In 2008, not long after Barack Obama had been elected as the 44th President of the United States, one of Italy’s highest-profile wine guides televised its annual wine awards gala on national television.
During the course of the broadcast, one of the presenters mused that the newly elected U.S. president’s favorite wine must be Brunello or Nero d’Avola. Translated literally, the former means brownish while the latter could be rendered as black [grape] from [the town of] Avola.
It was around the same time that Italy’s prime minister told reporters that he liked Obama because he was “young, handsome, and tanned.”
Can you imagine the outcry if an Italian winemaker or wine writer were to make similar comments today? What would happen if a public figure from France were to speculate that Obama’s favorite wine must be Pinot Noir (black Pinot)?
Over the last few months, I’ve heard from a number of American wine writers and wine professionals who have expressed concerns about racism in the Italian wine trade. One of them sent me the link to the website of a high-profile Italian winemaker.
The screenshot above comes from the landing page. The image was created using a rights-free stock photo to which the designer added the text on the cardboard sign the woman is holding (in the original photo, the text read: “the future is female”).
“Is this winemaker a racist?” he asked me.
Honestly, I don’t have an answer. But it’s clear that they are tone-deaf to what’s happening across the world today in terms of anti-racist reckoning.
As Americans passionate about Italian wine, we often tend to buy into the superficial and sometimes feigned progressive attitudes of Italian winemakers. Who can forget the notorious case in 2013 when a celebrated Italian natural wine producer posted repulsive and egregiously racist comments about Italy’s then minister of integration? (Few recall the blowback against American wine professionals who publicly declared that they wouldn’t sell said winemaker’s wines anymore and against American wine writers who wrote about the affaire.)
Part of the problem — the disconnect — is the language barrier. But the overarching issue, in my view, is that we tend to consider the wine without taking a broader look at the culture that produced it. Viticulture, after all, is also a reflection of culture.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the overwhelming majority — and let me just repeat that — the overwhelming majority of Italian winemakers I know personally is on the right side of the racism and anti-racism dialectic. They, like us, are reckoning with their personal and national attitudes on race as they, like us, continue to evolve as anti-racists.
But sadly, if we dig a little bit deeper and scratch below the surface, we often discover that the wines we love are raised by people whose attitudes on race may diverge significantly from our own. And of course, there are also racists among us who continue to embrace those wines and the winemakers who produce them.
Over the last few weeks, a number of prominent natural wine advocates have distanced themselves from a young and outwardly progressive winemaker whose family has been implicated in a human exploitation investigation. Everyone I’ve spoken to in that region of Italy tells me that most people “on the ground” suspected that the family engaged in questionable employment policies. But in their own statement on the ongoing inquiry, the young winemaker and family member insinuates that they themself had no knowledge of any wrongdoing.
Where does the answer lie? Those are the hard questions we need to be asking.
In the 1920s, when the American poet Langston Hughes visited Italy for the first time with his friend Romeo, the townsfolk of Desenszano offered him vino nero — black wine.
“Later that night,” wrote Hughes in his autobiography, “Romeo explained to me that never in Desenzano, so far as he knew, had there been a Negro before, so naturally everybody wanted to look at me at close hand, and touch me, and treat me to a glass of vino nero. Romeo said they were all his friends, but hardly would the whole theater have rushed into the street between reels had it not been for me, a Negro, being with him.”
Can you imagine how a black wine lover would feel today if something similar happened to them? Can you imagine how a black woman feels when they land on the website of Italian winemaker and see an image like the one above?
Let me just say it once more, those are the hard questions we need to be asking if we want to be anti-racists in wine — and life.