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Critical Wine, Veronelli and Polemic

Yesterday I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Jeremy Parzen had linked to a couple of pieces here in relation to Critical Wine and La Terra Trema. I had a comprehensive trawl through his excellent blog a few weeks ago, after recently stumbling upon his translation of a piece written by Luigi Veronelli which makes clear the latter’s willingness, indeed enthusiasm for the use of oak barriques, at least in some circumstances. This is an important correction of the record in relation to Veronelli, who is often depicted as a fundamentalist opponent of interventionist wine-making techniques. As the subject is of interest to someone, and given the fact that there was a minor shit-storm regarding Critical Wine in the Italian wine blogscape not so long ago, I may as well add a few comments.

Veronelli, the Icon…

First off, it is important to understand that while neither a winemaker or oenologist himself, Luigi Veronelli, was one of the most influential individuals in the modern Italian wine industry. As a writer, he exhaustively documented the country’s wines, lost recipes and the culture and customs of rural life. Arguably he created the modern form of wine writing, and was widely regarded as a key ambassador for the industry. His passion allowed him to move easily between the distant galaxies of Tuscan aristocrats and small producers fighting for survival. Since 1986 Verona is home to a centre for research and training, il seminario permanente Luigi Veronelli, which continues its work today. In 1990 he set up a publishing house which prints books, a magazine and one of Italy’s most influential wine guides.

In addition to founding and nurturing of Critical Wine from 2002, Veronelli devoted much energy after 1999 to the promotion of the denominazione comunale di origine De.C.O. (in Italian), a proposal for local systems of certification as to the provenance of food ingredients (1). His vision was that such a system could offer both guarantees of healthiness and traceability to consumers, whilst opening new opportunities for small scale producers. Today more than 400 local administrations have adopted the De.C.O. system (2).


Critical Wine’s public debut took place in December 2003 in Leoncavallo, Milan, involving renowned producers and agronomists in a three day tasting and happening. This first event was attended by 160 winemakers with a further 150 on a waiting list due to space restrictions. Since Veronelli’s death in 2004, participation has contracted to around 60 producers. Some of the celebrity producers who brought a certain glamour to proceedings have also departed, such as Joska Gravner (the Friulian practitioner of biodynamics using terracotta amphora for his fermentation), Academia degli Racemi (instigators of the quality revolution in Apulia). Others, such as Bartolo Mascarello (icon of traditionalist Barolo) have died.


Given Italy’s intensely political and factional culture, it should come as little surprise that some commentators would have ‘issues’ with the involvement of spaces and social networks connected to the radical left in wine culture. Whilst Veronelli remained alive, however, such attacks were apparently scarce on the ground, or at least left no trace on the internet. Earlier this year however a couple decided to have a shot, careful however to prefix their assault with an appropriately pious nod to the venerable Veronelli, puzzling over the support of a great man for such a diabolical project (‘…forte dell’inspiegabile adesione di un grande come Gino…).

Criticism of CW is organised along two axes. The first alleges a contradiction between participating winemakers and political positions they are imputed to be representing. Essentially some commentators took umbrage (in Italian) that producers of top class wines, often commanding up to fifty euros in the shops would associate themselves with a network that represented itself as ‘critical‘ and held its fairs for the public in squatted social centres. Really this polemic says more about the stereotypes at work organising public discourse in Italy rather than anything of substance. According to this reasoning, leftists are supposed to steer clear of elitist stuff of quality, and stick to whatever is cheapest, rolled cigarettes and Tavernello…

Biodynamic wines are expensive to make, and Josko Gravner can sell as many bottles as he can produce at whatever price he wants. So what? Critical Wine’s reason for existing is not to promote cheap wine or beverages for an imaginary ‘mass’ ‘people’, but is rather intended to be a space where producers of quality wines, who work in a way respectful of the land, can meet with their drinkers, sell them bottles at a discounted price and talk about their wines to a public who cares.

Recently the practice of selling wine to the public at ‘cantina price’ has comeback under discussion due to the practical difficulties such a policy creates in terms of dealings with wine shops and distributors. Yet the wines of some producers purportedly following this approach can be found online at the same price as at the fair. Apart from being disingenuous, this generates considerable confusion for wholesale purchasers (3).

