Anatomy of a (Wine) Doping Scandal
Last year, international newspapers were abuzz with the latest doping scandal that netted some pretty big players. Although cyclists naturally wince at such headlines, this time it wasn’t us. It was the wine estates of Montalcino, Italy with their treasured Brunello. Sometimes it is worth going through your neighbor’s dirty laundry to appreciate your own. PezSommelier, Corey Sar Fox, takes an offbeat look at the wines, and whines of these confusing times.
PEZ-Sez: As any well-rounded PEZ-Fan knows, the world does not spin on a single axle… So as part of our on-going appreciation for the finer things in life, Corey’s essay on the parallel troubles facing wine production and cycling makes excellent food for thought… or is that ‘drink’ for thought?
Montalcino: an idyllic Tuscan town with some dirty laundry.
Every year around the middle of February, the wine producers of Montalcino present their soon-to-be-released wines under The Big Tent in the courtyard of the town’s fortress. This year 146 estates out of about 250 registered wineries participated. However, what makes this year’s event unique is that it resides under the shadow of Brunellogate or Brunellopoli in Italian. Last July, blogs and then national newspapers reported that wineries were adding unapproved grapes – Brunello must be made from 100% Sangiovese – to craft bigger, softer, fruitier wines.
Benvenuto Brunello takes place in the town’s fortress.
What might have been possibly contained and soon forgotten, exploded when the United States Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau blocked imports, claiming that wine labels must guarantee what’s in the bottle. Therefore, the Italian government had to step in and bust someone. Their investigation focused on 14 well known, large estates including Antinori and Frescobaldi. Although the investigation found many “inconclusive irregularities”, they proclaimed only Banfi and Argiano guilty. Their 2003 Brunello’s were declassified to Tuscan red status. That’s the official version.
Now that’s 100% Sangiovese… I think.
There are two ways to report a story like this, either one can investigate and then draw conclusions or one can start with opinionated theories and find informed sources to confirm them. No doubt in my mind that cyclists used to reading press releases presented as journalism expect the latter. So I search out Guelfo Magrini, Tuscany’s version of Hunter S. Thomson. Guelfo wrote the book on Brunello and Brunellopoli (literally – they’re available at most local newsstands). I ask him if one can compare wine doping to cycling. Guelfo replies, “I don’t believe so, in this case bodies weren’t doped, only… the spirit of the wine makers was doped by a market that pushed them to transgress the rules made to protect them.”
Well, that seems close enough to my point.
Journalists from all over the world can either taste “blind” or go directly to the producers.
Another way to get support for our populist fury is to talk with the smaller, traditional producers. The old timers. The simple farmer/winemakers that knew what those fancy flyers were into, not unlike the peloton in the 90’s. I ask Massimo Innocenti if Brunellopoli has brought any vindication or satisfaction. “No, unfortunately it doesn’t. We’re all in this together and this scandal hurts everyone.”
Strike Two for “crafting” my story.
Massimo Innocenti with a traditional Brunello from the Torenieri zone.
Section A: Relativity
In the Age of Relativism, it has become our duty to understand and try to accept the others’ value system. The Bernie Kohl Doping Story provides a perfect example. A middle class rider wasn’t at full strength after an injury, his team was abandoning the sport and he would most likely have been out of the Pro Tour this year. Kohl chose an undetectable way (at the time) to succeed and it worked fabulously (until he was caught). The question “why did he do it?” is easily understood. The fact that more aren’t doping, we can only hope is because the controls are working and the mentalities are changing.
Boxing-in Bernie with Brunello.
