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.
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.