TTB “abandons” lab analysis requirement for Brunello, according to report

In a report circulated Friday by the National Association of Beverage Importers (NABI), the U.S. Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has “abandoned” its lab analysis requirement for Brunello di Montalcino.

News of the TTB’s willingness to lift the laboratory analysis requirement and to work with the Italian government on a mutually acceptable solution will come as a relief not only to Brunello producers but also to U.S. importers, distributors, and retailers. Although the TTB has issued statements on its requests submitted to the Italian government and its threatened ban of imports, the legal status of wine already in the U.S. was unclear.

According to the report (below), the TTB recognized that its request for laboratory analysis for all wines was not “feasible” and that “innocent producers” would be punished as a result.

In April, 2008, the TTB had requested a list of Brunello producers implicated in the current Brunello controversy. On May 9, after the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (Brunello producers association) and the Italian government had failed to respond, the Americans informed the Consortium that unless they received the list by June 23 (the original date was set for June 9 but was later changed), they would block imports of Brunello unaccompanied by laboratory analysis certifying that the wine was made from 100% Sangiovese. Evidently, following meetings last week between the Italian Minister of Agriculture, Luca Zaia, and his American counterpart, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer, the Americans have agreed to lift the requirement.

The following letter was sent Friday to NABI members.

    Friday, June 13, 2008: This morning NABI received an update relative to the ongoing TTB action involving Brunello designated wine exported to the US market. In a call from Italy it was learned that the Italian government will continue to defer to the investigating magistrate. The primary TTB request for the names of the firms under investigation for alleged wrongdoing has not been met. After reviewing the situation with Italian authorities TTB representatives understand this position and will let the investigation take its course. However their demand for assurance that the Brunello standard is met for product sold in the US continues.

    Lacking information concerning those under investigation TTB and the consortium moved on to methods for assuring the integrity of product in the marketplace. During these discussions it became clear to TTB that requiring a laboratory analysis for shipment to the US is not feasible. They have abandoned this requirement.

    An alternative agreeable to TTB and the consortium is a declaration from any office of the Italian government that with reasonable assurance the product meets the rules for the sale of Brunello in the Italian market. This declaration is similar to that required of US product sold to certain export markets. The declaration may be broad in scope to cover an entire brand and vintage. TTB suggested that the declaration could come from any government entity including that responsible for quality assurance.

    It was also learned that the Italian Ministry of Agriculture met with the US Ambassador to Italy with the goal of removing the TTB demand letter. The Ambassador in consultation with the US Department of Agriculture reported back to the Italians that the controlling authority is TTB.

    The new approach discussed in this update will be the subject of a TTB Industry Circular for release sometime next week. Both TTB and the Brunello Consortium are working on language that would be mutually acceptable. Although it appears that TTB is significantly backing away from its aggressive position on a shipment by shipment laboratory analysis, obtaining any certification can be problematic. NABI has reaffirmed with TTB our position that innocent producers and importers will suffer significant adverse consequences as a result of this controversy. We have told TTB that the approaching June 23 deadline is not workable. Meeting a certification requirement from the Italian government will require reasonable time to accomplish. We anticipate more information following the return of the TTB delegation to the US on Monday, June 16.

Ghost vineyards in Montalcino led to investigation, according to Italian daily business newspaper

According to a report published today in the Italian national daily business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, aerial surveys of Montalcino revealed the presence of “ghost vineyards” and discrepancies in figures reported by producers to the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (Brunello producers association) and to the Italian treasury department. Revelation of these discrepancies led investigators to believe that wines produced in Montalcino were “cut” with grapes sourced from other areas, wrote journalist Nicola Dante Basile.

While many facts in the ongoing investigation of Montalcino producers remain unclear, financial misconduct is at the heart of the inquiry, according to Basile. If allegations of wrongdoing prove to be true, noted Basile, companies implicated in the current scandal may be charged with making false financial statements to the Italian government and to the European Union and may also be forced to repay financing obtained on the basis of false information.

In essence, Italian treasury investigators discovered that producers were reporting the presence of non-existent vineyards in order to justify production levels. Their motivation, according to Basile, was not to produce wines more “round” in style by adding grapes other than Sangiovese (appellation regulation require that Brunello di Montalcino be made from 100% Sangiovese grapes). Montalcino winemakers simply wanted to make more wine than their vineyards could produce, wrote Basile. As a result, he speculates, they sourced fruit — presumably grapes other than Sangiovese — from vineyards outside the appellation.

The text of the article is not yet available online at the publisher’s site but VinoWire editor Franco Ziliani has published the original in this post.

Patrizio Cencioni new president of Brunello producers association

Winemaker and owner of the Capanna winery, Patrizio Cencioni, was elected unanimously by the the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (Brunello producers association) today, according to a statement issued by the association’s public relations firm.

“One of my first goals,” said Cencioni, “is that of maintaining unity among producers in order to support and reaffirm the notoriety and reputation that our famous wine has achieved in recent decades.”

The body’s previous president, Francesco Marone-Cinzano, resigned on June 9 after the Italian Ministry of Agriculture issued a decree that essentially stripped the Consortium of its power to oversee the monitoring and certification of the appellation.

In the wake of the ministry’s decree and the Siena prosecutor’s ongoing investigation in the appellation, at least seven producers have left the Consortium, including wineries Barbi and Salicutti.

Brunello producer speaks out (guest blogger Tom Hyland)

Guest blogger Tom Hyland is the author of Guide to Italian Wines (a subscription newsletter) and www.learnitalianwines.com. For contact info, see below.

