Natural wine: Italian government crackdown

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…

22 thoughts on “Natural wine: Italian government crackdown

  1. Thank you for the quotation Jeremy. An executive officer of the ICQ (the responsible office of the Minister) speaking at radio24’s program “Il gastronauta” said Bulzoni was not charged “until now”. Anyway the problem remains. In my opinion the only solution is to adhere to the category of organic, even if the producers of “natural wines” are usually much more restrictive in their wine making process.

  2. The origin of the term “natural wine” is German, not French, and was a reaction to chaptalization in the 19th century. Producers opposed to chaptalizing referred to their wines as ‘natural’ (no matter what else they were doing to them).
    While the Italian authorities’ actions might seem heavy-handed — although there are competing versions as to what actually happened — there’s an important truth-in-advertising issue here. Words like ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ are widely misused by food and beverage producers, and I think it’s absolutely right that they should be monitored and permitted only when the products conform to defined standards. There are none for “natural wine” right now.

    • Properly the German don’t use the adjective “natural” alone, but together with “sweet” to indicate the content in sugar that remains into the wines (first of all, the “edelsuesse” wines, as the Mosel traditional rieslings) after the end of the fermentation.
      And, in my opinion explained in another post, that use is perfectly legal in the whole Europe. The problem is the use of the word “natural” by itself.

      • Natural wine for this new trend: “nothing added” (no sulfite, …)!
        I think from France (see Marcel Lapierre).
        For “Natural Sweet” from germany, it is also found in the south of France with “Vins doux naturels” (VDN) “Natural Sweet Wines”.

  3. I think we must all fight for the term ‘Natural wine’. Organic or Biodynamic doesn’t necessarily mean natural. Everyone of us involved in/with natural wines must explain that to friends and customers time and again. We will reach the goal eventually.
    The incident in Rome could have deeper routes though. Think of huge/industrial wine producers. They might feel a bit endangered by natural wine movements and increasing consciousnes of customers.

  4. Ceri and Levi, always great to see you here.

    This has been brewing for a few weeks (but I was offline and out of touch last week).

    It’s a crazy situation it’s really begun to reshape the discourse on this issue in Italy… of course it started in the enoblogosophere but now it’s pouring over into the mainstream media…

    • Because wine laws don’t work like that. They generally specify (a) what you must put on a label and (b) what you may put on a label, but not everything you can’t put on a label — because they would be forever updating a list of prohibitions to keep up with attempts to mislead and deceive consumers. “Natural” is in neither (a) nor (b) lists, so it’s not permitted, and I guess that goes for advertising, too, in Italian law.
      If you take the view that advertising a wine as “natural” is OK because there is no definition, then everyone could do it, and consumers would have no way of telling one wine from another, without doing a lot of research. I’m not sure how desirable that would be, and I could imagine “natural” winemakers would be up in arms if a major producer decided to advertise its wines that way. Call it “nanny” if you like, but the state might just be doing everyone a favour.

  5. On the labels and in the advertising related to wines it cannot be considered fair to use the expression “Natural wine”.
    Actually, each wine is both natural (it comes from a natural phenomenon – fermentation – of a natural stuff – grapes – ) and unnatural (no wine happens, all the wines are artificial, that means made according to the laws of an art by man).
    The CMO of the European Union ask loyalty in labelling and advertising, that means you cannot give informations, voluntarily, that may cause confusion about their meaning, particularly when you expect an economic advatage from that confusion.
    What can be showed on labels and advertising are the good practices of which the “naturality” of wine consists: use/non use of chemicals, use/non use of technologies, use/non use of preservatives and additives.
    Theese informations can be given without any problem, because they grat the accountabilty of the producer/seller/retailer: if it is not true that you didn’t clarify your wines using caseine, for instance, and I discover it thanks to a simple analisys, I can demonstrate that you lied and may charge you.
    But to demonstrate that a wine is natural or not is impossible, because the meaning of the adjective isn’t clear, so there is no accountabilty for the producer/seller/retailer that uses this expression. I. e., he gets an unfair (economic) advantage by using the expression “natural wine”.

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  8. Rod, the phrase “natural wine” as it is used today has very little to do with the 19th century German usage (Michele rightly point out the context in which the latter usage emerged). Let’s be clear: natural wine is an artifact of the writings and practices of the French chemist, perfume lover, négoce, and winemaker, Jules Chauvet, and his followers, notably the late Marcel Lapierre.

    • I agree with Lou Amdur even if, perhaps, the many users of the word “natural” in Italy don’t share the reasons and the culture of Chauvet and Lapierre. They are just trying to get an advantage thanks to what seems positive to consumers (actually, people seem to think to “natural” imagining lakes, sheep and Stravinskij music, not famine, smallpox and heartquakes, which are not less natural…), ready to change in a moment.
      The few that use “natural” in what they feel as a proper sense, have to front the leagl problems which I tried to describe and explain.

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  10. A very worrying incident! Please keep us all informed if there’s any news.
    1. The earliest reference to “natural wine” I’ve been able to find is from 1907, from the Languedoc. A quick search in Google will bring up quite a few results.
    2. I suppose this is another symptom of the ‘natural wine phenomenon’ coming of age! Not only is it certain chemical-industrial wine corporations and certain writers that are hostile, but now they’ve been joined by official authorities! Oh well! Who was it that said, in reference to new novelties in human affairs “First they laugh at you, then they attack you, lastly the accept you”? Looks like we’re at Stage 2 already! :)

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