How did you launch your career in wine education?
I studied business administration and started my career in advertising in Germany, before moving into the IT sector. Wine was my the-time passion, then one morning I decided to quit everything and really take it seriously.
I started doing my certification at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in Germany and spent some time studying wine in Liguria in Italy.
I did not want to be a winemaker or a sommelier in a restaurant; I knew from the start I wanted to be a wine educator.
Since I love Italian wines the most, it was clear from the start that I wanted to come to Italy.
How did you open your business in Rome?
I moved to Rome in December 2007 and it took four months to open Vino Roma.
I didn’t speak perfect Italian when I came to Rome; because I had lived in Liguria for a while I was really good in food and wine-related Italian and everyday conversations, which I thought would be enough to start a business.
I quickly saw that it was not enough - I was lost in all the bureaucracy and formal requirements and documentation; it was over my head.
Did you face any other big challenges?
What I wanted to do with Vino Roma was something completely alien to Italians.
I provide wine education for normal people who want to be a bit more knowledgeable about Italian wines.
Whenever I said I wanted to offer wine tastings they thought I wanted to open a bar; when I said it was like a school, they thought I wanted to train sommeliers. It wasn’t clear to anyone, even my accountant!
In the bureaucratic channels I ran into problems such as the authorities not knowing what kind of permit to issue; making people understand was very difficult at the beginning.
How did you overcome this?
One of the best things I did was to hire a facilitator, to whom I can slowly explain what I want to achieve. Then he deals with the bureaucracy and takes care of things.
I started working with him two years after coming to Rome; looking back I would try to find someone like him as early as possible because it has definitely helped me a lot.
How did you build your reputation and find contacts?
First I had to find local contacts in Rome to buy wines from; at the beginning a lot of wineries didn’t understand what I wanted to do and so did not want to sell me wines. This made me go to a wine shop in Rome and buy wines there at consumer prices.
I also had to find, for example, tourism agencies to explain what I was doing so that they would send their clients to me and book tastings.
Hande Leimer hosting a wine tasting. Photo: Vino Roma
What helped you attract clients?
The internet was the most important tool for finding clients; without the internet my job would not be possible.
Websites are rare for businesses in Italy; a lot of them just have Facebook pages. But I hired a web designer I knew from Munich.
It was extremely important to have a nicely-designed but also well-functioning website, as easy as possible for the client to use and with good English.
In the six and half years since I’ve been here social media has become very important. A lot of wine communication is now over social media - Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr and blogs are definitely very important.
What type of clients do you have?
There are a lot of Scandinavians, a lot of English guests, in addition to people from the US, Canada and Australia. We all sit around the table and sometimes it’s like the United Nations!
I have 16-year-olds who come with their families who want to learn; their parents also want them to learn responsible drinking from the Italian wine culture.
There are people between the ages of 25 to 45 who realize they enjoy wines more if they know more. Then there are very old people who think they already know everything there is to know and now want to go into Italian wines in a little bit more detail.
All my tastings are, by default, in English, but if someone asks for one in German or Turkish we offer a private tasting.
What’s the difference between Italian and foreign wine experts in Rome?
There are two separate communities, with cross-over touching points.
At the moment I see us expats as better ambassadors for Italian wine. I’m not claiming that we know more than the Italians, but we are better at communication.
Wine is so much about communication, doing this in Italian is just not enough for a non-Italian speaking market.
I am representing Italian wines; it is best to do that in English, and good English.
What advice do you have for a foreigner who wants to work in the Italian wine industry?
Be ready to have a difficult time as a foreigner; especially if you’re female.
There is overall misogyny and some unacceptable behaviour.
Whenever I go to a wine tasting, if the winemaker or agent doesn’t know who I am, and I’m with my husband or my male employee, they will automatically start talking to the man.
Also, where to be depends on exactly what you want to do.
If you are more interested in winemaking, Rome is definitely the wrong place.
I needed to be where all the tourists are and can’t necessarily go to a winery easily. If you want to offer winery tours, you should be in the countryside.
Visit the Vino Roma website for more information about Hande Leimer's work.