The Brunello Doping Story has a different (yet also similar) set of factors. In the 60’s, there were only 11 estates making this famed wine. Today this number has ballooned to 250 wineries, that’s a lot of competition (not to mention the global wine explosion). One hectare of land without vines in this sacred zone costs 600,000 euros (vines cost about 1 euro each and are planted 80cm apart in rows 2.5 meters wide, you do the math). Brunello must be harvested by hand and cannot be released until its been aged 5 years. Accordingly, the investment costs are substantial. There are many micro-climates included within the appellation that spawn a great diversity of wines, therefore defining Brunello is imprecise. The Sangiovese grape usually produces wines with herbaceous tones and the color tends towards russet. Wine Spectator magazine and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate generally award higher scores to jammy wines with deep crimson colors. An American distributor once told me that, “wines with 90 points or more sell themselves.” Since high scores guarantee success, many estates style their wines to accommodate the critics. All of these factors in greater or lesser degrees contributed to certain estates choosing a sure-fired way to please the market, and it worked fabulously (until they were caught).
Always one of my favorite Brunello’s comes from Fuligni.
Section B: Italian-ness
For anyone who has spent even a small amount of time in Italy, it is little wonder that this country often finds itself in the middle of impropriety. Where was Rasmussen when he lied to the UCI claiming that he was vacationing in Mexico? Where did David Millar go when he decided that he needed to dope? In the past year, Ricco’, Sella, Piepoli and Bastianelli all were suspended. Not to mention the DS’s, doctors and other Italian accomplices that inevitably seem to be linked to scandals. While Italian culture doesn’t openly condone cheating, it certainly has a way of rationalizing moral murkiness. The lack of fascetta’s at Benvenuto Brunello serves as a noteworthy example.
Every bottle of Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino must have a fascetta or special label around the neck that has a unique serial number and acts as a guarantee. These labels are issued by the Consorzio or growers’ association (the very same people doling out wine today) and are assigned according to each estates’ size and hence, allocated harvest. I have never met a winery that made fewer bottles than allowed. These excess bottles should not “technically” exist (if producers paid closer attention to their yields), yet most wineries use them for private wine tastings or give them as gifts. Seeing bottles surface at Benvenuto Brunello without a fascetta is a pretty bold move. Yet every year there are many players serving up fare that they can’t legally sell – controlled by the very same Consorzio that puts on this event – to an influential bunch of international journalists. Viva l’Italia!
Each estate is given a limited number of fascetta’s.
Living in Italy entails learning to accept or disregard the bountiful daily scandals whether political or social or financial or whatnot. In fact, it is inevitable that one will also become ensnared into failing to report income, paying under the table, offering/accepting gifts in return for favors, disregarding traffic laws, under/over estimating contracts and a whole bunch of other things that are frowned upon in most western countries (places where only Real Pro’s like Bernie Madoff are allowed to operate). In any case, it’s a self perpetuating system (i.e. culture). How else could the Italians keep electing Berlusconi if they did not accept certain realities? The outraged will label this corruption, while the crusty call it healthy anarchy or clannish self-preservation.
Side Bar: Just Drink It
The most obvious “winners” at this year’s Benvenuto Brunello were the small, family estates – I tasted many good wines from them. San Lorenzo, Innocenti, Sancarlo, Ferro, La Campana, San Giacomo and many others that maintained immaculate vineyards and time-honored vinification methods produced wines that reflect the excellence of 2004. Wines from small estates are usually good in good years and weak in weaker vintages, while large wineries with their substantial investments in technology typically weather tough years better.
Sancarlo produces about 5,000 bottles of very fine Brunello a year.
The 2004 vintage reminded me a lot of 1999. Almost every wine was good and some were very good. The large producers that always make competent wines like Banfi and Antinori, made competent wines. Il Poggione made exceptional ones. The Torenieri zone continued producing good wines at reasonable prices from the likes of Santa Giulia, Sassodisole and Abbadia Ardenga. The only 2003 Riserva that I found interesting (loads of tar, tobacco and licorice) came from Donatella Cinelli Colombini. Some previous high flyers like Siro Pacenti and La Togata disappointed a bit. While the notable absence of former Wine Spectator 100 point wines, Valdicava and Casanova di Neri, provoked some malicious rumors. Terralsole, Romitorio, Fanti and a few others raised some questioning eyebrows that asked: why are these wines so concentrated? and where is the russet tint? Yes, these are some of the after effects of the scandal. And they will linger for awhile.
