Above: Giuseppe Rinaldi at his winery in Barolo in 2010. Aggressive enforcement of EU regulations and the prospect of steep fines are forcing him to change the names of his wines.
Across the Italian wine world, producers and trade observers have been loudly protesting and denouncing new European Union regulations that restrict what wineries can and cannot say about their products on the internet and in other marketing materials.
I posted about it here a few weeks ago and leading Italian wine writer Luciano Ferraro wrote about it for the Italian national daily Corriere della Sera just last week.
Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini wrote an editorial about it some weeks ago for Slow Wine. In his piece, he robustly endorses the Italian Federation of Independent Grape Growers’ call for civil disobedience in the face of fines by authorities.
Basically it comes down to the following.
Although regional references are allowed in labeling (as long as the text is in accordance with highly detailed specifications for what can appear on the label and its font size etc.), they are not allowed in promotional materials.
As a result, a producer of Barolo (the appellation), whose winery lies in Barolo (the township), cannot write that her/his winery “is in Barolo” in her/his marketing materials.
In his article for the Corriere, Ferraro cites another potential example of a seemingly nonsensical restriction offered by Montalcino producer Donatella Cinelli-Colombini.
If a Tuscan winery property includes a farmhouse bed-and-breakfast and/or restaurant, she notes, said winemaker cannot use the word “Tuscany” in marketing materials. The results, she noted, would be devastating for the winery, who otherwise rightfully can lay claim to Tuscany and all that it evokes in marketing her/his products and services.
The EU marketing restrictions include other counter-intuitive measures as well. In one instance, the legacy Barolo producer Giuseppe Rinaldi (above) was forced to remove the reference to two vineyards on a single label for a blended wine. Even though his family has been bottling a blend of these two crus for generations, only one vineyard name is allowed by the Italian legislation modeled after EU regulation.
There is a logic to the restrictions, however misguided (and perhaps abused).
If a winery is located in Barolo township but doesn’t produce Barolo wine, the strict regulation of marketing verbiage prevents an unscrupulous winemaker from writing Barolo in marketing materials that could potentially confuse or mislead consumers (at least this is the logic that I was able to find in my research on the subject; see this abstract of an article from Wine Economics and Policy by Florence-based wine economics researchers).
Of course, there are dishonest bottlers out there and every time I visit an American supermarket, I am reminded that end users of Pinot Grigio and Prosecco are often deceived by less-than-earnest marketing practices.
But the damage being done in Italy, in my view, greatly outweighs the harm to my 80-year-old mother when she goes wine shopping. Wine trade oversight is intended to protect the producers first and foremost. After all, without them and their well being, we wouldn’t have the honest wine in the first place.
The new regulations have actually been in place since August 2009. But authorities have only now begun to enforce them fully.
And that’s why everyone is talking about it now: because authorities have begun fining winemakers and these nonsensical applications of the law are coming to light.
Small Italian wineries like Rinaldi’s have become the Davids to the European Union’s Goliath wine marketing regulation. But there’s a lot more at play than just wine marketing.
The Great Recession and stark austerity measures have led to growing discontent and disillusionment among European Union citizens. Today, there is a widespread feeling among regular people that Brussels (the synecdoche EU capital) doesn’t hold their traditions and aspirations in high regard.
And this is why I believe that wines like Prosecco Col Fondo matter more than ever.
The Prosecco Col Fondo movement emerged right around the time that the new EU policies came into effect.
Its epicenter was a small group of likeminded and mostly youthful growers and winemakers who wanted to revive a generational tradition of winemaking that had all but disappeared: bottle-fermented, undisgorged, ancestral-method Prosecco, a style that was eclipsed by the Charmat method in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Over zealous enforcement of poorly conceived, however well intentioned, policy will stifle the spirits of young winemakers who want to preserve the legacy and continuity with the past.
Anyone who follows Italian wine — and anyone whose ever spent time in Italy, for that matter — will tell you that unique local tradition is what makes Italian wine so special.
As an expression of that youthful embrace of artisanal tradition, Prosecco Col Fondo represents a vital element in Italy’s future as a producer of wine that transcends its mere value as a luxury product.
It would be a tragedy to see such spirit disappear from the horizon of Italian wine.
If you happen to be in San Francisco this week, please come out and taste with me at Ceri Smith’s amazing shop Biondivino. I’ll be there tomorrow, pouring one of my favorite expression’s of Prosecco Col Fondo by my client Bele Casel. Please click here for details.