When Stevie Kim dines out on her home turf in Italy, she shuns wine lists. She prefers to let restaurant owners surprise her.
"I try different wines everywhere I go," says Kim. "For me, wine is something fun—it's not so serious."
Kim is nonetheless a serious force in Italian wine as managing director of Vinitaly International, a global promotional vehicle for the country. When the 50th edition of Vinitaly—one of the world's largest wine fairs—opens on April 10 in Verona, it will bear the stamp of more than six years of her modernizing efforts.
Just how did an Asian-American woman who grew up in New York end up as a leading promoter of Italy's vino?
"It helps that I'm not Italian and that I'm not a wine expert," says Kim, a tiny woman with a long black mane that flies about as she shifts from type-A New Yorker English to expressive and fluent Italian, complete with hand gestures. "Italian wine is complicated and, to sell Italian wine, you have to communicate in the simplest form."
Sporting a black leather jacket and black jeans, Kim, 51, says, "I'm a bollicine kind of person. I am very partial to bubbles." We are lunching in Verona at one of her favorite trattorias, Al Pompiere, where whole legs of prosciutto hang overhead and a waiter pours her a glass of Zamuner Blanc de Noirs Brut 2008, a traditional-method sparkler from a local producer.
"Who would have thought you could make this kind of wine here?" enthuses Kim. "Italian wine is like the Italians. They are incredibly creative and imaginative—it's infinite."
Kim, the oldest of three children, was six when her family emigrated from South Korea to the United States. She later studied business, worked two years as a tax consultant for Price Waterhouse, and then took leave from her job to train with an Austrian sailing team in the Mediterranean.
Before heading home, Kim visited an ex-colleague in Verona. She never left.
Here, she met her future husband, local doctor Riccardo Dalle Grave. Kim earned her MBA in Milan and launched a company that published self-help books, to complement her husband's work treating eating disorders.
After nearly a decade of marriage and rearing two children, Kim grew restless. "I was kind of going through a midlife crisis," she says. "I had to do my own thing, and I realized I was surrounded by wine people."
Tapping her financial background, Kim began creating a speculative wine investment hedge fund. But the signs of a looming crisis put her off.
In the meantime, she was courted by Giovanni Montovani, CEO of Veronafiere (Italy's leading trade-show organizer and owner of Vinitaly), who hired her in 2009 as an advisor to develop Vinitaly into a global brand.
"The idea was to spread the gospel of Italian wine worldwide," she says. "And that's something you have to do year-round."
Kim set her sights on expanded web and social-media programs, and on the young but booming Chinese markets of Hong Kong and Chengdu, which were dominated by French wine.
In 2010, Kim became managing director of Vinitaly International, which now organizes major Italian wine fairs in China and Moscow, hosts a series of smaller events on the East and West Coasts of the U.S., and runs an e-commerce site, the Vinitaly Wine Club. In 2012, she helped organize the first edition of OperaWine, a prestigious tasting in Verona of 100 Italian wines selected by Wine Spectator and held in conjunction with Vinitaly.
This year, Veronafiere is taking steps to spin off Vinitaly into a separate organization-a move likely to consolidate Kim's leadership position and autonomy.
Kim gets particularly animated when she talks about Vinitaly International Academy, an education and certification program launched in 2014. Starting with 55 applicants, the program certified 32 graduates last year. The next step, Kim says, is to have graduates leading Italian wine courses in their home cities.
"I am trying to create a cult of Italian wine," Kim says with a laugh.
Another thing that excites her is the math of the global wine market. Eighty percent of wines produced in significant quantities in France come from only 15 varieties, she says.
"In Italy, there are 548 identified varieties-that's crazy stuff!" she says. "Once you become familiar with wine, your palate wants to try different things. And that is where Italy wins."