Italian parliament poised to approve bill that would create an “Italian organic” brand and “organic districts.”

Above: over the last decade, organically branded food shops, like this ice cream shop and café, have flourished across Italy.

In late May, the Italian senate approved a sweeping bill that would create a new “Italian organic” brand, officially recognized “organic districts,” and sweeping subsidies for research, development, and monitoring of organic farming practices. The bill would also integrate the organic farming supply chain through government oversight.

The legislation, which is widely expected to be approved by the Italian chamber of deputies, was adopted with one vote in opposition and one abstention.

One point of contention was a brief and arguably vague line in the proposed legislation that would elevate the status of biodynamic agriculture, “putting it on a par with” organic agriculture.

Biodynamic farming’s embrace of spirituality and mysticism, say critics, including Italian senator for life Elena Cattaneo, who delivered an impassioned speech on the senate floor before the vote, make it a discipline not based on science.

Cattaneo, the only senator to vote against the legislation, lobbied unsuccessfully to amend the line about biodynamic agriculture. Her failed efforts were called a “resounding defeat” by the mainstream Italian media. In her address to her colleagues, Cattaneo, known for her groundbreaking work in stem cell research, called organic farming a “niche sector,” noting that it represents a small fraction of Italy’s farmland. She also pointed out that it would provide subsidies to fallow pastures where no food is produced.

The bill, she said, “offers no guarantee of greater health benefits or greater nutritional value” for Italian citizens.

In 2019, when the bill was first debated in the Italian parliament, Cattaneo called organic farming “a beautiful but impossible fairytale.” She and nearly 400 other Italian scientists signed an open letter to the Italian parliament in which they opposed the then nascent legislation.

“In order to justify pricing often double [that of conventionally farmed products],” she said at the time,

    we have been told that organic farming is the only way to save the world and help us to live longer and better. It’s an illusion. There is no scientific proof to confirm this. In fact, the opposite is true: analysis reveals that organic products are not qualitatively better and that large-scale organic farming is unsustainable inasmuch as it produces up to 50 percent less when it comes to top agricultural products. Large-scale organic farming would require twice as much land. In order to convert the world to organic farming, we would have to use hundreds of millions of hectares of currently fallow land, including forests and prairies.

Supporters of the bill see it as part of a wider EU initiative, known as “Farm to Fork,” to safeguard natural resources, to protect the environment, and to create a more robust organic farming supply chain across member states.

“We are extremely pleased that the senate has approved the bill,” said Maria Grazia Mammuccini, president of FedBio, a trade association that has lobbied aggressively for the creation of the “Italian organic” brand. “We have been waiting for this for more than 15 years. This much awaited legislation is finally moving forward.”

Cecilia Mangini’s lost films resonate powerfully today. Don’t miss the opportunity to stream them.

Above: Italian filmmaker Cecilia Mangini in Rome in 2020. She died in January of this year. Her films are now being rediscovered by a new generation of cinephiles (image via Wikipedia Creative Commons).

Honestly, until my good friend Ben Shapiro (a noted filmmaker himself) brought them to my attention, I was unaware of Italian director Cecilia Mangini’s wonderful pseudo-documentaries, which have recently been rediscovered, restored, and are now being streamed for free by Another Screen.

Her oneiric and highly lyrical depiction of the Italian proletariat (omg, did I just out myself as a Marxist?) in the 1950s and 1960s resonates powerfully today as the pandemic has drawn a stark line and divide between the world’s disenfranchised and the management class.

(A few days ago, a Galveston woman had to be escorted out of a bank after she refused to wear a mask despite the business’ requirement that patrons wear a mask. A police officer was tasked with getting her out of the bank in what became a tragicomic scene. Some will see a parallel between the police officer and the southern Italian Carabinieri who had to face off with bourgeois protesters in 1960s Italy. Pasolini, a Mangini collaborator, wrote extensively about them at the time.)

I highly recommend checking out the link on the Other Screen site. It makes for great viewing and I believe it’s free only until Monday (I also encourage you to donate to Another Screen to support their efforts in preserving film archives).

