Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend VINO 2016 in New York City, the largest Italian wine event and conference held outside of Italy.

It was more than two days of seminars and tastings devoted to the advancement of Italian wines and foods with a focus on educating buyers on possible trends, marketing possibilities and the growing importance of the country’s southern wine regions.

While in Manhattan, we managed to miss snowstorms and cold weather while the event provided big city hospitality, useful insight and the usual dose of delightful Italian chaos. For instance, the first day of the conference was Super Bowl Sunday, and their fun attempt at a big-screen banquet hall tailgate party was cut short at the beginning of the fourth quarter because they apparently did not reserve the hall long enough to finish the game.

That aside, interesting presentations included an update on the state of the industry in Italy and a reminder on how big a role wine has in their economy.

Italy is the only nation in the world with vineyards stretching across the entire country, from just below the Alps south to the island of Sicily. Seventeen percent of the world’s production is from Italy ,and they account for 28 percent of European wines.

The export buzz continues to focus on Procsecco, their popular sparkling wine which has substantially increased their wine revenues, including a 10 percent increase last year in the U.S. Not to mention the export of wine-related equipment, which they boast as being the world leader.

Discussion of recent vintages popped up, too. The year 2014 was the worst wine vintage in over 50 years as rain and cool weather plagued regions. But then the 2015 harvest was hailed as outstanding with one of the warmest and driest on record.

Panel discussions included numerous tasting options, and I checked out themes such as Italian rosés and lesser known white-grape varietals including Grillo (Sicily), along with Fiano and Greco (Campania). Sessions included discussion focusing on consumption patterns of the millennial generation, competition from craft beer and cocktail interests, which is cutting into wine sales, and decline in consumption of wines under $9. This is a fearful concern to the southern regions, where the rise of premium wines and producers continue to shine against the struggles the southern bulk wine production is suffering.

My favorite panel discussion and tasting was on Italian wines as a perfect match for American foods. Not only was it fun and informative, the panel was led by author Kevin Zraly, whose book I have used as my college text for over 25 years. His humor and unpretentious approach was appreciated in an industry that can get too caught up in itself.

Later panels with a New York sommelier and an American wine academy director were out of touch reminders of the other side of the educational coin. “Italy had to unlearn winemaking after thousands of years and come to grip with a global market,” according to Zraly. He also touched on the growing amount of wine sold by the glass and less by the bottle in nice restaurants.

One of his fellow panel members talked about the only true American cooking being barbecue and, fortunately, Italian wines are diverse enough to work with a number of food interpretations.

“Don’t overpower the wine with foods. And think American sandwiches with some of their whites. Fiano and a po’ boy,” Zraly said.

Another fascinating session with historic applications showed the Greek grape path 2,500 years ago with its journey through southern regions of Calabria, Puglia, Campania and Sicily. They planted vineyard nurseries throughout the region.

It is estimated that there are over 500 potential grape types used for wine production in Italy. Some of the types are ancient and still important to the regions, especially in the south.

You may think hot weather when you think of Sicily, but good shares of their vineyards are elevated around Mount Edna. In Campania, the Greeks planted Greco and developed a successful white wine trade.

“It is a native grape still grown in the region and probably the last taste of Pompei residents before their demise at the hands of the volcano,” Zraly said.

Sonora-area resident Tom Bender has taught classes on wine in Columbia College’s Culinary Arts program since 1979. He managed the Columbia City Hotel, and its award-winning wine cellar, for many years and now manages a wine bar at a Modesto specialty market. He is also a wine maker. Contact him at .