The Brunello Controversy: a winemaker’s perspective

by Tom Hyland

Earlier this week, I had lunch with Hans Vinding Diers, winemaker at Argiano in Sant’Angelo in Colle, one of the four initial estates named in the scandal that has now accused several dozen wineries of altering their 2003 Brunello with the possible addition of Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon to this famous Sangiovese-only red. Diers was very forthright with answers to my questions about this situation and I thank him for his insight.

Diers at first wondered why Argiano was being investigated with the three other wineries, Antinori, Banfi and Frescobaldi, all of which are quite large in size (Argiano only bottles 55,000 bottles of Brunello in an average year as compared to several hundred thousand bottles from the other estates). His first encounter with the Guardia di Finanza, which is investigating this, happened when they flew helicopters over the Argiano estate this past December, presumably to see for themselves if there were Merlot or Cabernet vines intermingled with the Sangiovese.

I asked Diers how anyone could see this in December when the vines were dormant. “I thought the only way you could tell was by looking at the leaves,” I said. “Exactly,” Diers replied.

Nonetheless, later that month, the authorities impounded the remaining bottles of 2003 Brunello di Montalcino not yet shipped by the winery. As this situation has yet to be settled throughout the district, the authorities have impounded wine at dozens of other estates, all of which are under varying degrees of investigation. Diers argued that they needed to sell this wine, so a compromise was reached. Argiano is now able to ship this wine to market under a new name, Il Duemilatre di Argiano (literally, the Argiano 2003). This is the same wine as the 2003 Brunello with the same black label the winery uses to denote their signature wine.

Interestingly, Vias, the American importer for Argiano is now selling the wine under the two labels, as they received an allocation of the Brunello before it was impounded in December. They are selling the Il Duemilatre bottling to their customers at 20% less than the Brunello bottling, which should sell out very soon. I tasted the two bottlings with Diers and they are indeed the same wine. Having tasted over a thousand examples of Brunello di Montalcino over the past seven years, I can offer the opinion that this is indeed 100% Sangiovese. The color incidentally is a bright garnet, though without the intensity one finds in the finest years. Diers explains, “In a hot year, you get a lighter color such as this, one that bleaches out sooner than in a cool year.”

Diers believes this investigation is at a standstill. “They don’t know what to do now,” he commented, referring to the prosecutors handling this case. One thing that has been settled is the question about the vineyards at Argiano. “Our vineyards have been found to contain no irregularities, as far as other varieties are concerned.”

Diers has seen this all before and questions the power the authorities have in this matter. “It’s a grand Italian opera. The magistrate in this case has autonomous power and the big boys (referring to the large producers) can’t do a thing.” His closing statement, as it were, was a refrain I’ve heard often from the country’s businessmen: “In Italy, you are guilty until proven innocent.”

Tom Hyland is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and photographer specializing in the wines of Italy. He publishes a subscription newsletter, Guide to Italian Wines and the website www.learnitalianwines.com which also features some of his best photos from Italy. He can be reached at thomas2022@comcast.net.

Brunello association president Cinzano resigns: “Mission accomplished.”

In a report published yesterday by Decanter.com, Francesco Marone-Cinzano, president of the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (Brunello producers association), announced his resignation, telling writer Adam Lechmere, “My mission is accomplished.”

News of Cinzano’s resignation comes on the heels of an Italian government decree that essentially stripped him of his powers as the association’s president. According to the Decanter report, Cinzano denied that he had been forced out of the job, claiming that “any differences between the government department and the Consorzio had been ‘resolved’, and that he and the minister [Luca Zaia, who signed the decree into law] now saw eye to eye.”

Agriculture minister relieves Brunello association of oversight duties

In a decree signed into law today, Italy’s Minister of Agriculture, Luca Zaia, officially relieved the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (Brunello producers association) of its oversight duties and appointed a three-member committee to monitor the appellation. According to a report published today by Decanter.com, the president of the Consorzio, Francesco Marone-Cinzano (evidently unaware of the government’s decree at the time), intends to move forward with its own plans for monitoring the appellation.

According to the carefully worded document issued today by office of the minister, the decree sets forth a “guarantee committee responsible for the coordination and supervision of monitoring activities for the DOCG wine Brunello di Montalcino and the DOC wines Rosso di Montalcino, Moscadello di Montalcino, and Sant’Antimo.” The new body will oversee the appellation for a period of six months from today.

The board will answer directly to the minister and will be comprised of: Dr. Riccardo Ricci Curbastro, president of Federdoc (National Federation of Voluntary Consortia for the Oversight of Italian Wine Appellations); Professor Vasco Boatto, director of Enology, Department of Agronomy, University of Padua); and Dr. Fulvio Mattivi, director of the analysis laboratory Istituto di San Michele all’Adige (the institute of enology, province of Trento).

Montepulciano wineries suspected of adulteration

Winemakers in yet another Siena appellation have been accused of adulteration: according to a report published today in the in Corriere Fiorentino, the Italian Guardia di Finanza (Treasury Department) has launched an investigation and has seized wines produced by at least one producer in Montepluciano, Cooperativa Vecchia Cantina, whose Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is believed to have been “cut” with wine sourced from “central and northern Italy.”

“I am not surprised,” said Luca Gattavecchi, president of the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (Vino Nobile di Montepulciano producers association) in a press release also issued today. “We know that the wines of Tuscany are under a magnifying glass.”

Gattavecchi, recently elected president of the Consorzio, was informed that his winery (Gattavecchi) is under investigation. Documents were also seized at the Cantina Vecchia Toscana, according to the report.

News of the investigation comes on the heels of the Siena prosecutor’s ongoing investigation of producers in Montalcino (scroll down for the latest news from Montalcino).