The new Italian DOCGs, Derrida, and the moral bankruptcy of the Italian appellation system

I will speak, therefore, of a letter.

Of the first [seventh] letter, if the alphabet, and most of the speculations which have ventured into it, are to be believed.

Jacques Derrida, “Différance” (1968)

If the alphabet is to be believed, then I imagine we must seriously consider the three new DOCGs announced by the Italian government last week: Frascati Superiore, Cannellino di Frascati, and Montecucco Sangiovese. (See my paraphrase of the agricultural minister’s press release at VinoWire and see Alfonso’s wonderfully parodic treatment here.)

Of these — in an era when the Italian DOC/G system has been rendered essentially obsolete, save for its campanilian value, by the EU CMO reforms and adoption of the overarching PDO and PGI system — the most intriguing and least absurdist is the Montecucco Sangiovese.

Montecucco (in the Tuscan province of Grosseto) has grown significantly in the last 5 years, both in terms of quality and investment, and the wines raised there are aggressively marketed to the domestic and foreign markets. But the thought of a Montecucco DOCG remains laughable at best. When the DOCG was created (the first was awarded to Brunello di Montalcino in 1980), it was ostensibly intended to denote superior quality: the G in DOCG meant that the appellation had been controlled and guaranteed (in a second round of tasting after bottling) by Italian authorities before its release. Although I can find no official statement addressing the reasons for its creation, it was conceived and has been subsequently perceived as an elevated category reserved for Italy’s finest wines. As much as I wish the growers, producers, and bottlers of Montecucco well, I’d be hard-pressed to name a bottling of Montecucco that impressed me the way certain bottlings of Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo, Barbaresco, Aglianico di Vulture, Taurasi, or Amarone del Valpolicella have (for the record, among others, I’ve tasted scores of Montecucco in Paganico with the media director for the Montecucco growers association).

But the thought of a Frascati Superiore DOCG and its sister Cannellino di Frascati DOCG requires mental gymnastics too strenuous for my current state of mind. I, like my blogging colleague, Franco Ziliani, shook my head in disbelief and despair when I read the news. In an editorial posted today at VinoWire, Franco observes that “the Frascati DOC is made up of 800 grape growers who span 1,400 hectares of surface area and who produce 150,000 quintals of grapes destined to become 110,000 hectolitres of wine vinified by roughly 30 winemakers and bottled by roughly 40 bottlers.” A year ago, he points out, the Italian government applied to the EU for “emergency distillation” for Frascati bottlers so they could distill their unsold wine and reap EU subsidies. Today, Frascati has two new DOCGs. When’s the last time you tasted a Frascati that you would but in a class with Italy’s or Europe’s greatest fine wines?

Read Franco’s editorial, “The Letter G Is No Magic Wand,” translated to English by me, here.

“There is nothing outside the text,” said Derrida (in)famously. To which he often added, “everything is a text. This is a text,” as he gestured about. In the light of this observation, the G in DOCG must mean something within the (con)text… mustn’t it?

But the more closely we look at the G (borrowing from an aphorism by Karl Kraus), the more distant it appears. In fact, it has come to mean nothing beyond an insipid, vacant, morally bankrupt, and politically corrupt marketing conceit. (In the Veneto, for example, bureaucrats have created a DOCG ex novo, with no historic precedent, the Malanotte DOCG, a DOCG created before any wine labeled as Malanotte was ever released! Conceived in 2009 and awarded in 2010, the DOCG will be made available to consumers for the first time at the end of this year.)

But as Alfonso’s updated DOCG list reveals (as does the subsequent handwringing that reverberates throughout the blogosphere every time he updates the list), we recognize the signifier (the letter G) and our will to decipher its signified is so great that we are compelled to ascribe meaning. (Anyone familiar with the writings of Lacan will recognize the imagery in Alfonso’s post of biblical proportions.)

If Derrida were alive today to deconstruct the DOCG as text, he would illustrate how the différance created by the letter G is but a series of misunderstandings whereby its function is conceived, misconceived, perceived, and misperceived in its Atlantic crossing until its meaning no longer has any connection to its author.

Parodying Nietzsche, French semiotician Roland Barthes wrote famously that the author is dead. But it was Woody Allen who said, Marx is dead, Lenin is dead, and I don’t feel so good myself.

My thoughts exactly!

9 thoughts on “The new Italian DOCGs, Derrida, and the moral bankruptcy of the Italian appellation system

  1. Jeremy, as you know, the new d.o.c. and d.o.c.g. are often, maybe always, silly unuseful names that local politicians use to plunder poll agreements among very stupid contadini (an old kind of ignorant and poor agricoltural workers)
    Every italian and foreign wine professional knows very well that in these cases quality has to be in the glass, not on the label. Unfortunately, these blind politicians cause a terrible damage to Italian wine: as money and efforts are badly wasted it is impossible to schedule a serious and effective Country marketing plan. And competitors grow higher and higher…

  2. @Alfonso LOVE the Moses imagery in your post!

    @Maurizio when I read about Frascati becoming not one but TWO DOCGs, I thought I was going to heave (and it wasn’t because of morning sickness either!). I love Italian wine so much and I wish that politicians and bureaucrats would pay attention to what could and how we can help the sales of Italian wines in the U.S. But as Franco would say, these are Quixotic aspirations!

    @Hande you are SO right. Thanks for pointing that out! Good call… :-)

    Thanks for reading, everyone!

  3. I don’t disagree with your post but I think it’s applicable to many of the DOCGs nominated throughout the last 10 years and as you know, Albana, one of the first DOCGs, has always been criticized. I’m not sure that the misconception is only in the Atlantic crossing. I’m sure most Italians feel the same way. Derrida I believe would have thought that all the attention to this group of letters was merely silly on all of our parts. Merely becoming COGS (too bad it isn’t SOCG) in the same wheel as those politicians

  4. @Susannah fatta la legge, trovato l’inganno, no? I agree entirely: my observation that the DOCG system has been turned on its head is minestra riscaldata. But there was something about the new minister’s perfunctory announcement about the Fracati DOCGs and the Roma DOC (!) that really blew my mind. But as you point out, rightly, this monkey business has been going on for a long, long time. Thanks for stopping by!

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