See this Times profile of Mangini from last year (how did I miss this?).

Buona visione. Enjoy the films. You won’t regret it.

The Pope’s vino: Vatican will produce estate-grown wine. Vineyards to be planted this spring.

Above: the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo in Castel Gandolfo township outside of Rome (image via Adobe Stock).

According to a post published Friday by the Italian wine industry news portal WineNews.it, the Vatican will plant two hectares to vine this spring on its Castel Gandolfo estate outside Rome, the Pope’s official summer residence.

Although the grape varieties remain unknown, the project will be overseen by top Italian enologist Riccardo Cotarella, one of Italy’s most prolific winemakers and one of the country’s earliest “flying winemakers.”

This is the first time that the Vatican will grow grapes on one of its estates for the production of its own wine, write the authors of the report. The wine won’t be available for sale, they note, but it will be used for sacramental purposes and will be given as gifts.

As Italy lifts dine-in restrictions, restaurant owners (and winemakers) see glimmer of hope.

Above: a classic Italian trattoria in Florence (image via Adobe Stock).

“Let me call you later,” wrote an Italian winemaker in a text message around 1:30 p.m. Italian time today. “I’m eating lunch in a restaurant for the first time since dining rooms were closed three months ago.”

In all but five Italian regions, restaurants were allowed to open again today, Monday, February 1. In some cases, like Lombardy in Northern Italy where said winemaker lives, dine-in service has been prohibited (intermittently depending on the city and/or province) for the last there months and beyond. And take-away service was only allowed until 6 p.m.

Restaurateurs and café owners will still be required to close their dining rooms at 6 p.m. nightly, although they will be able to continue take-away until 10 p.m. and home delivery service is allowed 24 hours a day where available.

The re-openings are welcome news to restaurant owners, winemakers and grape growers, and brewers alike. Especially in the case of small-scale wineries, independent regional restaurants are a primary outlet for sales. The lifting of restrictions will undoubtedly lead to a much-needed boost in orders. Restrictions on tasting rooms and independent wine shops, some of which are still in place, have also slowed recovery for winemakers.

With most of Italy now under “yellow zone” restrictions,

– customers can consume food and beverages inside from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m.;
– take-away food and beverages may be sold from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m.;
– restaurants may still fulfill take-away orders from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m.;
– but beverage take-away from cafés (without restaurant service) and wine shops is prohibited after 6 p.m;
– delivery service is allowed 24 hours a day.

“I walked into the restaurant,” said the winemaker, who was seated in a dining room together with the family of his business partner, “and I told them to make me whatever they wanted. Anything. I just wanted to sit down and enjoy my meal without thinking about anything else.”

Texas wine, food, media professionals: please join me for virtual tastings with Italian producers September 21-22.

Some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done has been for the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South Central. Previously covering just Texas but now also Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma (hence “south central”), the Houston-headquartered IACC is ranked number one among chambers in North America and number eight throughout the world.

Sorry, New York!

The IACC has achieved that status in part by mounting truly compelling events with top wine and food producers from Italy, leading wine and food professionals here in Texas, and high-profile journalists and tastemakers from across the U.S.

In March, the IACC would have presented the sixth annual Taste of Italy trade fair, the largest wine and food gathering in the U.S. devoted exclusively to Italian products and producers. I’m a consultant and emcee for the event. Last year, we hosted more than 100 producers and 500+ attendees.

This year, we’ve moved the event online: on Monday and Tuesday, September 21-22 wine and food professionals across the state of Texas will have the opportunity to attend one-on-one virtual tastings with producers in Italy via Google Meet.

And here’s the even cooler part: once you schedule your tasting appointments, the wines and food products will be delivered to your home or office. It’s that simple.

The other cool thing is that the IACC has partnered with a super groovy new platform called GrapeIn to coordinate the tastings (more on GrapeIn forthcoming).

If you are a wine and food professional or a culinary-focused social media user active in Texas, click here to see a list of participating wine and food producers. Click on the producers you’d like to taste with, indicate the time slot, and the IACC will take care of the rest.

