Authenticity in Italian Wine: Notes from My Panel at VINO 2010

As I mentioned earlier, I was in New York for much of last week at the Italian wine extravaganza, VINO 2010. While it was great to attend seminars, meet new producers and taste their wines, the reason I was there was to speak as part of a panel (full disclosure: I was paid to participate). Our session was titled Transparency, Traceability, and Wine: the Italian Appellation of Origin System, and it certainly inspired a lively round of discussion.

I don’t have full notes on what was said, but I thought I would post the written text of what I’d prepared for the session. Feel free to chime in with discussion, comments, etc.

Note: Riccardo Ricci Curbastro, a Franciacorta producer and a representative of FederDOC, the body that oversees the Italian appellation system, pointed out that the rules for each appellation are agreed upon from the bottom up; in other words, the producers of a particular region determine the appellation rules amongst themselves. I overlooked this point but it did come rushing back when I recalled that members of the Brunello Consortium voted to not change the rules of the appellation and allow grapes other than sangiovese in the production of Brunello di Montalcino.

Anyway, here’s the text I prepared (after the jump):

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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.”)