Political Polemic

The second set of criticisms (both in Italian) regard aspects of CW’s Manifesto, the twelve acts for a planetary sensibility (link to the Italian, see below for some translated extracts). This planetary sensibility is understood as a type of global consciousness allowing fruitful coexistence with the earth and rejection of practices harmful to its integrity. Paragraph two argues that the demented nature of modern life should be understood as not only deriving from the loss of meaning but also the dimming of the senses, and contends that sensory lucidity impacts directly on the ability to act meaningfully and sensibly (4). Whereas in this case the criticism appears to target the prosaic and generalist language of the manifesto, the real wrath is saved for the section dedicated to the necessity to oppose the spread of Genetically Modified (GM) crops, a programme spelled out in clear and uncompromising terms, advocating both legislative change and direct action against the products of the GM industry (5). Predictably, it is the scandalous suggestion that property destruction (crop destruction, product spoilage) should be undertaken to provoke the ire of conservative wine writers.

For Veronelli however, the law never delineated a border not to be crossed when the issue demanded it. In fact he was accustomed to suffering the consequences of his cultural and political commitments. On two separate occasions he was imprisoned: first, in 1957 for having translated and published “Historiettes, contes et fabliaux” by the Marquis De Sade, defined as an ‘obscene publication’ and publicly burnt in Varese. In the 1970s he was incarcerated again, this time for inciting small winemakers to rebellion against changes in the system for wine production introduced at the behest of industrial interests, and detained for six months. Specifically he was involved in the occupation of a train station at Santo Stefano Belbo as part of the protests. In addition Veronelli was a declared anarchist and sometime collaborator left-libertarian publications.

A Complex Mozaic

Today’s Italian wine landscape is quite fragmented, composed of groups united by technical style/sensibility and the need to acquire market visibility. The proliferation of parallel events during Europe’s biggest wine-fair Vinitaly is a document of this. Most recently there has been a parting of the ways in the Viniveri group led by Teobaldo Capellano, with the departure of Angiolino Maule who has now set up another platform, VinNatur. there’s also the Vini di Vignaioli network which holds an annual event in Parma and functions as a bridge with comparable French producers. Political discussion within Critical Wine is withering as well, and now some of the more motivated discussions amongst producers have shifted to the Associazione Agricoltori Critici, leaving CW to be used more as an interface with the public and those producers now inactive. Quite a kaleidoscope of groups thus, and that’s just the hazy world of wine-making influenced by organic and biodynamic practices…

(1) Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Dario De Bortoli provide an overview of the emergence of a movement for an alternative agriculture and food policy in their article For Another Agriculture, Mute Magazine, 2003.

(2) Veronelli’s first proposal of collaboration with young people involved in occupied social centres and anarchist groups dates from this period and concerned the De.C.O. and the revitalization of local cultures, see his Lettera ai Giovani Estremi, A, Rivista Anarchica, February 1999.

(3) Quite a number of producers do practice the prezzo sorgente. My biggest problem when encountering Azienda Agricola Aurora for example is how to transport their wines, the prices offer extraordinary value.

(4) A rough translation of this rather tricky text:

“The second act of planetary sensibility is a reflection on the madness of reality, understood no longer as the failure to reason of strange minds but rather as sensorial deprivation, as the difficulty or impossibility of experiencing our sensory sphere in a planetary sociality. Planetary sensibility is thus an act of resistance against the destruction of tastes and the annihilation of knowledge, but also against that sensorial deprivation which blunts our ability to hear, see, feel, taste and smell. Amongst the non-senses of contemporary humanity there isn’t just production of an infinite army of short-sightedness. Miopias of hearing, of the palate, of our sense of smell are just as, if not more, worrying than short-sightedness. The craziness of life is related not only to the loss of meaning in our actions but also the weakening of our sensory capacities. The meaning of action cannot be unaffected by the senses through which we act. Meaning goes missing as the senses are lost. Sensorial deprivation is the paradigmatic and crucial aspect of the loss of the sense of acts. Planetary sensibility is thus a reaffirmation of sensorial centrality and a simultaneous re-centreing of the meaning of action.”

