, helping to promote Italian wines to the world. I want to be a bridge,” he says, in the same way that Karakasis was the bridge for him and his fellow Italian MW students.
As for that study group, Russo has passed the practical part of the exam and Lonardi the theory; Gorelli is confident that they will overcome the remaining hurdles. “We realized that we were working in the right direction and it was just a matter of time. The news isn’t that Gabriele Gorelli is the first Italian MW; it is that Italy now has an MW but will have three within three years.”
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