The Morning After
Section A: The Question of Accommodation
Brunellopoli raised an interesting question: if wines made from a variety of grapes are “better” than pure Sangiovese wines, shouldn’t the rules be changed to allow for better wines? A parallel question has sometimes also been heard in cycling (or sports in general): why not just legalize doping if it makes for better entertainment? Although no one really wants this to happen because we’d like to believe in authenticity (and the health risks seem pretty grave), the wine growers of Montalcino went one step further than theorizing and put it to a vote on October 27, 2008. Even if some wine makers privately welcomed a change, they readily acknowledged that emasculating the rules would essentially make the appellation meaningless. So the rules were not amended.
Two bio estates: Cupano and Loacker’s Corte Pavone – Beauty and the Beast?
Section B: Throwing Shadows of Doubt
At last year’s worlds, Alessandro Ballan spent all day attacking and still had the strength to blow everyone away to win the maglia iridata. It was a great race. The Italians showed real grinta or mettle. Yet I could not help fearing that maybe Ballan’s performance was too good (and then a sigh of relief that he passed the controls). And that’s just it: doping throws shadows of doubt over our joy by destroying our trust. And everyone pays for the negligence of the others. The Brunello producers are now acutely aware of this doubt. People are questioning their wines. Every year Wine Spectator publishes its Top 100 Wines list. In 2006, the top wine was a Brunello and many others occupied prominent rankings. In 2008, not even one Brunello made the list. I ask Guelfo if this is merely a coincidence. “No, it’s not. It is a result of this scandal.”
Ballan’s perfect day.
Section C: A Chaser of Recession
It would appear that the wineries have picked a pretty bad time to combine scandal and over capacity. As if there was ever a good time? The world’s current economic tantrum is punishing them dearly. Bottles of Brunello can be bought for under 10 euros. The wineries that are drastically marking down their luxury wares are essentially sounding their own death knell. This is their last flight, as one wine maker said, “at least 10% [of the wineries in Montalcino] will go under this year.”
Peris Mignarri from La Campana has some very nice wines and lets visitors help themselves.
Section D: Cleaning Up The Damage
It seems that there are two important aspects to resolving Brunellopoli, the first being tighter controls. Due to the Consorzio’s diligence at this year’s Benvenuto Brunello, every bottle sported a fascetta. Consorzio Councilman, Francesco Mulinari, mentions that tightening up the event was a necessity. In addition, the Consorzio is working with the Institute of S.Michele all’Adige to determine the precise qualities of pure Sangiovese, “in a few years we should be able to have a complete picture of this challenging vine and its full expression in this rich and fortunate land.”
The next and more challenging issue is educating the market and its expectations of Brunello. One of the silver linings of this scandal is that it has provoked a debate about appreciating authenticity and tradition (and the fact that Sangiovese is not Merlot). As Massimo Innocenti notes, “if consumers are looking for a modern wine, then they should probably look elsewhere.”
Consorzio Councilman, Francesco Mulinari of L’Aietta, is the youngest (25) and smallest producer (800 bottles).
Despite trying to fit a square wine scandal peg into a round cycling scandal hole, there are certain aspects that merited being explored – or at least, it gave the author some structure to (or excuse for) his drunken ramblings. The Good News is that the 2004 vintage is an excellent one. The weak economy and a stronger dollar will also pressure the prices down. The 2004 Brunello’s will help to repair damaged public relations and start the educational process. Montalcino should consider itself quite lucky that so many producers succeeded. Any curious consumer, randomly picking a bottle of 2004 Brunello from an unknown estate at their local wine shop will probably be very satisfied with their selection. As one producer deftly admits, “thank God this was 2004, if it were another 2002 [very rainy and mediocre], we’d be in trouble.” Indeed.
The cycling journalist in me wants to conclude with comparing the salvation of the 2004 vintage with Alberto Contador’s brilliance redeeming the 2007 Tour… but not today.
One of the decorative and highly symbolic columns on the Abby of Sant’ Antimo.
To sum it up then… Cheers!
Corey Sar Fox has lived and worked in Montalcino. Alarming Fact no.5: parts of this report are most likely biased. Viva l’Italia!