The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I found myself repeating this proverb a few weeks ago at a conference at Maurizio Zanella’s magnificent Ca’ del Bosco winery in Italy. We were gathered there-a few journalists and a large number of wine producers-to ponder the question “What future for great European wines?” It was prompted by Maurizio’s growing concern over EU legislation and the issues it raises for domestic production.
He is right to be worried: In order to make great wines, winemakers need some freedom of choice; yet that freedom is increasingly restricted by voices on all sides claiming the moral high ground. The devil would especially relish seeing nations at each other's throats, fighting to protect the interests of consumers worried about safety, while producers worry about quality but are divided over how best to achieve it. Only the devil could inspire such contradictory rhetoric-I've heard it all these past few months. No longer content to verify the origin of products, EU states now want to protect those products: not just guarantee their provenance but also their quality, in terms of their intrinsic characteristics. It's as if the devil were putting words into their mouths.
"Under no circumstances," they say, "do we want to be held liable for not having done everything possible to prevent the fraudulent misrepresentation of geographical origin, or of goods, or of threats to public health. But since we ourselves understand nothing about these things, then let us leave it to the producers to define the rules of production, however numerous and however restrictive these rules may be. And if the producers cannot handle enforcement of those rules, then let us appoint independent agencies that can. We don't understand anything about appellations or the subtle distinctions between them. But assuming they are justified, they should comply with strict specifications spelling out the rules of production and the specific tasting profile of each individual product. Those rules and that tasting profile should, in turn, be closely supervised, making the assessment of grape quality and flavor absolutely compulsory."
We all know where such jawdropping naivety has got us. The standards now in place were selected on the basis of convenience, not rigor. They suited the needs of most producers but they also, alas, played into the hands of the sales-and-distribution sector. There is only one thing that matters to sales and distribution, and that is making as much money as possible for the least possible outlay. If further proof were required of the primacy of financial objectives over intellectual honesty and the pursuit of quality, then the new EU rules for "organic" wine provide it. What EU states do not understand is that of all the agrifood processing technologies, high-quality winemaking is the least amenable to mass production and the most dependent on human expertise- in terms of creativity and professional commitment. Wine is not like a slice of ham or a pot of yogurt. The mere fact that people believed they could set rules for "organic" production displays a total ignorance of the real nature of wine. The fruit from which wine is made may, indeed, be cultivated according to "organic" standards that guarantee sustainable agricultural practices-but it is absurd to dictate how that fruit should be turned into wine. There is nothing inherently artificial or chemical about yeast, enzymes, or sulfides. Fermentation is by definition "organic"-one of life's little miracles. So, why all the contradictory rhetoric? It's the devil, I say, laughing up his sleeve at human idealism, provoking proponents on both sides: on the one hand, the organic diehard, praising the virtues of nature to consumers who will believe anything; on the other, the sensible winemaker pleading for a more scientific approach. "Terroir is everything," says the diehard. "Nature is fundamentally good, and the only way of making genuine wine is to do nothing, add nothing, supervise nothing. What? You think my wine smells bad or says nothing about its terroir or vintage? It's not my wine that's at fault, it's your jaded palate, corrupted by the wiles of synthetic-tasting wines born of 'chemical imperialism.' Long live natural wines, made by free and rebellious winemakers!"
"On the contrary," says the sensible winemaker, "nature is blind, and its workings are totally random. Without some action on our part, we are left at the mercy of the rain, the wind, and yes, even the sun. So let us set the highest standards of excellence, using the latest technology to achieve the purest expression of terroir." Neither side is listening, but their views are discussed ad infinitum in the wine community- by journalists claiming to be experts, by real experts, or by wine lovers floundering in a fog of ideology that they seek to dignify with dogma. Far more serious are the implications for Europe's historic vineyards of a onesize- fits-all approach to standard-setting and decision-making. Great wines, those whose magic rubs off on all others, have always been the exception. And it is by imitating exceptions that humanity has progressed. If those exceptions are now to be outlawed by legislation, dismissed as no more than the whims of a culture that makes sense only to the happy few with more money than scruples, where does that leave us?