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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Some Considerations On The Scandals

A lot of wine-related controversy has been coming out of Italy: Brunello di Montalcino cut with non-authorized grapes, and very cheap wines tainted with dangerous acids, just to name a few issues. Although the Brunello affair had monopolized the attention of the media, it seems to me that is quite a bit less dangerous to drink small percentages of "non-authorized grapes" than substantial quantities of muriatic acid. I'm puzzled by the response given by the Italian Agriculture Minister regarding the tainted juice, which clarified questions from the UE by stating: "there is no threat for the public health; the problem was connected to the addition of water and sugar and the rest were common vinification procedures." The Minister also said that "small percentages of ammonia and muriatic acid are commonly used to activate the fermentation." What???? I spent many years in the wine world and never once heard of muriatic acid as a fermentation activator. I've heard about yeast, about a proper temperature and enzymes to encourage fermentation, but never acids. Maybe I just visited wineries that do not use a common vinification method - who knows? Regardless, what is disturbing is that the judges and investigators involved do not feel the same way the Ministry feels. They actually arrested Mr. Castagna, the scandal's perpetrator, for Agricultural fraud, and for putting public health at risk. Many others were indicted for the same felony, had their facilities seized in Puglia and Veneto, where the wine surrogate was created, prompting the police to refer to this scandal as one of the biggest food adulterations ever discovered in Italy. The Minister, on the other hand, is emphasizing the discovery of the Brunello affair and the utility of the "Vendemmia Sicura" (safe harvest), as though they arrested another big shot of the mafia.

Why is that?

The first answer that came to mind was the obvious, though awful answer: the cheap wine is a product for poorer people, and who really cares about their health anyway, right? It's not really a big problem if several thousand people get cancer from drinking what is essentially non-wine, as long there is a business of several hundred million Euros behind it. Let the indigent people die, right? Sadly, I think the problem lies exactly there - the Italian government cannot afford to admit and invoke consequences for such a large-scale crime. It would thrown certain sects of the economy into chronic anemia. There were an estimated 50 million bottles and tetra packs of fraudulent wine made and, according to the police, it is almost impossible to recall all of them. That said, it is in their better economic interests to amplify the Brunello scandal, which is barely a scandal to begin with. The point being, it serves as an innocent cover for (or at least a diversion from) the public attention to the real threat, so businesses might carry on as usual.

The other question is this: why didn't the Minister reveal the names of the wineries involved? The problem lies in the fact that the tainted wine was sold in bulk and then bottled by different estates, so the wineries probably bought the wine without knowing that was tainted. This leads me to believe that the estates involved in this scandal are most likely big names, producers who buy wines from all over and then bottle it under their name and sell it as a quality product for 2 euros at the supermarket... a 2 buck chuck type of philosophy. I must say, there are a lot of similarities, the key difference being that here in the States, it is legal to add sugar to must and call the resulting mixture "wine"; in Italy, it is not, so the ruthless criminals involved in this grand-scale scandal decided to use the dangerous acids to "break" the sucrose and turn it into glucose and fructose, which are naturally present in the grapes. Since those sugars are a key ingredient in the fermentation process (sugar will turn in alcohol), they have a product that can pass off as wine as well - and most importantly, it's LEGAL.

To tell the truth from an insider's perspective, the fact that not everybody in Montalcino uses 100% Sangiovese for their Brunello is no new news. It's just as well-known that not all Champagnes are made with grapes from the Champagne region, and that you can find small amounts of Barbera in some Barolo. The fact that it is common to augment such integrity-based wines does not make it right to do so - in fact, producers who DO make wines that are false to their classifications are still cheating, and deserve to be reprimanded. I don't have any sympathy for those who say that they were forced to add other grapes because of the taste profile of certain critics or what the market requires - if you like to please the crowd you can always bottle an IGT wine and follow whatever trend the market asks for in an honest way. Or, maybe we could all decide that it is allowable to use small percentages of other grapes and still label the wines as single varietals, like in the USA. Either way, I hope that this time, my fellow countrymen will learn the lesson, although I'm not sure they will, because as a good friend always says: "Italians love to cheat - it's in their DNA to do so." The problem is that because of few lowlife greedy people (actually the word I would like to use starts with "B," ends with an "S" and has "astard" in the middle) who are often protected by those in power, the reputations of too many honest people are compromised so it does eventually look like cheating is indeed, all we do.
My only hope is that sooner or later we can get rid of those "parasites" so that the honest people are able to continue to provide good products without the unfair competition that cheaters represent.
Buona Bevuta a Tutti

4 comments:

Domenico said...

Bravo. Thank you, as an Italian, for publishing this honest article. I am pretty sick of Italian journalists and bloggers wanting to silence people who are detailing the "sophistication" of well-known, often very expensive wines -- not to mention the appalling Massafra adulteration of the wine poor people are forced to buy. All the fancy declarations of "this is the extent of the scandal, really" have left a bad taste in my mouth. They are too concerned with protecting their pockets and not their reputations with full disclosures.

As to their accomplices in the government, what else can we expect? It's a slap in the face at all the really fine, honest wine makers over there.

Gianpaolo Paglia said...

there's also another option: buy more Morellino ;-)
Is this spam?
Ciao Gabrio, good post. The solution would be to lease Italy to, I don't know, the Netherlands government for a decade and see what happens (even though it doesn't seem the path the Italians have chosen at the last elections...)
Buone bevute a te.

De Vino said...

Giampaolo:
I like the country choice; The Netherlands...I drank a lot of Morellino back in the days and I grew up quite healthy I must say :)
In Italy it doesn't really matter who is leading, whoever is in power is useless and most of the time damaging for the country.
Domenico:
Thanks for the comment my mouth is bitter as well.
Ciao

Tracie B. said...

don't be such a prude! just say it...bastards. or bastardi se preferisci.

this is terrible! and to think that those people drinking the di per di tetra packs were damaging more than their taste buds...