Italy Day 3: Brunellogate Explodes and Darkness Falls over Vinitaly

Above: Laura bestows a laurel wreath on Petrarca in a sixteenth-century illustrated manuscript.

In the third sonnet of Franceso Petrarca’s Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (Fragments of Vernacular Things), his fourteenth-century breviary of poems devoted to Madonna Laura (365 Italian sonnets, ballads, sestinas, and madrigals, plus an introductory sonnet), he describes the day he first set his eyes upon Laura in a church in Avignon, Good Friday, April 6, 1327 as follows:

    It was the day the sun’s ray had turned pale
    With pity for the suffering of his Maker

    Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, 3.1-2
    (translation by Mark Musa)

On March 21, 2008, Good Friday seemed to have come early this year: it was on that day that my partner and co-editor at VinoWire.com, Franco Ziliani, published the first account of a scandal that would soon be dubbed Brunellopoli or Brunellogate.

Above: one of the more extravagant stands at this year’s Vinitaly.

By the time Franco and I reached Vinitaly in Verona (Italy’s annual wine trade fair) on April 3, we had been the first to publish English-language reports of the Siena magistrate’s investigation of alleged fraudulent Brunello on VinoWire.com.

The fair buzzed with rumor and hearsay. There were false claims of “storm troopers” sequestering wine on the floor of the exposition, and gossip-mongers whispered names to one another, alleging who had accused whom of this or that infraction.

Darkness had indeed fallen over Vintaly.

Since I returned to the U.S., I’ve had the chance to speak with a number of informed persons who work in Montalcino or who are closely associated with the appellation. My sources have requested anonymity (because the investigation is ongoing) but they have denied any reports of wine being impounded at the fair. There were reports of undercover agents who checked to see if previously sequestered wine was being presented at the fair. The “storm trooper” rumor was evidently started by an unscrupulous Austrian newspaper editor who sought to sell papers through false reporting.

And while it is true that more than 600,000 bottles of wine have been sequestered to date, the majority of these were seized from 2 or 3 large, commercial producers of Brunello — a fraction of the more than 200 producers in the appellation.

It is also important to note that while a handful of producers have been accused of blending grapes other than Sangiovese in their Brunello (the appellation requires 100% Sangiovese), others have been cited for minor infractions (e.g., slightly excessive yields).

Although Italian government officials have been quick to blame the press for “panic” in the marketplace, it would seem that Siena magistrate and prosecutor Nino Calabrese is a would-be Elliot Ness seeking to create a legacy of mistrust before he retires from office on May 1.

Please see this editorial by Franco Ziliani that we published on VinoWire.com.

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