Valentina Passalaqua and the sins of the wine industry

This past week (August 1st, 2020 as I write) the indie magazine Glou Glou published a series of damning posts on their Instagram about winemaker Valentina Passalacqua and her connections to her father’s vegetable farm. The news was shocking, and people came out in defense of a winemaker who many touted as heroic in the natural wine movement, the Italian wine business, and in Italian agriculture as a whole. But as the story unfolded over the course of a few days it became a stark reminder that like a lot of other agricultural products, wine is built on the backs of oppressed workers and has been for centuries.

Wines by Valentina Passalaqcua

In the name of the father, the daughter, and the land

News broke in Italy last month that Settimio Passalacqua had been detained due to accusations that he had been illegally underpaying migrant workers on his nearly 2,000 hectare farm. The workers, mostly from Albania and parts of Africa, were being paid as little as 3 Euros per hour while a video showed the substandard living conditions that workers had to endure. People could argue over the semantics, but this was modern day indentured servitude and Settimio was profiting an estimated 650 thousand Euros more a year as a result of this. The family was living it up off the backs of migrant workers.

Valentina and the growing thirst for natural wine

So why the hell would the wine business give a damn about a large scale vegetable farm in Italy? We should all give a damn about the exploitation of workers, but it goes to something a little bit deeper in the wine world.

It is not enough to say a wine is natural and funky, but you have to walk the walk in every method and practice throughout the winemaking and the business.

Valentina Passalacqua was a true gem and superstar in the natural wine world A woman who took a stance and made an effort to farm biodynamically she was able to create a massive following for her wines around the world. When she released her Calcarius line of wines it was like a checklist for the modern natty wine lover. Snappy Instagram ready labels with wines that had amazing color to them while also being all sorts of juicy and funky. Her wines were adored by wine influencers, casual fans, snapped up by restaurants, and were even written about in Conde Nast Traveller and Vogue. Yeh, Valentina Passalacqua was a big deal.

This is not a new story, but things are changing

Wine, like most of our agricultural history, is a story that is built on the back of human suffering and indignity. Seldom does the industry bring these issues to the light, rather choosing to hide behind a thin veil of secrecy. Whether it is use of migrant labor in the United States, or the controversial lower minimum wage for farm workers in South Africa, the labor used to make the wines we love is a tough discussion even today. There is, however, a changing view.

In a sense natural wines and winemakers are held to a higher standard, but it is a standard that is built on trust. Valentina Passalacqua broke that trust.

What Glou Glou’s posts did was highlight the exploitation of labor and a the hypocrisy of one winemaker. Reactions by distributors such were swift when evidence came to light, and wine lovers have not held back with their displeasure. There are a few who have mentioned that these were not good wines anyway, but whether they were good or bad is not the issue. People still bought the wines, people still enjoyed the wines, and there were people who still wrote about and praised the wines. An image was created where these wines were part of a natural wine movement. It is a movement that, whether it wants to or not, is believed by many to have a higher ethical, moral, and conscientious standing amongst its devoted fans. The term “natural” is a subconscious signal to every wine drinker from the most casual through to the highest educated that the wine adheres to the same sensibilities and values that they do. They suggest that the wines are made in an environmentally sound and artisanal fashion which they almost always are. In a sense natural wines and winemakers are held to a higher standard, but it is a standard that is built on trust. Valentina Passalacqua broke that trust.

So why does this all matter? Because it freaking 2020!

“We have been willing to fetishize agricultural products that are appealing to us, without scrutinizing the entire supply chain. When we’re discussing farming, we leave out the farmworkers.” Jennifer Green to the New York Times

This has been a rough year for all of us, around the world. And that is putting it in the lightest possible way. Social injustice is not an isolated issue about police brutality in the United States, but a global issue that affects people in every corner and country in the world. These events have made countless people the world over look inward and examine themselves while our intolerance of injustice grows ever stronger.

Wine and drink lover, making it a better experience to find and enjoy good drinks. Changing how we appreciate wine one bottle at a time.

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