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08.23.2013

Should We Care What Winemakers Say?

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Like many in the wine world, I was horrified to learn today of winemaker Fulvio Bressan's appalling rant on Facebook against Italy's first African-Italian government minister, Cécile Kyenge, in response to her suggestion that undocumented immigrants be given temporary housing under certain circumstances.

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His comments, as translated by Jeremy Parzen of Do Bianchi, from whom I learned of this (after a tweet from colleague Hande Leimar), are as follows:

"hey, dirty Black MONKEY, I DON'T PAY TAXES to put your GORILLA friends up at a HOTEL. Please take them to your house where you can be the big shot with all that money of yours. Oops. That money isn't even yours. Because Italians give you that money. YOU SHITTY NEGRO GOLD DIGGER."

I'll pause for a moment to let that sink in. The comment was subsequently removed from Bressan's Facebook page, but his response to the article on Parzen's site made it clear that he has no intention of apologizing for his actions.

Instead, somewhat astonishingly, after saying he is adult enough to take responsibility for his words, he lashes out against everyone who would dare to criticize him for making such a comment ("You are just a crowd of sheeps that accept everything and more..." "grow some balls since it seems you are missing them as well as a free mind") while at the same time insisting that he is not racist.

Fulvio Bressan has never been a shrinking violet. He has a reputation for speaking his mind about just about everything. He's fond of threatening to kill anyone he catches bringing commercial yeasts into his winery. But up until his recent comments, that bluster has been charming. He's been a big guy, with a big mouth, whose wines always spoke louder than he did. I've written about his wines, which I adore, several times.

But now the question: what is a wine lover to do in the face of such outrageous behavior? Can we separate the wines from their maker?

Such questions are often asked of people like composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner, whose anti-Semitic views and favor among Hitler's coterie have made him composer non-grata to many. Yet others say he was merely a product of his time, and that his views would not have been out of step with many in his era. He is given a pass the same way Thomas Jefferson is given a pass for owning slaves (though some draw the line at him fathering illegitimate children with one of them).

Those questions are easier to contemplate, however, because we're talking about people long dead and gone. There's a sense that somehow enjoying the Ring of the Nibelung today can be done without the act being an implicit endorsement of the man who created it. For some it can be appreciated as a work of genius without needing to deal with the nastiness that may have accompanied that genius. History, after all, is complex.

It's another thing entirely, however, to contemplate the abhorrent views of a living producer of something we appreciate, as Paula Deen has recently proven so widely and publicly.

Bressan's comments are much the same, and if the last 24 hours of Twitter and Facebook opprobrium are any indication, they will lead to the same result.

Many wine lovers will have no interest in supporting the livelihood of someone whose views include sentiments like those Bressan shared so publicly. I know I feel that way personally. There are so many great wines in the world, why would I want to give my money to someone whose view of the world would permit them to speak in such a manner about an individual person?

We know the world is filled with people who have ugly views, and do ugly things. Just look at the comment stream on Yahoo.Com after any news story about President Obama or his wife Michelle if you want to see some of the filth that fills the minds and hearts of people in this world. Some of these people, like Bressan, hide behind the excuse that they despise the policies of our current president, but that doesn't turn racist hate speech into political commentary.

Do we buy and drink wines that are made by assholes? Undoubtedly. I'm sure plenty of winery owners whose wines we consume regularly have views that not only don't square with our own, but run counter to our deepest values. The same is true of some of our friends. The question, however, is what we do when those views not only surface, but are broadcast far and wide in a public forum? It's an individual, ethical choice for each of us to make, and not an easy one.

Bressan will continue to rail against his critics, I'm sure. He's displayed evidence enough of an ego that will, in all likelihood, prevent him from ever eating crow over this statement. And even if he does, he's set fire to enough bridges in the aftermath that will never be rebuilt.

Like my colleague Joanie Karapetian this whole experience makes me quite sad. She is correct in saying that for many of us, drinking wine consists of more than simply consuming a beverage. Wine may quench a thirst to be sure, but for many of us, it is a thirst for story, for meaning, and for beauty, all of which are shared with and produced by the place from which the wine comes, and the hands that make it.

And because of that, Bressan's wines will never taste the same again.

Read the tweet that first showcased this, and then the follow-up post on Do Bianchi.

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