(5) Once again the translation is approximate:

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the monsters of agriculture: apart from important questions regarding the consequences of genetic modification on both plants and mankind, which would be enough reason to fight them, GMOs concentrate the agricultural sector in the hands of the few, impoverish the earth, destroy the peasantry, and eliminate or homogenise taste. GMOs constitute the greatest threat to planetary sensibility today. Against them there is neither time to lose nor any chance of mediation. Research, experimentation, enabling legislation and the use of GMOs constitute a crime against the earth and humanity. Everything must be done to stop them. But where cultivation, even if only experimental, is allowed, it is necessary to destroy the GMOs by any means necessary. The most minimal aim of the planetary sensibility is to get rid of legislation in favour of GMOs, destroy GM crops, destroy GM products all along the production cycle, from research to retail. If you want to do something good, destroy GMOs. It’s enough just to go to the nearest supermarket and open their packaging, spoiling them, It’s enough to burn the fields where they are being grown. As to those who work in the research, production or sale of GM products, we ask that they demonstrate their planetary sensibility by leaving or openly sabotaging GM products and companies making them. To desert or to sabotage: there is no other choice. The war conducted by GMOs against humanity and the earth is the most unwise and foolish of wars; worse than any of those between mankind.

December 5, 2007 Posted by | /, critical wine, italy, material culture, wine | 8 Comments

Wandering the Wine Route at Leoncavallo…

Report to come. From tomorrow it’s back to intellectual property.

November 30, 2007 Posted by | /, critical wine, italy, material culture, photography, wine | Leave a comment

La Terra Trema: Critical Wine in Milan

One year later, I find myself once again in Via Wattenau. In that warehouse which has an important political resonance in Milan, Leoncavallo. Again, my presence is driven by Critical Wine, which this year has been organised by Folletto, a ‘small’ alternative space on the outskirts of Milan. Last year I made their acquaintance, as they had a stall at critical book and wine, and they impressed me with their rigor. No surprise then, that they have done a superb job in organizing this year’s event.

There are about fifty wine-makers present, a disproportionate number are from Piedmont, which makes sense when you understand that it is the region of high-quality, small-scale producers par excellence. Most of them, like their customers, are principally interested in red wines, but I’ve developed a fetish for whites, so I started with Timorasso. This is an ancient Piedmontese varietal, which was largely abandoned due to its temperamental nature, being too liable to rot and to bursting, according to the climate. Other grapes were available which were more reliable. Today, as part of the rediscovery of local heritage Timorasso is a source of excitement, even if it remains relatively rare, being produced in an area near Tortona over a total of just 50 hectares. Producers describe it as a white with the body of a red, and insist that it is a wine that can age for up to ten years. I tasted wines from Valli Unite and Euvio Ferreti, the former was more acidic,mineral and Mediterranean, and the latter more driven by floral and fruit components. Honestly these are young wines, and I’m curious to see what will become of them with the passage of time.

A highlight of the day was an excellent presentation by sommelier Andrea Bonini about Barolo. Honestly this level of contextualization and expertise was a novelty for me at Critical Wine, but I was really impressed. A detailed analysis of the elements of terroir was provided, encompassing geology, micro-climates, vineyard methodology, precipitation levels etc – basically it was deadly serious! During the lecture it occurred to me that the producers should be proud to have their wines presented in such a manner, and indeed both Cascina del Monastero (La Morra) and Vigneti Rocche (Castiglione Falletto) participated enthusiastically in the discussion , in addition to providing the samples :).

In addition I got to try two of my favourite whites from le Marche, a Pecorino from Aurora (one of heroes tout court), and a Verdichio di Castelli di Jesi Riserva (2005) from La Distesa. Aurora had bad news about the harvest (their production is down 40%). La Distesa explained how verdicchio can go in either of two directions, a more raw and mineral version a la Riesling from Alsace, or a softer rounder form comparable to Burgundy whites, hinging upon the use of a malolactic fermentation.

Otherwise I spent the evening drinking reds from Apulia, a deliberate drive on my part to correct an impression of primitivo and negoramaro formed by the industrial producers which dominate the market in these wines, whose products taste cooked. But if you can find a good producer then you’ll get far better value for money than in any of Italy’s famous regions. Morella was my first stop and their cru made from seventy five year old primitivo vines is great. In addition they offer a blend with malbec, the first time I’ve encountered this varietal in Italy, although the apparently it is common in that region. Next up was Mille Una from Lizzano. I preferred their primitivos to the negroamaros, particularly enjoying the Ori di Taranto 2003. All of these wines managed to maintain balance such that the strength of the alcohol was kept in the shade.

November 24, 2007 Posted by | critical wine, italy, material culture, wine | 4 Comments