Category Archives: Italian Politics

Rebuilding an Italian Village: Who Wants a Project?

We’re in on this.  Who wants to help do this sort of thing?  Taking all applications.

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No, seriously…this sounds like a dream endeavor.  Thanks to the talents of Raphael and Doug Sassi, we certainly have the art, art history, and building talent to do it.  We just need a few partners.

Tempted?  Let’s go!

Will Anyone Save Venice?

Interesting Venice related political rant makes the NYT Op-Ed section.  Good read on the need for sustainable tourism and how Italy’s local graft and incoherent national approach to politics isn’t helping Venice.  Our comment was submitted to the NYT, we’ll see if they publish it.

“No effective provision on Venice’s behalf has been enforced so far by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, although protection of environment and cultural heritage is among the fundamental principles of the Italian Constitution.”

This is the maddening bit, right here–the Italians know what treasures they have, but their internal bureaucracy and graft prevent meaningful responses to crises like this. Local authorities being at odds with Rome over preservation is an understatement, as il Sindaco, the mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro is unabashedly and unashamedly in cahoots with the cruise ship biz, and makes no secret of his favoritism toward destructive tourism. Venice needs visitors, but it needs responsible, sustainable tourism, which is the only kind we’ll engage in. Please, visit Venice, but do it in the off season, don’t take a cruise ship but instead arrive by train or water taxi from VCE just across the lagoon, and stay in locally owned boutique hotels, and eat in family run restaurants away from the tourist traps close to San Marco that cater to the cruise ship crowds. Please, to help preserve Venice for future generations.

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The Vietti Sale and What It Means for Piemonte

Our wine-educating social media friend Keith writes an insightful blogpost about the sale that has the wine world abuzz at the moment.  Even if you’ve never heard of or tasted a Vietti wine, this subject should still be of interest to you if you’re reading this, as you’re likely a person like us–someone who appreciates how Italy has managed to stay true to its locavorist, slow food loving, artisanal wine making roots in the 21st century (something increasingly difficult it seems).

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The short version:  an historic Barolo producer, Vietti–hungry for working capital, and feeling pressure as farmers whose grapes they rely upon started wanting to sell off their properties instead of renew contracts to produce the high quality fruit that Piemontese winemakers live and die by–agreed to a sale of the Vietti brand, its wine production, and its acreage in Castiglione Falletto to Krause Family Holdings, the ownership interest of quite possibly the worst brand name globally for gas stations I’ve come across (Kum and Go…yes, really, that’s what they’re called).

Looking for more insight into Vietti’s Luca Currado’s motivations, I listened in on Levi Dalton’s podcast interview where the subject of the sale was delved into (mentioned in Keith’s blogpost).   Interesting discussion worth a listen; that said, the line of questioning Levi takes left me wanting for some more probing questions.

Luca talks at great length about the scary economics facing Piemontesi wine producers, and seems to understand that he was going to face criticism locally and abroad for selling to an American corporate interest, but also stresses repeatedly that he retains creative control over wine production.

Questions I was left wondering about (from interacting with him on Twitter, I get the distinct impression Levi wasn’t happy with my assessment, alas…but inquiring minds want to know):

  1. For how long does that control over wine making last?  Until his retirement?  His death?  What happens if his children don’t want to continue in the wine producing tradition?  What then?
  2. Details about the transaction are sparse, but articles discussing it in wine related publications suggest the Krause family is to be consulted about “strategy and major decisions”.   What constitutes a “major decision”?  Does the Krause family essentially have a veto power when major decisions need be made?
  3. Wine production is a high risk business, and Vietti like all Piemontesi vignaioli is never more than one hail storm away from disaster; is there protection for his control over wine production if there are a couple disastrous vintages?
  4. What pressures will this portend for other negociants who rely on fruit from various grape growers in the region?  Will wine production in Piemonte eventually require infusions of capital from outside interests in order to be workable?

Vietti was a large house and an older, very well established brand in the region.  If they couldn’t afford the debt load for buying the grape production from the farmers who are not renewing contracts, I wonder if anyone else in Piemonte can either.  Indeed, one of the things about Piemonte that strikes me as I explore it is how land rich but operating capital poor the wine makers really are.  You don’t see many of them driving around in Ferraris, despite owning estates that are worth tens of millions of dollars.  While really small producers who work entirely with their own stocks probably aren’t going to be affected (I’ve spoken over email and Facebook with a couple off the record who aren’t too deeply concerned), many of the, for lack of a better term, mid-sized producers are from what I hear a bit concerned this represents just the first of many dominoes.  Will Piemonte stay Italian family owned for another generation?  Certainly not something anyone can know for sure, but I don’t think people asking that question are merely being nativist ninnies.  The character of the place is certainly evolving, perhaps out of economic necessity, but it’s evolving nonetheless.

What does that mean for fans of artisanal Italian wine making?  It certainly bears watching.  Keith’s blogpost offers some insightful pondering on that score, and more thoughts on offer here.

For what it’s worth, yes, it’s a fair criticism that those of us who are concerned about this are no doubt wedded to a romanticized vision of what the Langhe and Roero districts are, and aren’t familiar with the day to do operational challenges the producers there are saddled with.  But when you consider how similar economic realities have played out in other high demand wine production zones, it is indeed entirely possible the character of the region is going to be quite different.

Time will tell.

Book Review: Suzanne Hoffman’s Labor of Love

“Wine is a memory of a place. Wine is the memory of the grass, the bacteria, the insects, the memory of what happened millions of years ago, the memory of the people who worked there and are no longer here.”

