Franco Ziliani on Montalcino: “It will take courage, strength, and responsibility to turn the page.”

The following post has been translated from a post that appeared yesterday at VinoWire editor Franco Ziliani’s blog Vino al Vino. Translation by VinoWire.

On the investigation.

The inquiry is not over. The Magistrate’s office has now received the judge’s report on the preliminary investigation and a request to determine whether or not to indict or acquit the 5 wineries — Antinori, Argiano, Banfi, Casanova di Neri, and Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi.

The investigators’s findings revealed elements that made it impossible for them to arrive at an acquittal. They have determined that the practice of “adjusting wines” has been widespread in Montalcino for years.

In the words of the investigators, the Guardia di Finanza [Italian Treasury Department] “large quantities of wine from the 2003 through 2007 vintages were ‘cut or softened’ with grapes other than Sangiovese, the only variety allowed by Brunello di Montalcino appellation regulations.” Beyond the five names made public (and the two wineries, Biondi Santi and Col d’Orcia, that were full acquitted), they also said that “in the course of the inquiry, 17 persons were reported to Siena Attorney-General’s office for the offense of having cheated in commercial translations and falsifying public documents, and, in some cases, for conspiracy, not to mention the offense of falsifying information provided to the public prosecutor’s office. Of these, 8 entered into plea bargaining while 9 receive notice that the investigation found them to have committed these offenses.”

They added — and this where it becomes really serious — that grave accusations were leveled at no ordinary functionary. The powerful director of the Consortium has been investigated for “conspiracy to cheat in commercial transactions and false certification of public documents.”

Because he had worked at the Consortium for many years, he knew everyone and he was aware of many things that allowed him — let’s say — to be “biased” toward the producer members of the Montalcino Consortium.

For the most part, the inquiry is over. I do not think any new information will come to light, unless new facts emerge from the proceedings that the subjects of the investigation face. The big question mark is whether or not it all can be hushed up and whitewashed by a provision inspired by political gain. Local and national politicians are pressing strongly for a pardon. It would be a mockery and an insult for honest winemakers who have followed the rules.

On the fallout of the controversy.

The situation that followed the Brunello scandal, coupled with the grave difficulties owed to the Italian and international economic crisi and the drop in demand for premium wines like Brunello di Montalcino, could lead to the sale of some wineries.

But the international situation is perhaps not so favorable at present (even though Montalcino is an extremely beautiful and fascinating place, in terms of the landscape) for the sale of wineries or investiments from other Italian regions or elsewhere in the world, as has occurred in the last 20 years. Montalcino has been transformed into a land of conquest and gratification for people from all over the world.

There was a time when all you had to do was write Brunello di Montalcino on the label and the wines — good and or not so good — would sell. Everything was considered justifiable in the name of business and the market.

Now, following the Brunello scandal and the effective end of an era, we could see the emergence of a “new” strategy to salvage the “pathological” relationships that led to the anomalies that became the rule and to make a radical change.

On the political, financial, and corporate origins of the controversy.

Specifically, you have to take into account the fact that Siena and its farmland are governed by an untouchable political party (yesterday it was the PCI [Communist Party], then the PDS [Democratic Party of the Left], today the PD [Democratic Party], even though it shares its financial spoils with the opposition.

Everyone operating in the province is “monitored” by the above-mentioned party and everyone “owes” it something: information, money, jobs, etc. One unique aspect of all of this is that many jobs are filled by persons largely lack the minimal competence to fulfill their duties. The intersecting ties and relationships:

1) companies (that need to invest, plant, and operate); 2) townships (that grant licenses for construction and permission to build wineries); 3) the Province of Siena (which grants business licenses and funnels monies from the European Community; 4) the Big Bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena (that gives loans); 5) trade unions (governed by political dropouts who have close ties to the townships, province, and region, and who redirect EU financing; and 6) the Consortium (that oversees the individual wineries).

And you mustn’t forget the presence of Roman politicians within the party, nor the Regione Toscana (Tuscan Region), nor the Fondazione Bancaria (Banking Foundation [which oversees the Italian government’s private investments and its shares in the stock market]).

There is a lot of disagreement between the wineries, as much so between small and mid-sized wineries as between the big ones, and so much so that they can never take a stand together.

This is the inextricable network of relationships that “explains” the absurd silence of so many producers, small and mid-sized, that form the connective tissue of the world of Brunello production.

By remaining silent, the seem in some ways to “whitewash” and to justify the actions of the big wineries with Sicilian-styled omertà — whether or not those implicated in the investigation are acquitted or indicted. It’s hard to think that anything can be as it was before since the most famous and powerful brands of Brunello have been implicated in the investigation, from the American company Banfi to the renowned wineries Antinori, Argiano, and Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi and Casanova di Neri, which was the winner of the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 some years ago.

At the least, they have all brushed by suspicion and questioned for their way of “interpreting” Brunello.

On the 2004 vintage.

Aside from a few rare examples (like the classic wines of Case Basse and Franco Biondi Santi’s Il Greppo, or a few small producers like Il Colle, Fonterenza, Poggio di Sotto, Gianni Brunelli, Giulio Salvioni, Gorelli Le Potazzine, and if you want also Uccelliera, Pian dell’Orino, Salicutti, Stella di Campalto, Le Macioche), I do not believe that the 2004 vintage is a great one. It doesn’t reach the level of classic vintages like 1999 and 2001.

It might have been overestimated and presented as being great than it really is for the sole reason that it “had to be” the upswing vintage following the big “mess” of the Brunello scandal and the mediocre and anomalous 2003 vintage. Many of the wines are thin, lacking precision, and with little personality.

Many wines are clearly the children of higher yields (the 2004 vintage was abundant throughout Italy) and they lack concentration and meatiness. Many wines show green tannin.

Many wines are strange and seem to have been corrected, swiftly, spurred by desperation, in the cellar. The wines are now longer “cut” with “prohibited” grapes but rather made more youthful with other vintages or with wines purchased who knows where, because the original wines or those produced up until the 2003 vintage had become “unpresentable.”

And then there was also a lot of work performed by technicians, who used mannoproteins to adjust the color of the wines and concentrators and reverse osmosis, which is an prohibited practice, but many resort to its use. So far, the 2005 vintage does not seem to be an easy one.

It has more character than the 2004, but as the Wine Spectator enologists observed at the end of the harvest, “it was not a great year for Tuscany’s dominant grape variety, Sangiovese, which struggled to ripen fully in many areas and, because of the damp conditions, had to deal with the threat of botrytis… It’s a bit of a leopard-skin vintage for Sangiovese. Some of the grapes just didn’t ripen, and there was botrytis in the vineyard.”

The outlook isn’t exactly cheery and if the market for 2004 Brunello doesn’t pick up, I doubt the 2005 will do any better.

One thing is for certain. There is no need to single anyone out for pillory in the public square, but the residents of Montalcino need to take stock of the fact the season of unchecked growth has ended and that it transformed Brunello into a wine commodity, an easy business governed by only one rule: the eradication and the loss of identity of an iconic wine and its transformation into an average wine that merely costs more.

It will take courage, strength, and responsibility to turn the page and the residents of Montalcino need to openly show the world — with transparency and sincerity — that they have the will to take this step.

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3 thoughts on “Franco Ziliani on Montalcino: “It will take courage, strength, and responsibility to turn the page.”

  1. Pingback: Natural wine with a capital N: 91 Nicolas Joly Coulée de Serrant « Do Bianchi

  2. Pingback: Brunello-Skandal – Weingüter und Gründe » Montalcino, Brunello, Rosso, Weingüter, Liter, Many » Weintipps von Michael Liebert

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