Requiem for the Scandal that Wasn’t Quite

I know I promised a post on Morellino di Scansano, and it’s coming, I swear. But something has come up that I can’t resist commenting on.

Decanter Magazine very briefly reports on page 10 of its current issue (October 2009) that the “Brunello saga nears its end.” After a protracted investigation of alleged adulteration of prestigious and pricey Brunello di Montalcino wines, Decanter reports, two of the “alleged perpetrators,” Biondi Santi and Col d’Orcia, were cleared of any wrongdoing, while the remaining five – Antinori, Argiano, Banfi, Casanova di Neri [see update at end of this post], and Frescobaldi – seemingly remain accused of using unauthorized grape varieties to make Brunello. (Any grape variety other than Sangiovese would be unauthorized: Brunello should be 100 percent Sangiovese.)

 According to Decanter, 17 individuals have been found to have “cheated in commercial transactions” and “falsely certified public documents.”  No names were named, no details provided. Three of the wineries had nothing to say, while Banfi and Argiano insist that their wines have already been cleared by the authorities.

Brunello label Let’s proceed in reverse order. Banfi and Argiano are correct in their assertions, as you can see for yourself by walking into a good wine shop and buying a bottle of Banfi’s splendid 2004 Brunello, which sports the official DOCG seal. Both wineries’ 2004 had been among the vintages sequestered by the Italian prosecutor earlier in the investigation, and only wines that had been cleared of any admixture were released from captivity, allowed to wear the official Brunello di Montalcino DOCG designation, and cleared for sale and export.

 How they were cleared is anybody’s guess, since there is no test or analysis that can reliably determine the kinds of grapes that make up a completed wine. That is, the charge of improper blending, once made, is virtually undisprovable – and equally unprovable. So the release of, for instance, the Banfi 2004 Brunello, can only mean that the paper trail that every Italian winery is supposed to keep of every grape that goes into their wines was letter-perfect, and there was nothing whatever to justify suspicion about the makeup of the wine.

 The kind of vagueness that marks the accusations against the 17 unnamed persons – remember, as of this date, no official charges have yet been laid, and they may never be – is typical of the trial-by-innuendo-in-the-press that has marked this would-be scandal from its start. Italian prosecutors operate by different rules than do American DAs, and they can get away with the kinds of statements that here would call forth either libel suits or public demands for details. This in turn means that anyone with a grudge or a career ambition can keep a high-profile investigation going far beyond its original scope or natural lifespan. Anyone here remember the Whitewater investigation?

The inclusion of the name Biondi-Santi in the original list of alleged wrongdoers is laughable. No one is more justly esteemed in Montalcino than Franco Biondi-Santi, and no one is more devoted to the total purity of Brunello than this descendant of the original definer of the wine. He not only uses only Sangiovese, he uses only his own family’s special clone of it. The suggestion that he would adulterate Brunello amounts to saying that we’re all planning to murder our mothers. So his name in this connection can only have been a conscious ploy to show that no one is above suspicion – in other words, a PR trick to show the investigation as impartial.

Finally, what has been at stake in these not-quite-charges? No one has even remotely claimed that anyone is palming off cheap wine as expensive Brunello. If they have, I haven’t seen or heard it. No, the main fuss has been about the mixing of apparently small quantities of other grape varieties into Brunello. That is serious, of course, because it involves the integrity of a DOCG designation. Has anyone actually been doing this?  Probably – some out of belief that a little whiff of Cabernet makes Brunello a better wine (besides, “it’s what the market wants”), some trying to improve their wine in a bad year for Sangiovese (2002 and 2003 come to mind, but then they were pretty bad for almost every variety), some just because they have these other grapes and they might as well use them – probably.

 American consumers seem to have cared very little about the case, which I think is an appropriate response to its insubstantiality. This is a problem not for consumers but for the Consorzio, which is responsible for enforcing the DOCG regulations. In a scenario that should be familiar to all of us, however, the Consorzio has been given responsibility without – to the best of my knowledge – either the authority or the budget to enforce those regulations on almost 200 cellars, 300 growers, and even more vineyard sites. It doesn’t appear, however that those facts will save the Consorzio from being scapegoated in this fiasco. After all, this was a big deal in Italy, with lots of newspaper stories and hints of the darkest malfeasances. Clearly someone has to be seen to be punished, and it sure won’t be the prosecutor.

October 1, 2009, Update:  I just learned that Casanova di Neri has been completely cleared of wrongdoing by the government.  In fact, it appears that the estate has been cleared for some time now, but has simply been the victim of news stories that repeated earlier accusations without any further investigation.  Needless to say, neither was any effort made by the prosecutor’s office to clarify the situation.

