Banfi, Brunello, and the Wall Street Journal

Above: When I made my annual pilgrimage to Montalcino in September of this year, I took time out to visit the monument at Montaperti, commemorating the 1260 battle there between the Guelphs of Florence (the Papacy) and the Ghibellines of Siena (Holy Roman Empire).

In her recent interview on the Wall Street Journal wine blog, “Co-CEO” of Banfi Christina Mariani states that the Brunello controversy of 2008-2009 “was just to make the press… Everyone was cleared, including us.”

When Italy’s top wine blogger Mr. Franco Ziliani (and co-editor of our blog VinoWire) reposted the interview on his blog last week, another top Italian wine blogger, Gian Luca Mazzella, posted links to two entries on his blog in the comment thread of Franco’s post: as he points out in his comment and one of the referenced posts (published by the Italian national daily Il Fatto Quotidiano on October 19, 2010), widely circulated accounts in Italy’s mainstream press reported that Banfi accepted a plea agreement in the Italian treasury’s “Operation Mixed Wine” investigation (where authorities alleged that certain Brunello producers had adulterated their wines, adding unauthorized grapes). It’s worth noting here that Il Fatto Quotidiano is one of Italy’s leading national newspapers.

The only wineries that were officially “cleared” were Biondi Santi and Col d’Orcia (a fact also widely circulated in the Italian mainstream press).

In fact, even Banfi’s current managing director, Enrico Viglierchio, told the Wine Spectator that the company had agreed to declassify some of its wine in an agreement with investigators (note that the title of the article is “Banfi’s Brunello Cleared”; the wine, not the winery, was “cleared” after the company agreed to declassify certain lots).

The Ghibellines won the battle but lost the war. Ultimately, the battle’s outcome consolidated the Pope’s power in Tuscany and a new era of Florentine and Papal dominance began.

You’ll note that I am merely reporting what has been written in Italy — before and after Mariani’s recent interview (if so inclined, please click on the links above and read my translations of Italian news reports and the report in the Spectator).

Out of respect for Ms. Mariani (and for a good friend of mine who works closely with her), there is no note of sarcasm nor sardonic editorial here.

I would like to address, however, one of her statements. In the interview, she tells wine writer Lettie Teague (one of our country’s most popular enojournalists and author and a super nice lady whom I know through our professional correspondence and tastings we’ve attended together): “If it’s not a health issue, it’s not an issue for consumers…”

She’s right: the appellation regulations that require Brunello producers to use only Sangiovese in their wine were written and approved by the producers themselves to protect the producers and appellation — not the consumer. In other words, the regulations were conceived to protect those producers who play by the rules in an appellation where 80% of the wine was being made with the addition of unauthorized grapes, according to producers association current president Ezio Rivella who served as Banfi’s managing director until 1999 and left the company after working in Montalcino since 1977 (and with the Mariani family since 1961).

The battle and the events and political turmoil that followed (particularly the papacy of Boniface VIII) are central to Dante’s poem, the Comedy, and the overarching mission of his life — to achieve separation of temporal and spiritual powers in Europe, a notion dear to the forefathers of our country (did you know that Thomas Jefferson, a winemaker, spoke and read ancient Italian and could quote the Comedy from memory?).

Why did I incorporate images of the pyramid at Montaperti in this post?

I don’t get to Montaperti every year. In fact, I hadn’t been there in probably 10 years or so. I studied the Battle of Montaperti when I was a graduate student and have been fascinated with it since then. The 1260 battle there is central to Dante’s poem and its political themes. It marked the beginning of Siena’s decline as a world power and an era of political and human upheaval in Tuscany and Italy. (Montalcino is in the province of Siena, btw.)

As for the Sienese Ghibellines who won the battle at Montaperti but ultimately lost the war, their micro-state (city state) was ultimately absorbed by the greater power of Florence. I’ll let the reader infer any analogy that can be made here.

Thanks for reading. Tomorrow, I’ll pick up where we left off, posting about family get togethers and great wines we’ve been drinking with loved ones during the holiday season.