Transparency and Authenticity in (Italian) Wine

Not much blogging recently — sorry, between getting started with Revel Wines, looking for a new apartment, and a rather large writing assignment (there’s something about that project here), I’ve had a lot on my plate.

To add to that, I’ve been invited to speak on a panel at the upcoming VINO 2010 in New York. It’s an interesting topic — Transparency, Traceability, and Wine: the Italian Appellation of Origin System — and one that promises a lively discussion.

The series of recent wine scandals in Italy have no doubt inspired the theme, and I think it’s an important topic to bring up at an event that bills itself as “the biggest Italian wine event ever held outside of Italy.” But there’s a nagging thought at the back of my mind: issues of transparency in appellation laws are not particularly relevant to the average American consumer of Italian wine. Consumers have enough to worry about when it comes to deciphering a wine label as it is, and I tend to think most people take what’s on the label at face value.

(That being said, fraud deserves to be called out and punished. And when it comes to the mess in Montalcino, I agree with the sentiments expressed on the t-shirt pictured below.)

I think we all recognize that Italy’s appellation laws fulfill an important role in codifying specific requirements and limitations when it comes to wine. But I’d be curious to hear from wine folks out there what your customers — the average consumers of Italian wine — think. Do they trust Italian wine any more or less than another wine from somewhere else in the world? Do they seem concerned when there’s a scandal? Do they care that a producer in Montalcino can’t cut their sangiovese with merlot and label the wine Brunello, yet a producer in nearby Greve can do that very thing and still call the wine Chianti Classico?

Let’s put the idea of that question another way: after the scandal in Montalcino, did you see a noticeable dip in Brunello sales?

This is only one aspect of the problem, as I can see it. Regardless of what’s done on the Italian side to safeguard appellation rules and prevent fraud, on the American side I see that the need for informed importers, retailers, sommeliers and concerned wine geeks is stronger than ever. Without those folks keeping watch and building trusting relationships with their customers and friends, who’s the market going to trust? And in a market that seems to crave the authentic in nearly every aspect of the eating and drinking experience, building trust is everything.

(For a perspective on the need for authenticity, or at least the feeling of authenticity, in food and wine, be sure to check out Jonathan Kauffman’s excellent 2009 article “…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of German Butterballs: What Locavores, Wine Geeks and Indie Rockers have in Common.”)

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6 thoughts on “Transparency and Authenticity in (Italian) Wine

  1. Is this scandal in Montalcino the reason that Casanova di Neri switched to labeling it’s bottles with the old Sant’Antimo appellation name? I had heard that ‘colleagues’ or neighbors in the appellation had been repeatedly using the body that supervises the regulations to harass the house with repeated inspections and violations, or at least that was the story from the wine-maker…

    • Hey Tom,

      Thanks for dropping by! I wasn’t aware of more Sant’Antimo wines from Casanova di Neri, just the cabernet blend. But it is true that some producers (Avignonese for instance) declassified some of their 2003 Brunello in order to get the wine into the market rather than have it sit impounded in a warehouse.

      Here’s a bit from Decanter that talks about Casanova di Neri finally getting clearance for their wines. And if clearance took that long, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of their 2003 wine was in fact declassified.

      It’s worth noting that Sant’Antimo wines command far lower prices (and certainly less prestige) than Brunello di Montalcino.

  2. As you know, Italian wines are only a small portion of what I sell in San Francisco, but I have to say the Brunello scandal was barely a blip on my radar. If any of my buyers were wary of buying illegitimate wine, I couldn’t tell. That said, I did occasionally mention – tongue in cheek – that what we were tasting was pure Sangiovese, and the comment would usually elicit a small smile but no more discussion.
    My experience in wine-savvy SF is probably different from what it would have been elsewhere, though. For me, a small “tip of the hat” to acknowledge and dismiss the issue was all that was required to refocus the buyer on trusting her/his palate and that was the end of it.

  3. Pingback: Skin-Fermented Fiano from the Volcanic Highlands of Campania « spume

  4. Pingback: Authenticity in Italian Wine: Notes from My Panel at VINO 2010 « spume

  5. We noticed no dip in sales, or concern from our customers when it comes to the authenticity of brunello following the scandel. The Italian government restrictions on wine seem to be relaxing of late, giving more leniency to wine makers. What do you think of this?

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