4 Responses to “Requiem for the Scandal that Wasn’t Quite”

  1. William D. PANNELL AM Says:

    I have drunk several Brunellos over the years and found them all to taste rather as though they had been badly stored ,heat affected and oxidised. Believing that there must be more to Brunellos ( given all the hype ), my wife and I travelled half way around the world ( armed with Kerin O’Keefe’s book), and spent a great deal of money in restaurants and oenotecas trying to find a Brunello of genuine quality. ( The producers don’t seem to welcome visitors and do not offer barrel tastings when you do get to see them).
    Sadly we have to report that everything we tasted mirrored our previous experience: wines which were brown in colour, over- extracted and totally lacking in varietal expression.
    The aspect of all of this which we found rather interesting is that one only has to travel some 30km to the east (where producers such as Ferrari at Boscarelli ) or north to Chianti Classico (where the likes of Fontodi, Castello Di Ama and Isole e Olena )are making absolutely gorgeous wines with vibrant colours and clear expression of Sangiovese varietal character.
    What is all the fuss about Brunellos then? American tasters employ descriptors such as ” balsamic” and ” grilled hamburgers” in their discussion of these wines. I am something of a connoisseur of aceti balsamici and am more than partial to a good hamburger, but prefer such flavours on my plate and not in my wine.These are ( in my humble opinion ), coarse, rustic, poorly vinified wines .
    One is repeatedly regaled ( by the Montalcino locals ) as to the virtues of ” traditional methods”. This is all very well if those methods are producing quality wine . I can assure you that, in the early 1980’s, Piedmontese Barolos were brown in colour and tasted bitter and oxidised, much as the Brunellos do today. The Montalcinese would be well advised to emulate the Piedmontese winemakers in the adoption of more enlightened wine-making techniques. That said, there is no need to ” throw out the baby with the bath- water”. The Piedmontese ( and their Burgundian cousins ) have retained the best that traditional techniques have to offer while improving upon them with introduction of modern technology ).
    When all is said and done, the critical feature of any wine is the level of enjoyment it affords when consumed with a hearty meal. I have to report that ( after a week spent in southern Tuscany tasting numerous Brunellos ), my wife and I, whose palates have been finely honed on the best of Burgundy ( together with the occasional Bordeaux and Rhone ), absolutley refused to drink any more of them and we spent the rest of the vacation drinking Chianti Classico and the occasional Pinot Nero from Alto Adige!

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      I am truly sorry that you’ve had such a miserable experience of Brunello, but I’m equally mystified. Over many trips to the zone (as well, of course, as to other Tuscan wine zones), my tasting experiences have been very different from yours — in fact, I’ve encountered far more “brown, over-extracted, un-varietal” wines (forgive the paraphrase) in Chianti Classico than in Montalcino. I would agree that over-extraction is a widespread fault in Italian wines: you can encounter it anywhere (especially in Piedmont, I find): It’s part of the learning curve for Italian winemakers, who have moved in the past 50 years from essentially medieval techniques to the most modern, with very little time to absorb and/or modify any of the effects of each change on their wines, and all the time trying to please that constantly moving target, the market.

      All that said, it doesn’t excuse bad wines, and I have no explanation of your encountering so many. It just hasn’t been my experience, or the experience of many colleagues and acquaintances (American, British, Dutch, German, Austrian, Japanese, etc.). I disagree with you profoundly in your description of the Barolos of the Eighties, many of which were — and some of which still are — magnificent wines. And I of course disagree completely that Brunellos as a class are “coarse, rustic, and poorly vinified.” The winemaking techniques of the Brunello zone are with few exceptions fully as modern as any in Piedmont, or France, or the US, for that matter. But if they taste bad to you, then you are right not to drink them. Our palates are clearly very different, and no amount of explanation will change that.

      By the way: It is true that it is very difficult for non-professionals to visit Brunello estates. But that is not peculiar to Montalcino: It is not the norm in Italy to receive “civilian” visitors, and very few estates anywhere are set up to entertain them.

  2. Tom Maresca Says:

    I think it’s hard for Italians to be calm about this because for them it seems to involve a symbolic flashpoint. Brunello is so prestigious an appellation, that — so it seems to me they’re thinking — if it can be manipulated in any way at all, then what does that say about the DOC system? Even if the alleged manipulation turns out to be either innocuous or totally non-existent, I get the impression that many Italians feel that the integrity of the whole Italian wine enterprise has been undermined. Even in a worst-case scenario — i.e., that there should be extensive, widespread manipulation of the wine — I think that would be n exaggerated reading of the situation, but I get the very strong impression that is the way many Italians feel, and why they can’t take the episode at all calmly.

  3. tom hyland Says:

    As usual, a well thought out piece, Tom. Once you get away from the firestorm, you can understand a situation better. Calm heads need to prevail.And as you said, this is not a big deal to Americans.

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