Donne e buoi dei paesi tuoi (observations on the Brunello debate part II)

Above: “harvesters” in a photo taken in Langa, date unknown, but I am guessing sometime between the two world wars (images courtesy Fontanafredda).

There’s a saying in Italian, donne e buoi dei paesi tuoi. Literally translated, it means women and oxen from your own village or [choose] women and oxen from your hometown.

Paesi tuoi is also the title of Cesare Pavese’s dark novel set against the rural backdrop of Langa (Piedmont)* in the years that preceded the second world war. The story centers around Berto and Talino, who travel to Talino’s village (paese in Italian) after they are released from prison. Berto falls in love with Talino’s sister Gisella. In a fit of jealous rage, Talino kills Gisella with a pitchfork. Her tragic death is a metaphor for the changing face of rural Italy during the country’s industrialization under fascism. Berto is a factory worker from a big city and his presence in the country seems to unleash an otherwise contained and tolerated depravity. He is repulsed by the atrocity he witnesses and flees. Pavese’s unforgiving realism is one of the greatest examples of 20th-century Italian (and European) narrative.

Renowned Italian enologist Ezio Rivella was born in Asti (in Langa) in 1933 and was 8 years old when Pavese’s novel was published in 1941 (it was translated as The Harvesters in 1961).

As Rivella and winemaker Teobaldo Cappellano sparred during the Brunello debate on Friday, October 6, Rivella repeatedly interrupted his interlocutor, admonishing him: “I knew your grandfather very well, Cappellano. And the wines he made were very different from the wines you make today.” Cappellano is one of Italy’s greatest defenders of traditionalist winemaking and is one of the founders of the Vini Veri or Real Wines movement. (Teobaldo doesn’t have a website, but Dressner did this solid profile in English.)

No one would deny that the traditions of winemaking in Italy have changed dramatically since the second world war and radically since the 1970s. Rivella pointed out that in Teobaldo’s grandfather’s day, Nebbiolo was regularly placed in the solaio or loft to “cook” the wine and accelerate its aging — a practice unimaginable today for those who produce fine wine.

“What is tradition and where does it begin?” asked moderator Dino Cutolo, a professor of agricultural anthropology, citing The Invention of Tradition by EJ Hobsbawm and TO Ranger (1983). In farming communities, tradition is shaped by necessity not by cultural self-awareness, Cutolo noted.

Countering Rivella’s claim that commerce should trump tradition in Brunello, Cappellano pointed out that the DOC system was put into place to protect not the winemakers but rather “the territory.” The spirit of the legislation was that of ensuring that artisanal winemakers would not be swept away by the Goliaths like Rivella’s Banfi. And he argued that “provincialism” in winemaking — viewed as a positive element, in opposition to globalization — is the very element that sets Italian wines apart from those produced elsewhere. “We shouldn’t make wines that everyone likes,” said Cappellano, “we need to make wines enjoyed by those who know the wines.”

As I watched the debate that Friday, I thought of how my friend Alice Feiring dealt with the concept of “tradition” in her excellent book, The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization. “When I explored this New World wine vs. Old World another theme kept on coming up,” she writes, “and that was the confusion surrounding the word tradition. There were so many meanings. Who knew? Some … were able to use it as a weapon, as a synonym for poorly made wine, for wine that turned into vinegar. Now, what did traditional wine making mean to me? I wasn’t sure. I needed to find a new way to identify wines I liked. Perhaps I was using the word traditional when I meant ‘authentic.'”

We can debate the nature of tradition and authenticity until we’re blue in the face. But one thing is certain: the authenticity of place will disappear if Brunello appellation regulations are changed to allow for the blending of international grape varieties. The laws were created not to help Goliaths make money, but rather to ensure that the Davids would continue to express the authenticity of place.

Paesi tuoi… in the triangle of [mimetic] desire, industrial Banfi was the Berto, the “other” who upset the balance of rural life in Montalcino. In doing so, introduced the capitalist notion of progress (read greed) that has sullied the landscape of the once pristine Orcia River Valley where Brunello di Montalcino is made.

In other news…

Tracie B. told me not to bother watching the 60 Minutes advertorial devoted to the Antinori family last night. But I did enjoy Strappo’s post-game wrap-up. What happened to CBS hard-hitting journalism? Edward Murrow must be rolling over in his grave.

* Sometimes referred to has “the Langhe” or “the Langhe Hills,” Langa is home to Barolo and Barbaresco and is one of Italy’s greatest enogastronmic destinations.

13 thoughts on “Donne e buoi dei paesi tuoi (observations on the Brunello debate part II)

  1. 1. Loved Paesi tuoi — but then, I read everything Pavese wrote.

    2. Thanks for the mention.

    3. The Morley Safer/Antinori love fest can be linked to from mondosapore.com.

    It’s sort of stomach-churning in its flattery and obsequiousness. Plus, you know, they’re all full of shit.

  2. I, too, was squirming on my couch watching the 60 minutes piece on Antinori. Then my companion reminded me that although I didn’t agree 100% with the direction of the segment, it was a positive piece about Italian wines. “Would you rather they talk about how great French wines are?” the question begged.

    I remember when Morley Safer did his thing in the early 1990’s about the French paradox. That was a rising tide that did indeed lift all boats. Wine sold, not just French wine. Everything on the shelves.

    And while there are still many miles to go before this Brunello thing is laid to rest, at least it was a positive “puff” piece.

    And for those of us who don’t have a “trust fund”, in today’s economic climate, that isn’t such a bad thing.

    But then again, it is so much fun to gripe about stuff, isn’t it?

    I’m just saying….

  3. Great blog, Jeremy. Thanks for the reportage on the Oct. 6 meeting. And many good blessings on S. Cappellano and S. Ziliani for helping fight the good fight.

    So sad that the wine industrialists and blend consultants feel the need to lift their leg at the Brunello DOCG. To sanction bleding would be to kill the golden goose.

  4. Yeah, I guess Kim’s perspective is a positive and valid one. Still, it had a home shopping infomercial air to it. I half expected an 800# to pop up with operators standing by.

  5. “Methinks the Antinori sisters out in the fields picking grapes was just for show.”

    Oh no, say it wasn’t so!

    BTW, did you notice how they kept the camera off the ugly sister who also happened to be the most genuine in her (professed) dedication to the family biz? Now I did feel a bit sorry for her.

  6. tracie, methinks the antinori sisters could buy revlon and loreal, but at the end of the day, it’s like putting lipstick on a….

    strappo, which one was the ugly one? it’s weird b/c the mom isn’t bad looking and papa piero is handsome in a “look at me i’m rich and you’re not” sort of way

  7. Pingback: Vinograf » Kumulativní hrabičky 42/08

  8. Somehow I missed this excellent post. Wasn’t the saying Moglie e buoi dei paesi tuoi? I thought I would be reading a long post on something else. Fascinating post and wrap up of so many ideas. I liked Alice’s definition of Authentic for the meaning of traditional. I also like the newest direction of the discussion about Brunello is now evolving on your blog. Good for you.

    Tracie B.’s lipstick comments are hysterical. I like that Texan’s thinking. I can’t see them with Revlon though…something more like Lancome, don’t you agree…

    Kudos to you Jeremy for a fab post.

  9. Pingback: Maginot lines in Montalcino « Do Bianchi

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