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.
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.
Initially, Valentina Passalacqua sought to distance herself from her father. She made a black and white post with head bowed that essentially threw her father under the bus. She was associated in name, but not in the work. Initially, her global partners worldwide jumped to her defense, throwing their arms around her and shielding her from that awful man accused of profiting through the violation of human rights and stripping away the dignity of work. But, as Glou Glou reported (with clear and damning evidence) she was more tied up in her father’s business than she led on. A video portrayed her as a spokesperson for the vegetable farm, documents showed that she owned 25% of the business, and on July 6th she had made a mad dash for the local chamber of commerce to revise the “historic company document.” Hardly the actions of an innocent person.
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.
But when the stories unfolded and the evidence of her actions came to light, many people began to wonder. These wines were readily available all over the world. Her vineyards were reported to be about 80 hectares, which has caused some the ponder on just how the vines were managed and harvested. If, as they say, the farming was biodynamic it would have required a massive labor force to do so by hand (as is required for certification). In this regard Valentina should be treated as innocent till proven otherwise, but the sheer size of the vineyards coupled with her actions surrounding her father may bring further suspicion.
As the demand for natural wine grew around the world it was easy for Valentina Passalacqua to step into the light and become a sought after winemaker. She was not just making natural wine but she championed the methods of viticulture that make it so appealing, while also being a strong female winemaker. 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, which she did. People who gravitate towards natural wine do so because the virtues held by the winemakers are close to their own especially ethical and sustainable production. It is with one hand that Valentina Passalacqua held herself up as a beacon for natural wine, and yet with her other hand she seemed to hide the gross indignities that her family carried out against their workers that fed our thirst and allowed her to increase her gains. Remember that she did own 25% of that vegetable company.
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, instead choosing to hide behind a thin veil of secrecy. Whether it is the use of migrant labor in the United States, or the controversial lower minimum wage for farmworkers 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 the hypocrisy of one winemaker. Reactions by distributors 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.
The wines will be hardly missed though. There are thousands of wineries from the United States, Italy, and the rest of the world who can easily jump into that small void left behind. Their practices are sustainable and ethical, as they very well should be! The modern wine consumer wants transparency into not just the winemaking (the desire for natural, minimalist winemaking methods) but also into how the grapes were produced. They want to know that the winery with the pretty label is as conscientious about the world as they are. This is why people are curious about natural wines in the first place, and why so many people have become hardened natural wine super fans over the past few years.
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.
With a growing sense of injustice and a desire to change our own ways, we are going to re-examine our relationships with the products that we buy. Today more than ever we want the products we buy to reflect who we are, so why on earth would we be caught dead sipping a wine that is the product of exploitation be it direct or indirect?
This is not just about one producer and their family business. This is a signal to the industry and the world that wine lovers actually give a damn and that the sins of the industry will not escape their eyes. Outrage at social injustice is not going to go away, and as the lights continue to shine in the last dark corners of wineries and vineyards around the world. As Jennifer Green, founder of Glou Glou magazine, put it to the New York Times, “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.” Thanks to Jennifer we no longer will.