This 100 percent virtual event represents an extraordinary opportunity to connect in real-time with Italian producers as you taste their products.

Please join me in just a few weeks as we explore some great Italian wines and foods. Ping me if you need more info or guidance. But it’s all pretty straightforward.

Austin, San Antonio, Dallas: I’m talking to you, too!

Oh and that photo at the top of this post? I took that in our kitchen. It gives you an idea of what these tastings will look and feel like.

I hope you can join me! Thanks for supporting Italian wine and food and the people who make them (in the comfort of your own home)!

Italian sisters and brothers, you are my heroes! This is what a life in wine can be like in the time of the pandemic.

My good friend Flavio Geretto, a top Italian wine professional, post this photo yesterday with the following caption: “Lunch and Prosecco blind tasting with the export team before the summer holiday break. During this difficult year we never stopped… and our aim is to continue in the same way!!!!”

Dinner was over, the kitchen was clean, and our daughters were in bed last night when Tracie and I turned on some music and sat down on the coach to catch up on news and social media.

One of the first images that appeared in my feed was the one above: my good friend Flavio Geretto (second from right) with the export team at the Villa Sandi winery in Valdobbiadene (I do media consulting for Flavio).

I turned to show it to Tracie.

“That’s what life in wine could be like,” I said, “if our country had the leadership and moral fiber to fight the virus. Italians are my heroes.”

Through their sheer resilience and deep sense of civic duty, the Italians have shown the world how we can learn to live with COVID.

Here in Texas where we “live,” our infection rates are high, countless people are suffering, and many are dying, and yet our state leaders continue to tie the hands of our local government despite our mayor and crisis manager’s pleas to let them lock our city down. It’s so plain to see: the Italians were quick to lock down their country once the scope of the pandemic became clear; they banded together — apart — to stop COVID’s spread; they wore their masks and maintained social distance; and now, across Italy, a normal life has resumed.

It’s a life where people can work and socialize without fear, as in the photo above of Flavio with his colleagues.

What the Italians have down is nothing short of heroic.

I’ll never forget texting with one of my single friends in northern Italy at the height of the health crisis there. He was holed up alone in his condo in the country end and we were extremely worried about his physical and mental health. He had no contact with anyone — anyone at all, not even his parents or sister — for weeks on end. Today, he goes out to lunch and dinner, sees his friends, and regularly receives tasters at his winery.

Wine professionals in America could be doing the same if it weren’t for the shortsightedness of our leaders and our utter lack of civic responsibility. We could be doing the same if our worldview didn’t boil down to why should I wear a mask to protect your health, why should I change my lifestyle so that others don’t suffer, why should I care that members of my community are dying at an alarming rate?

Where Tracie and I live, there’s no end to the crisis in sight. We are among the fortunate who work at home and have the means to live a decent life even while sheltering in place. But our community — our country — will never get back on track until our citizens embrace a sense of belonging and selflessness in the place of the egoism and myopia that continue to paralyze us.

Italians, you are heroes! How I envy you! How I weep and long for my America!

Letter from Italy: “Issues in our hospitality industry that need to be addressed as we rebuild” by Francesco Bonfio.

Today’s letter from Italy come from my good friend and one of the wine professionals I admire most, Francesco Bonfio, founder of the Italian Association of Wine Shop Professionals. He lives in the historic center of Siena. He shared the above photo of the Piazza del Campo where the city’s famous Palio is run twice each year.

Jeremy, I don’t need to tell you how terrifyingly painful it is to see Piazza del Campo without a single human being in it. I don’t need to tell you how frustrating it is that it’s highly likely that the people of Siena won’t be able to attend the two traditional runnings of the Palio on July 2 and August 16. They’ll be missing their main reason for living. The last time that it happened was because of the Second World War. It wasn’t run again until August 16, 1945 with Il Drago as the winner. Since that time, it’s never been suspended or cancelled.

Instead, I’d like to take advantage of your offer to share a letter from Italy by addressing the Italians who follow your blog. I know there are many of them out there.

