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.”)

Oh, the Scandal

There’s been plenty of chatter over the recent ‘scandal’ in Montalcino, and you’ll find ongoing coverage of saga at VinoWire as well as a tidy write up by Eric Asimov at the Pour.

For a thorough look at today’s Brunello, and possibly a backgrounder to recent concerns, check out this excerpt from an article by David Lynch published in the April 2008 issue of Wine & Spirits. You should also be able to find the issue on newstands.

Update 4/23/08: The New York Times published a comprehensive report on the Montalcino scandal. You can read the informative article here.

“Che Bella, Italia”

…, he said sarcastically. Then he raised the tumbler of Santa Maria al Monte to his lips–a savage, pungent amaro–and knocked it back, the black, bitter shot an inoculation against the budding romanticism he had begun to feel for this place, his wayward spiritual home.

Trashy, I know, but in the course of developing a fascination with Italian amari–potent bitter digestivi like Fernet-Branca, Averna, and the aforementioned Santa Maria al Monte–I’ve often begun to associate the drink with how I think of Italy. Or I should say that I associate amari with why I think the way I do about Italy. Not sure if that makes sense or not. But recently it’s been one disappointment after another, making life difficult for the hapless italophile. Maybe diving headfirst into that dark amaro pool is the only way to get over it?

repubblica-foto.jpg

Above: Checking fresh mozzarella for contamination (via La Repubblica)

Reports of recent scandals involving two beloved Italian products, Brunello di Montalcino and mozzarella di bufala, have left me feeling rather deflated.

I’m staying away from the Brunello affair. But you can read plenty about it in the wine blogosphere. Franco Ziliani blew the lid off of everything here, and you’ll find follow up reports at VinoWire (go here, here and here), Mondosapore (go here) and Do Bianchi (go here).

As for the mozzarella scandal, according to an article in the New York Times (thanks, Lloyd!), high levels of dioxin have recently been found in samples of the famous cheese. Some believe the source of the contamination comes from Naples’ trash–a lot of which ends up illegally dumped in the wild rural areas surrounding the city. While trash dumps have not been found in the mozzarella production areas themselves, it’s not very hard to imagine an illegal dump (filled with god knows what) polluting, say, the ground water. Others attribute the contamination to unscrupulous mozzarella producers.

Italian authorities have begun investigating the contamination but the damage to mozzarella’s reputation has already been done: South Korea recently banned all imports of the cheese. And, according to this article from La Repubblica (where that splendid photo came from, by the way), the EU has warned Italy that current steps to rectify the situation are not enough.

Mamma mia!