The (de)criminalization of alcohol in Italy

Above: Italy’s agricultural minister Luca Zaia is widely recognized as having an ego the size of the world’s largest panettone. Note the signature green pocket square (a nod to his separatist, xenophobic Northern League party) and his black tie (I’ll leave the semiotic analysis to the reader but fascism is always in the eye of the beholder).

“Incredible but true: I am in agreement with Zaia!” This was the title of a Facebook note that Franco posted yesterday after the ever-patriotic (patriotic, that is, if you consider the Veneto a sovereign state) Italian agricultural minister was quoted in a magazine interview as saying that Italy’s new “zero-tolerance” drunk driving law is excessive. Currently, “0.2 grams per liter of blood” is the legal limit, making the consumption of even one glass of wine illegal if you get behind the wheel. In the interview, published in Italy’s leading consumer automotive magazine, Quattro Ruote, Zaia proposed that it should be raised to 0.5 grams so that drivers will be allowed to have 2 glasses of wine as long as the alcohol content of the wine does not exceed 11%, in other words, as minister Zaia put it, as long as drivers are not consuming “structured” wines. (In a subsequently posted FB note, Franco suggested that minister Zaia take a full-immersion sommelier course: “where,” asked Franco, throwing his hands in the virtual FB air, “does he find wines with 11% alcohol content?”)

Zaia should know something about drinking and driving: although you won’t find it in his ill-translated and prolix Wikipedia entry, the forty-something minister used to work as a nightclub bouncer, or so I have been told by someone who knows him well.

I’ve been known to indulge in some of my own Zaia bashing, but today I’ll leave it to the experts.

And not that it’s any of my business, but Zaia is right: the new legal limit, which went into effect earlier this year and has been rigorously enforced with myriad check points, has led to senseless arrests and steep fines for food and wine writers, like Andrea dal Cero who lost his license in May after attending a spumante presentation in Emilia-Romagna.

Above: Just days before the event was to be held, organizers of the Taurasi Wine Fair canceled the convention, citing recent legislation that makes it illegal to serve alcohol at public events in town squares.

Italy (like Europe in general) has been wrestling with its relationship with alcohol and in some cases, the results have been disastrous, like the recent cancellation of one of the most important wine festivals in southern Italy, the Taurasi Wine Fair. See this editorial posted at VinoWire by the author of Divino Scrivere, Luigi Metropoli.

I sure hope that Italian pols will look closely and carefully at current legislation and I’m glad that Zaia is taking this issue seriously. After all, can you imagine how many folks will lose their licenses as they roll out of Vinitaly next April? If you’ve ever been caught in the post-fair traffic of the trade show (where there are never any traffic police to guide traffic and avoid grid lock), you get the picture.

A quixotic appeal to Brunello producers must not go unheard

One of Italy’s greatest and most polemical wine writers, Franco Ziliani is first and foremost a friend. He is also a mentor and a partner: together we edit the Italian wine world news blog, VinoWire. He was one of the first to encourage me to expand my own blog and the often self-deprecating honesty of his writing has always inspired me to examine my own perceptions of wine and wine writing. I like to call Franco the Giuseppe Baretti and Aretino of Italian wine writing today. That’s Franco and me, outside the Vini Veri tasting in April in Isola della Scala.

Today, Franco has posted an appeal to the director and president of the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (the Brunello Producers Association), demanding they step down in the wake of the Italian Treasury Department’s findings that members of the consortium have “cheated in commercial transactions” (the culmination of “Operazione Mixed Wine,” an investigation launched by Italian officials in September 2007). In lieu of their resignation, he is calling on the consortium’s estimated 250 members (the consortium does not publish an official number of members) to leave the body.

It is a quixotic appeal, no doubt, but a voice that must not go unheard.

The other day, I was dismayed to read a pusillanimously anonymous comment on Alfonso Cevola’s post on recent developments in Montalcino. “Italians love their ‘crisi,'” wrote the would-be pundit, who identified himself solely as Scott, “and it was wine’s turn after calcio [football] had the headlines for a while. As with all things Italian, life goes on and things work themselves out.”

This sort of stereotypical reductive attitude is entirely inappropriate and frankly offensive in this case. And it was authored by someone who doesn’t read beyond the sports page.

What happened in Montalcino is a tragedy and the omertà — the screaming silence — that followed is doubly tragic. Just go ask the many folks there — old and young (and I have asked them personally) — who have fought vigorously if not always successfully to protect the traditions of their land against the evils of globalization.

In other news…

Some good news has arrived from Montalcino today, in the form of a post by my friend Alessandro Bindocci who reports that the Regione Toscana has approved legislation lowering the maximum yields allowed for Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino.

Barbaresco and Barolo producers respond to negative reports in English-speaking press

Please read my translation of a press release issued just moments ago by the Barbaresco and Barolo producers associations.

I’m running out the door to do an Italian wine seminar in San Antonio (why do these things always get scheduled for the morning???!!!) and I will post more on this later — an issue that commands every Nebbiolophile’s attention!

In other news…

Today is Alice’s birthday. Happy birthday, Alice!

It’s also Randy’s birthday. Happy birthday Rev. B! (We all celebrated with him at his church yesterday in Orange). :-)

I had a great time in Orange for 4th of July weekend. Thanks again!

Brunello Scandal

Ne nuntium necare, don’t kill the messenger: I’m sorry to report that the the long-hinted-at Brunello scandal is now official. Today, the Italian daily La Repubblica published the first account based on interviews with local investigators. You can read my translation on VinoWire. Rumors regarding the scandal have been circulating for some time now and VinoWire has also covered the Brunello Consortium’s confirmation and subsequent denial of irregularities.

People have been talking about the impending scandal in hushed tones since January. But it was my friend and collaborator Franco Ziliani’s post last Friday that prompted investigators to go public.

Another Brunello controversy has also recently made news in English- and Italian-language blogs and websites: the Brunello Consortium recently asked a Californian winemaker to stop labeling his wine as Brunello.

The U.S. government does not regulate the usage of European appellation names in the labeling of U.S. wine produced in the U.S. When my band Nous Non Plus played in Seattle back in 2006, I snapped the below pic of an old wine list (I can’t remember of the name of the wonderful Greek restaurant harbor where we ate that day; the list below wasn’t the restaurant’s current list but the owners never took it down — I would imagine for nostalgia’s sake).

Gauging from the script and the wine names, I imagine this list dates back to the 1970s. I love “Gold, Pink, and Red Chablis” and “Pinot Gregio.” Who knows what was in those wines?