Angelo Gaja for president?

angelo gaja new york

Above: I took this photo of Angelo Gaja when I met with him in June 2012. He’s in his 70s and looks great. Angelo Gaja for president? Why not?

“The most important battles to fight,” once said traditionalist Barolo producer Teobaldo Cappellano, “are those which you know you cannot win.”

Surely there was a quixotic spirit behind this utterance (he was referring to the traditionalist opposition to Brunello’s inevitable slide into modernism).

But he was also embracing a notion — very Italian at its core — that taking a stand, even when a last and inconsequential stand, has an indisputable intrinsic value that may transcend the stakes in play (does anyone remember the Alamo?).

In the wake of two weeks that our family just spent in Italy (eating and drinking, playing music, and attending the wine fairs), one thing has become abundantly clear to me: Italians have their backs to the wall. The financial crisis, the Euro crisis, and the Italian frugal spirit have the Italian everyman everyperson in a chokehold.

Everywhere I went, winemakers and restaurateurs repeatedly began their discourse with the expression, con i tempi che corrono (in times like these). People simply aren’t spending the money that they used to. I watched one of the richest men in the Veneto sit down at one of the best restaurants in the province of Treviso and order an Euro 8 bottle of wine.

Extreme times call for extreme measures. It didn’t come as too much of a surprise when I received a press release last week from Vinarius, the association of Italian enoteca owners, in which the authors put forth Angelo Gaja as their candidate for President of the Republic.

birreria pedavena brewery

Above: While in Italy, we visited the beer garden where my band used to play in the 1990s before the Tangentopoli bribe scandal. The mural depicts Italian history through the fascist era, when the gesso was painted. Today, the main dining room is used for “lapdance” evenings (note the pole).

Italy has had pornstar politicians (most famously Staller) and today its “kingmaker” anti-establishment and anti-status-quo Five Star Movement party is headed by a comedian.

So why not a winemaker? After all, the role of President of the Republic (largely ceremonial and not to be confused with the executive Prime Minister or “President of the Council”) has been previously fulfilled by a winemaker (and iconic economist), Luigi Einaudi, Italy’s second president.

According to the president of Vinarius, Andrea Terraneo, who issued the press release last Thursday:

    Gaja represents all Italians inasmuch as he is a citizen, a worker, and a symbol of excellence. He is a leader in the world of agriculture and in the view of Vinarius, his candidacy would be a true resource in an extremely complex economic moment…

    [He] is by far one of the world’s best known Italian wine world personalities. He possesses extraordinary moral and empathetic characteristics and he has the charisma needed to perform such an important role.

While Italian politicians hardly seem to have taken notice, Italian wine industry observers have set about commenting the implications of a Gaja candidacy (just Google “Gaja” and “presidente” and you’ll find all the links, including posts that have appeared in some of the country’s leading wine blogs and mastheads).

However ceremonial the office, the President of the Republic is the only one who can dissolve parliament and call for new elections. (The current president, Napolitano, who is at the end of his seven-year term, cannot call for new elections because the Italian constitution forbids him from doing so in the last six months of his tenure.)

The austerity and financial crises are only exacerbated by the fact that Italy hasn’t had a government since February elections failed to produce a coalition (according to reports today, Berlusconi would be the next PM “by a hair” if the vote were held today).

And beyond the technical issues that the government-less nation faces, there is also the issue of morale in a Europe that increasingly looks to Italy as one of the sources of its financial ills (the Euro crisis was what forced Berlusconi out of power last year).

Gaja for president? It could only do the country good. The only problem, as Franco Ziliani noted the other day on his blog (one of the most popular and most controversial wine blogs in Italy), is why would anyone who is already King [of Barbaresco] accept a demotion to president?

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