We see through a bottle, darkly…
I was dismayed to read Barbie Latza Nadeau’s most recent reporting on the Italian wine trade in a June 1 post on The Daily Beast.
The piece, which appears on one the world’s most popular English-language blogs (published by Newsweek), is laden with hyperbole and inaccuracy, not to mention spotty, yellow journalism.
I won’t speculate on what prompted Ms. Nadeau to write it. But I’d like to address some of the sweeping, sensationalist claims published by her and her editors.
The title reads: “Chateau Scam 2014: Italy’s Weird World of Wine Fraud.”
Is she aware that château is French? And is weird an appropriate descriptor for reporting of such egregious transgressions? In all fairness to Ms. Nadeau, it’s likely that her editors wrote the title.
The subtitle: “Italian police confiscated thousands of bottles of table wine masquerading as high-end appellations, some selling for as much as $25,000 each.”
A six-bottle lot of 1978 Giacomo Conterno sold for $14,400 and a single bottle of 1961 fetched $1,680 at Zachy’s in New York in 2009 (source: Blouin ArtInfo).
But these record-setting prices don’t come near the “$25,000 each” mark mentioned in Ms. Nadeau’s piece (again, it’s likely that the sub-title was written by her editor).
Most trade observers agree that G. Conterno’s Monfortino is one of Italy’s most expensive wines. French wines often sell for higher prices (in 2013, WineSearcher.com reported that “the average price of a bottle of Romanée-Conti [one of the world’s most expensive wines] sits at more than $13,000”).
But it’s highly improbable that the alleged bottles of counterfeit wine described in Ms. Nadeau’s piece would have been sold for “$25,000 each.”
“After a three-year investigation into suspected wine fraud in Italy,” writes Ms. Nadeau, “it appears increasingly likely that your vino tinto is actually vino finto, the Italian word for fake” [italics hers].
Is she aware that vino tinto is Spanish? I’d love to give her the benefit of the doubt but the pun is misinformed, misleading, and in bad taste (finto is an Italian word that can be translated as fake; vino is Italian for wine).
Ms. Nadeau reports: “Italian police confiscated 30,000 bottles of Brunello, Chianti Classico and Sagrantino di Montefalco from warehouses, wine merchants, grocery stores and restaurants after discovering that the bottles with the more expensive labels contained common table wine that is only worth about a dollar a liter.”
The amount of wine is substantial. But however serious the crime, it comes nowhere near the more than 9 million liters of wine reportedly confiscated in Italy in 2008 (see this post by Master of Wine and Oxford Companion to Wine editor Jancis Robinson and my excerpted translation of Italian news reports).
Yes, it’s true: wine adulteration is common throughout Europe and the U.S.
But 30,000 bottles represent a relatively small amount of wine when compared with the major counterfeiting scandals in recent memory. And Ms. Nadeau and her editors have greatly misrepresented the gravity of the allegations.
Italian authorities’ “wine fraud investigation, which began more than three years ago,” claims Ms. Nadeau, “was launched after wine importers in the United States complained that their expensive Italian reds tasted bitter.”
Beyond the fact that she gives no source for this claim, it’s hard to believe that U.S. importers would contact Italian officials lamenting that “their expensive Italian reds tasted bitter.”
“Bitterness” is hardly a criterion for the authenticity of wine. It’s simply laughable to think that a self-respecting U.S. importer would contact the Italian government with such a claim.
“The Italian scam,” notes Ms. Nadeau, “follows an even bigger case of fraud in the United States involving Rudy Kurniawan, a Chinese-Indonesian wine fraudster who reportedly netted more than $20 million selling counterfeit wine and defrauding several banks to take out loans to buy and sell his fake wines in exclusive auctions.”
The two scams are by no means related: based in the U.S., Rudy Kurniawan produced counterfeit bottles of coveted-vintage French wine that were sold to collectors at exorbitant prices; the Italian “scam” described by Ms. Nadeau appears to involve counterfeit bottles of current vintages of “high-end [Italian] appellations” produced in Italy and marketed to mid-tier consumers.
The fact that Italy and France continue to be plagued by wine counterfeiting schemes is newsworthy — no doubt.
But the Decanter writer seems to be more knowledgable about the context of the crime (and is thus more restrained and more accurate) and he also seems to be better versed in wine parlance (my favorite Nadeauism is “oaken barrels”).
(The story was originally reported by the Associated Press on May 29, 2014. It’s worth reading the original report: it gives you a sense of how this story evolved in Ms. Nadeau’s hands.)
The thing that irks me the most about Ms. Nadeau’s sloppy journalism is that she misses the point entirely. Failing to see the forest for the trees, she writes: “unless wine consumers have a sophisticated enough palate to discern whether their Brunello, Chianti or Sagrantino is the real deal, there is just no way to judge the bottle by its label.”
The true victim of this crime is not the unwitting consumer who doesn’t have a “sophisticated enough palate” (another fine example of Ms. Nadeau’s command of English). No, the real victims are the producers. The Italian and French appellations systems were conceived to protect them. And the good news is that the Italian authorities are working diligently to combat wine counterfeiting. Food and wine adulteration is one of the Italian government’s top priorities (pork, for example, is one of the most highly adulterated food products in Europe).
I feel bad for the consumer who cannot discern whether or not her/his Sagrantino is the “real deal.” No one wants to spend $80-100 on a counterfeit bottle of wine. But I feel even worse for Italian winemakers who have to pick up the pieces in the wake Ms. Nadeau’s irresponsible reporting.
After all, in veritate, vinum, not the other way around.