U.S. may put cork in Italy's brunello

Officials suspect merlot compromised integrity

June 9, 2008

BY CHRISTINE SPOLAR/Tribune foreign correspondent

Suddenly, brunello di Montalcino is giving everyone here a headache.

At least four vineyards from this lush Tuscan region, and perhaps many more, are being investigated by Italian prosecutors on suspicion that the wrong grapes have found their way into what many consider Italy's premier wine.

So far, a million bottles of the prized red have been impounded by Italian authorities who fear that some brunello vintages have been intentionally blended with other reds or that grapes not allowed in brunello are being grown on the same land.

And now the U.S. Treasury Department, which for months sought information on the case with no success, has threatened to ban all imports of the wine by June 23 unless Italy gives a simple guarantee: that what is inside a bottle of brunello di Montalcino is, in fact, brunello di Montalcino. And more to the point, that only sangiovese grapes -- the essence of brunello -- are used in its making.

"The issue is one of truth in labeling," Arthur Resnick of the U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau said in a phone interview. "If there are bottles being produced and being labeled something they're not, we can't let them in."

The crisis over one of Italy's best-known wines comes at a particularly unsettled time here. Italy is struggling economically and depends on robust exports. It also lives off a luxe image and the idea that, for a price, a bit of la dolce vita can be enjoyed outside its borders.

The U.S. threat has so deeply upset the region's winemakers that some were willing to talk about possible missteps.

"Technically, technically it could be called fraud," said one official who would speak only behind closed doors about the focus of the investigation. "But no one wants to call it that."

While some unhappy vintners suggest that the real U.S. motive may be helping Italy's winemaking rivals in California, others wonder if brunello's soaring popularity didn't prove too tempting to some Italian winemakers.

"There are clearly some cases" of incorrect grapes planted on land reserved solely for sangiovese, said Gioberti Zanonni, a 60-year-old grape grower whose La Fortuna winery family has produced brunello for generations. "We have to get to the causes for that."

Thriving market

Brunello wine is an elixir of Tuscany, and Americans are its most enthusiastic foreign consumers. The U.S. market drinks 25 percent of the roughly 7 million bottles produced annually.

The American trade bureau has agreed to send investigators to Montalcino to meet Tuesday with Italian officials who are privy to details. U.S. trade authorities also are suggesting extensive laboratory analysis of the suspect wine.

"We've asked the Italians to give us a list of vintages and producers affected," Resnick said. "So far they haven't."

Italian authorities seized on questions about brunello's authenticity after inspectors from Italy's Agriculture Ministry and the Guardia di Finanza financial police checked vineyards last fall.

These big-name wineries are known to be under scrutiny: Argiano; Castelgiocondo; Pian delle Vigne, owned by Antinori; and Castello Banfi. While those wineries have acknowledged an inquiry, the number involved could count in the dozens, some producers say.

"The number I've heard ranges from 12 to 30 to 80," said Lars Leicht, a vice president of Castello Banfi, the leading producer of brunello in the region. "In our case, the Guardia di Finanza went over our records and wine reports. They weren't completely happy with what they found."

But Leicht, speaking by phone from Banfi headquarters in New York state, declared that "we've decided to stand our ground. We believe in the integrity of our wine."

Tiziana Frescobaldi, who sits on the board of family-owned Castelgiocondo, said the winery had told the Brunello Consorzio, responsible for monitoring standards in the region, that 50 of its 370 acres of land were now planted with merlot, grapes Frescobaldi blends into wines known as "super-Tuscans."

Frescobaldi said inspectors immediately focused on those grapes. "Now [prosecutors] are trying to prove that we used merlot in our brunello. We said, 'No. That is not the case,'" Frescobaldi said. "This whole thing to me seems absurd. We didn't think this could cause so much misunderstanding. ... And the wine is good."

'Sending a message'

Vintners were spare with details, and Italian law forbids authorities from discussing cases before charges or trials. Some believe the prosecutor was "sending a message" by going after big operations.

Prosecutor Nino Calabrese, based in nearby Siena, has been notably close-mouthed. One of the few statements by Calabrese since news of the investigation broke last fall was a rebuke to those who wanted to know more. He chided the Italian news media for sensational reporting.

"We are investigating the wine ... the genuineness of the wine," Calabrese said by phone last week. "There are strict rules to follow."

Brunello's success in recent years may be playing a role in the inquiry. The wine has soared in popularity -- trade figures show a 78 percent increase in bottles sold over last year -- and questions have been raised whether the demand outstripped Montalcino's capacity.

At least one of the affected wineries has opted for drastic action.

Argiano is asking for the Siena prosecutor to release its wine in exchange for a promise that the winery will drop its claim to a coveted quality designation, and the name brunello from its label.

"We declassified our brunello just to keep our name out there," said Stephane Schaeffer, Argiano's marketing director. "We are very confident that we will be cleared. This is in no way admitting to anything. ... But we have wine we want to go to market now."

The Brunello Consorzio, which represents 256 producers and grape growers in the region, last week voted to authorize new quality controls and what its president, Francesco Marone Cinzano, called "new technology and analysis."

But Cinzano also conceded that the consortium had known since it took over inspections in 2004 that some vintners were growing grapes that were not sangiovese.

Cinzano said the consortium had alerted winegrowers that brunello regulations do not allow any grape but sangiovese to be grown on their properties. He said he trusted growers to fix the problem. Now the consortium will pursue an improved laboratory analysis similar to what is available in the United States.

"We decided," Cinzano said, "to get our act together."