–Winemaker Gaia Gaja, on the importance of viticulture and being connected to the land.

Suzanne Hoffman’s Labor of Love is an ambitious undertaking, representing the results of more than a decade invested in getting to know the families of significant Piemontese winemakers. She offers a fascinating and engaging focus on the women behind those families, women who uniformly serve as the strength, direction, and irrepressible determination behind some of the best wines being made anywhere. The book opens making no secret about its rather noble mission–getting the reader to not only become familiar the Wine Family Women of Piemonte, but to feel admiringly connected to them.

It is no endeavor to be idly embarked upon; the average wine consumer knows Italy at best for the Chianti that sometimes bears the mark of the black rooster. The above-average wine consumer has maybe heard of Barolo (but perhaps doesn’t know that name refers to a town and a DOCG denomination, not a grape) and knows it as the expensive wine gathering dust on a shelf at the better wine stores around town, but probably still can’t name other Piemontese varietals, let alone the vintners who produce them or the names of the sub-regions in Piemonte. The really dedicated Italian wine fan can list along with Barolo the Dolcettos, Barbarescos, Barberas, Arneis, Nascetta, etc also found in Piemonte, but probably still feels no psychological connection to the rolling hills just south of the Alps in northwestern Italy. For all its weight in the wine world, Piemonte just does not get the tourist traffic that the Rome/Florence/Venice track gets, or anywhere near it. It is without a doubt the key wine region in Italy any connoisseur will want to know, but it rarely hits the radar of the average first or second or third time visitor to Italy.

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How best to bridge that gap? How best to have the non-Italian reader feeling engrossed in the inner workings of Italian wine families in a decidedly quite, bucolic, off the beaten path corner of the peninsula?

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Hoffman goes about it in possibly the best way–writing eloquently to put you in the kitchens, tasting rooms, neatly trained rows of Nebbiolo and Dolcetto and Barbera, and most notably in the warm hearts of the women who make the Piemonte wine scene possible. The beautifully bound, substantial tome is lovingly laid out with extensive use of excellent photography that plants the reader right there in the vineyard; after an introductory chapter that lays bare why there might not be a Piemonte DOCG today were it not for the selfless labors of Giulia Falletti (the ‘patron saint’ of Piemonte wine women) you spend each of the twenty two chapters reading the fruits of a decade and a half of considerate investigatory labor, taking in a thorough examination of the history of the vineyard, a description of the family structure behind it, and the role that the women in the family have played over the past couple centuries. You begin to understand how, through the trials and travails of two world wars, depressions, phylloxera epidemics, occupations, the Industrial Revolution, mass production of cheap jug wines, and proliferation of modern technologies, it has always been the inner strength of these amazingly resourceful women providing the psychic glue Piemonte’s wine families needed.

In short, when tilting a glass of Nebbiolo or Arneis, you are touching the essence of truly locavorist artisanal culture that would not prevail today were it not for the tireless and often thankless labors of women in a culture that frankly still often fails to see women as equals politically and socially.

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This is not to say that Labor of Love is a merely sentimental hagiography of women in Piemonte; it is rather an honest, thoroughly researched, and warmly offered recounting of stories that are quite often rather tragic. The reader will note many common themes throughout, perhaps chief among them perseverance through tragedy. All but universally these women have had to carry on through brutal occupations by Nazis, and past deaths of sons and husbands and daughters, through hunger and starvation and loss of crops, and often while not knowing if they would even be able to inherit the very land they were tilling with calloused hands in the fields.

Reading the stories gives you an emotional connection to women who themselves live and embody an undeniably heartfelt connection to the land that sustains them, and to their forebears. They express repeatedly the redemptive qualities of working the land, and being invested in it for a lifetime, and you come to understand it more deeply than you thought possible.

Another common theme is charity, whether it was risking their lives in World War Two to feed Italian partisans fighting the Nazis and the Fascists, or whether it was helping neighbors keep their crops alive. It is quite clear by the book’s end how deeply held the sense of community is for the wine women of Piemonte. In sum, their experience is a microcosm of the Italian experience in the last 150 years generally, what with the changing role of women in society and the changing sense of self-awareness of the Italians themselves as it morphed over the last century and a half from a loosely affiliated collection of regions and city-states into parts of a larger, Italian whole; the challenges these women have overcome parallel the ones the entire peninsula has endured, and the future they worry about collectively is in many ways the same set of challenges Italy will struggle with in the 21st Century, namely how to preserve a sense of “Italianess” in an increasingly globalized economy wherein Italy is not quite sure of its place.

Labor of Love will inevitably have you looking at your calendar wondering when you can next jump a plane to Italy to start exploring; you will certainly close the book not only wanting to explore the wine they make, but get to know the women whose hearts and minds the book has offered tantalizing insights into.

Wine is culture, wine is indeed civilization. It is a liquid connection to the very earth from whence all of us came, and it is the very expression of the earth that feeds all of us. To truly know a culture is to taste its food and wine, and learn about the people who bring it to us. This book is a great way to begin that journey, and be forewarned–you won’t be able to read it without feeling a tremendous urge to get to Piemonte.

UN Threatens to List Venice on UNESCO Endangered Heritage Sites List

Good!

Brugnaro’s comments are still the meaningless platitudes you’d expect from a walking corporate mouthpiece who can barely contain his Cheshire cat grin as he knowingly offers nonsense.

You don’t save a city economically by destroying it.  Venice is too important to ignore the damage being done to its fragile underpinnings.