Above: an image from Oliviero Toscani’s 1989 United Colors of Benetton campaign (via the Benetton corporate website).
Last week, a heated and racially charged exchange on social media between a winemaker and a high-profile wine writer consumed the attention of wine lovers and professionals in the Italian wine world.
I was still in Italy last Friday when I began receiving screenshots of the thread (these days, social media users circulate screen-grabs so as to avoid clicking on the pages of the persons involved and raising their results in search engines).
When a popular grower and producer posted a note of sympathy for a tide of disenfranchised African migrants who remain stranded at the Italy-France border after French officials refused to let them enter their country, the writer commented that “we should send them back to Africa!”
(Here’s a link to a photo album of migrants camped out on the Italian shore.)
The producer asked the writer to refrain from posting racially charged comments in the thread.
The writer responded: “I won’t write another line on the wines of a producer who feels so close to the invaders of our our country… Goodbye!” (translation mine)
Racial tensions are coming to a boil in the country as the Italian government and citizens face a growing immigration crisis.
Every day countless migrants hazard the Mediterranean crossing from North Africa, many of them shipwrecked along the way as they search for a better life in Europe. Italy is their main point of entry. Many of them have perished before reaching European soil.
Last week, French officials began refusing entry to migrants who were making their way north.
And even within Italy, as the New York Times reports, “Governors in the prosperous regions of Lombardy and Veneto, both [separatist] Northern League strongholds, have resisted transfers of refugees from overcrowded reception centers in the south.”
The wine writer is from Lombardy and lives and works there.
The grape grower lives and works in Liguria, along the coast, not far from the French border where the migrants have become refugees.
It’s never pretty when racial tensions spill over into the world of wine. And this ugly episode, the most recent in a string of racially charged exchanges and the subsequent online shaming, reflects the nation’s extremely taut mood with regard to the browning of Europe, to borrow the American phrase.
When the African-American poet Langston Hughes traveled to Italy in the 1920s, the townspeople of his host’s city (Desenzano in Lombardy) had never seen a black man before.
In 1989 (the year that the image above was first published), I was a second-year student at the University of Padua (in Veneto). I remember how a good friend announced — with equal pride and trepidation — that the trucking company he worked for had hired an African for the first time.
At that time, the EU was not yet in place and Africans were first making their way to Italy in significant numbers. My friend and I discussed race relations nearly every day.
Today, the mounting, looming immigration and refugee crisis makes the subject of race and race relations impossible to avoid. I’ve spend three weeks in Italy over the last two months: not a day passed that the topics didn’t come up in conversation with my friends, colleagues, and hosts.
After scores of social media users posted notes of solidarity on the producer’s social platform, the winemaker asked friends and colleagues “to turn the page” and move on.
As an envoi to the episode, the grape grower posted the following lines from the 1991 novel Vento Largo (Large Wind) by twentieth-century Ligurian writer Francesco Biamonti. The title of the book is inspired by the sailing term large wind.
The book’s themes address human loneliness and how it pushes us to extremes as we seek to escape it.
At one point, the central character, a ferry pilot who seeks to aid clandestine migrants, remembers the lines of a song sung by his young would-be lover.
My father departed
for other lands.
He left to search
the highest peaks
of his dreams.
Even if we live all of our years in the same place, we are all migrants as we pass through life. Our souls are constantly searching the highest peaks of our dreams in hope of finding meaning, fulfillment, and peace on our journey on the earth.
As the Europeans face what often seems to be an insurmountable issue, let’s hope that they and we can all remember the humanity of our refugee sisters and brothers and the humanity that resides within us.
Thank you for reading…