Zaia watch: Italy’s agriculture minister’s tenure much ado about nothing?

It’s already been a big week for Italy’s agriculture minister Luca Zaia, left (note the signature black tie and the green pocket square, both very powerful and provocative symbols for a public minister who’s role is to protect the best interests of the entire country).

His recent and controversial call to arms, exhorting Italians to drink only Italian sparkling wine on New Year’s eve, has been the subject of a tide of chatter in the Italian blogosphere. I agree with Franco when he writes that the self-proclaimed prince of Prosecco is a servant to self-serving provincialism and his “despotic” exhortation reeks of the same self-serving italianità that prevailed in another era in his country when the trains ran on time.

Zaia was also the subject of a wonderfully satiric but ultimately poignant post by the Italian Wine Guy, “The Mark of Zaia.” IWG’s insights are invaluable here and his overview tracing the trajectory of Zaia’s meteoric rise is as frightening it is revelatory.

But the biggest news to arrive from Zaialandia this week was the breaking however much anticipated story that he has received the nomination from separatist, secessionist, racist, and xenophobic political party Lega Nord (Northern League) as its candidate for soon-to-be vacant governorship of the region of the Veneto. He even has a shiny new Facebook fan page for his candidacy.

As Franco pointed out in a recent post, the news is good and bad: on one level, many observers, including those of us who sell and promote Italian wine abroad, will be happy to see the Venetophilic pol leave a position he had no business occupying in the first place (I’ve been told that Zaia started his professional career as a nightclub bouncer); on another level, the news is bad since, in the light of the fact that Zaia will probably win the election and become governor of the Veneto, he will be the leader of one of Italy’s richest and most important wine-producing regions (home to some of Italy’s most important exported wines, namely, Prosecco and Amarone).

The news inevitably fills me with sadness. Ultimately, Zaia’s tenure as the steward of Italian agriculture and the Italian wine industry, was the product of political posturing and maneuvering. An ambitious and able politician, Zaia clearly had set his sights on higher political office and when Berlusconi appointed him agriculture minister, it was not because Zaia was the best man for the job but rather as a political payback to the Lega Nord for their support in Berlusconi’s 2008 bid to reattain the prime minister’s office.

Photo courtesy Alexnews.

Sadly — for Italy, Italians, Italian winemakers, and foreign lovers and promoters of Italian wines — Zaia has presided over one of the greatest crises in the history of contemporary Italian winemaking. And it was all much ado about nothing.

His frequently updated blog has never even made note of the recent news that a new adulteration scandal has surfaced in Tuscany.

In Lombardy, there’s a self-effacing, ironical joke that the intellectuals tell about the peoples of northern Italy, based on a folkloric paradox, probably uttered by an old man on the streets of Milan not so many years ago: Rasista mi? Ma se l’è lü che l’è negher! [You’re calling] me a racist? But he’s the one who’s black! (In an essay he published after Berlusconi’s famous gaffe calling Obama “tan” following the 2008 elections, Umberto Eco cites this phrase as an example of northern Italians lack of self-awareness.)

I can’t help but be saddened to think that the Veneto (my beloved Veneto!) will be governed by a racist, xenophobic man who has asked Italians to boycott Chinese restaurants, to avoid eating pineapple, and to open only Italian bubbles on New Year’s eve (Prosecco perhaps?), a man would almost certainly tell the above joke without the self-effacing irony.

But for him to achieve such self-awareness and to grasp its irony would be like the teapot calling the kettle black.

“Thank you Northern League, thank you minister Zaia.”

Historically and traditionally, Tuscany is one of Italy’s “red” states. And “red” in this case, does not denote “republican” but rather “communist.” (Emilia-Romagna is Italy’s other traditionally “red” region.)

So it came as something of a surprise to many when Montalcino residents draped their village with the following slogan on the occasion of Agricutlure minister Luca Zaia’s press conference last month, where he announced the “resolution” of the Brunello crisis: “Thank you Northern League, thank you minister Zaia.” That’s Zaia, pictured left, in his “I saved Brunello” press photo. Note the green pocket square — a symbol of the Northern League — and his black tie, a powerful and ideologically charged statement in a region where many still remember the thuggery of Mussolini’s camicie nere or black shirts.

Italy’s separatist Northern League is a secessionist, xenophobic political movement, led by anti-Italian, racist Umberto Bossi. Bossi, pictured left, recently caused a furor in Italy when he began flipping off the Italian national anthem. He has also said he believes the Italian flag should be used as toilet paper. The humor in the video below may be lost on some of you who don’t speak Italian but watch it anyway. You’ll notice Zaia in the front row at one of Bossi’s speeches. The Lega is part of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s current center-right coalition and when Berlusconi returned to power in May 2008, he made Zaia agricultural minister (no doubt, payback to the Lega for its support).

In nearly every one of Zaia’s press releases and statements on the Brunello controversy, he has been quick to accuse Italy’s center-left coalition, led by Romano Prodi, of inaction and ultimately has laid blame on his predecessor for the current crisis (whereby a local investigation of Brunello producers suspected of adulterating their wines has led to a U.S. block of imports from Montalcino).

So it must have come as a great surprise to Montalcino’s neighbors up in Montepulciano when they learned Friday that the U.S. Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has now blocked imports of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. According to a report published by my friend Mitch Frank over at The Wine Spectator, the TTB made the move after receiving no response to requests for information on the current investigation of Vino Nobile producers (who are also suspected of adulterating their wine).

In the meantime, Zaia has been working to improve perception of Italian wine abroad by authorizing the bag-in-box packaging of DOC wine. I guess he thinks that Sangiovese will be easier to market in a box. He just needs to remember to open the mail from America first…

Nice going, Zaia! Thank you Northern League and thank you Minister Zaia!

Italian Wine Guy did this fantastic post on Zaia in July. I only wish Zaia could speak English well enough to understand the paronomastic parody!

I’m not a fan of Wikipedia but this entry on the Lega Nord is informative.