Jeremy, I don’t know if you are familiar with the Italian saying, quando sei martello batti, quando sei incudine statti (when you are a hammer, strike your fill; when you are an anvil, hold you still). I believe it comes from the world of gambling. It means that when luck is on your side, you need to make the most of it by pushing yourself as far as you can. When, vice versa, you are in a moment of difficulty, you need to hunker down and stay put because the more you get worked up, the more damage you’ll do.

Right now, Italians are an anvil.
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Coronavirus unleashes panic across northern Italy.

Above: an illustration released today at noon (Italian time) by the Italian health ministry — 213 cases reported, 99 persons being treated at a hospital, 23 cases in need of intensive care, 91 persons in home isolation.

According to a report published this morning by the Italian national daily La Repubblica, a sixth person has died in Italy’s novel coronavirus outbreak.

The latest victim, report the editors, was a man in his 80s in Milan. All of those who have died from the virus have been more than 80 years old, they write.

You can see a map of areas where contagion has been reported here.

City streets are deserted and grocery store shelves emptied across northern Italy, where panic has gripped citizens in Piedmont, Lombardy, Trentino, and Veneto. In the southern Italian region of Puglia, officials are asking returning residents who work in the north to report their status upon their arrival there.

Italy’s emergency telephone number, 112 (similar to 911 in the U.S.), has been overwhelmed by callers who are seeking information about the outbreak.

At least 10 towns in Lombardy, where the outbreak is concentrated, are on lockdown, according to the most recent report by the New York Times.

Museums, schools, and churches are closed and all public gatherings have been postponed through Sunday, March 1.

Anecdotally, I’m hearing that lines at supermarkets are long and vital products are scarce. Nearly everyone who dares to go out wears a surgical mask (despite the fact that it doesn’t reduce your risk of being infected).

So far, I haven’t heard of any impact on the wine trade. But with industry fairs around the corner (Prowein next month and Vinitaly in April), some are concerned that the outbreak will impede attendance.

Italy’s winemakers dodged a bullet on February 14 when the U.S. government announced it wouldn’t be expanding wine tariffs to include Italian products. But many fear that the recent and rapidly evolving health crisis will ultimately have a negative effect on domestic sales. Today’s steep drop in global financial markets will certainly be viewed as an indicator of consumer confidence.

I’ll keep posting updates as more information becomes available.

Attention Italy-bound travelers: car rental companies now may require international driving permits

Although international driving permits for foreigners have been required by Italian authorities for decades, rental car agencies have rarely, if ever, insisted that drivers present a permit before renting a car there.

But that seems to have changed: two weeks ago, for the first time in my 30+ years renting cars and driving in Italy, the agent at the Hertz counter at Malpensa airport asked me to present my permit before she would give me the keys to a car.

When I asked her why she had asked me to show her my permit before she would release a car, she told me that her company has begun to check drivers’ permit status after Italian police had impounded vehicles driven by foreigners who lacked a permit.

Since the first time I rented a car in Italy back in the late 80s, I had read and been told that not having an international driving permit (IDP) could lead to stiff fines. And even though I have always obtained and renewed my IDP before traveling there, I had never been asked to present it — not by authorities or rental car agencies. I’ve been pulled over on a handful of occasions for random police controls (although I have never received a ticket or fine). When that happened, the police never asked me for my IDP. (I have been fined for speeding after receiving a ticket generated by a speed camera; see my post on my experience here.)

On its website, the Italian ministry for infrastructure and transportation clearly states that an IDP is required to drive in Italy. But, again, I had never heard of the law being enforced.

According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, “an international driving permit (IDP) translates your government-issued driver’s license into 10 languages. Although your U.S. driver’s license lets you drive in many foreign countries, the translations in the IDP are intended to minimize language barriers when you drive in countries where English is not widely spoken or understood.”

Only two agencies are authorized to issue IDPs in the U.S.: the American Automobile Association (AAA) or the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA). On its website, the commission also warns against “IDP scams.”

If, like me and countless other wine professionals, you’ll be headed to Italy this year and plan to rent a car, it’s worth the negligible fee and hassle for an IDP (I get mine at my local AAA office).