Above: In late June, Italian authorities visited the Enoteca Bulzoni (one of the city’s oldest and most respected wine retailers) and cited the owner for the display of a sign that read “natural wines.” Many in Italy believe that the Italian government is poised to crack down on the use of the expression “natural wine” in the sale and marketing of wine (image via Google Maps).
While most in the U.S. took the last week off from blogging (myself included), a small news story in Italy exploded into a major controversy.
On June 25, Marco Bolasco (editorial director for Slow Food publishing) posted the follow story on his personal blog:
- A few days ago I received this email from [Alessandro] Bulzoni, an important Roman wine shop on Viale Parioli.
“I’m writing you to let you know about what happened to me last week: two agriculture ministry officials came [to my shop] to notify me that the sale of ‘Natural’ wines on my shelves was illegal. They wrote me up and they will be fining me. They might even charge me with a crime. The issue was advertising the sale of wines without certification.”
Above: The fact that authorities chose to penalize Enoteca Bulzoni — a Roman institution since 1929 — has led to speculation that officials wanted to make an “example” of a high-profile retailer (photo via the shop’s website).
In the days that followed, myriad posts appeared, including pieces by high-profile blogs Intravino, Millevigne, InternetGourmet, and Terra Uomo Cielo, a blog co-authored by Giovanni Arcari, who brought l’affaire Bulzoni to my attention.
“If advertising a wine as ‘natural’ is a crime, I want to be arrested, too,” wrote blogger Fabrizio Penna in a post on Enotime.
It’s not clear whether or not this episode will mark the beginning of a new crackdown by government officials or whether it will be a singular incident.
But as Maurizio Gily points out on his blog MilleVigne, the fact that the officials didn’t hesitate to fine Bulzoni appears to indicate that they will be taking an aggressive approach. A request to remove the sign and a warning would have been more in line with current attitudes and trends, noted Maurizio.
In his post, Maurizio also reminds us that the use of the word natural in the labeling and sale of wines is not permitted by Italian wine industry regulation. Technically, Bulzoni was in fact guilty of having committed “consumer fraud,” a crime that Italy’s agriculture ministry and inspectorate take very seriously (consumer fraud is what spawned the Brunello controversy of 2008).
The production, labeling, and marketing of wine are highly regulated in Italy and the wine industry lobby is one of the agricultural sector’s most powerful.
And as Natural wine continues to emerge as a commercially viable category (the fact that a retailer like Bulzoni was advertising “Natual” wines is indicative of this trend), there are many powers-that-be who would like to curb its application.
I can’t help but be reminded by another analogous instance in the history of Italian vinography: in the 1980s, when Sassicaia and Ornellaia (among others) were still being labeled and sold as vini da tavola because they were not “authorized” by Italian appellation regulations, the English-language media — deux ex machina — coined the phrase Super Tuscan.
The origins of the expression Natural wine are surely French but the term has been popularized (read vulgarized) by the American wine media. And many would point to the vibrant interest in Natural wines in the U.S. as one of the factors that has prompted Italian winemakers, marketers, and retailers to embrace the epithet.
But the thought of Italian officials entering a beloved shop and fining the owner for the use of the term natural evokes images from an era when fascist linguistic “purists” (as they called themselves) tried to ban foreign terms in commerce (the word tramezzino for sandwich is a famous historical example of this).
Above: Umberto D.
Italians don’t enjoy the same freedoms of speech that we do in the U.S. but this move by the Italian government seems excessive (and is being closely followed by industry observers).
At a time when the financial crisis has led to an overarching reset in the Italian wine industry and when small producers and retailers continue to struggle to stay afloat, is there really any harm in a little sign on Viale Parioli?
Evidently, in the eyes of the Italian agriculture ministry, there is…