I love those old movies, the ones with a "crusading reporter" who takes on corrupt special interests and, against all odds, with a pretty girl faithfully by his side, exposes evil and restores righteousness. A Jimmy Stewart sort of role. Jean Arthur as the girl. Know what I mean?
Italy has a wine blogger who has managed to assume the same role -- exposer of dishonest practices and cheapo short cuts, all of which hurt the image of Italian wine both at home (long-term trend: declining wine consumption) and abroad (intensifying global competition). This crusading reporter is none other than my friend in Verona, Giampiero Nadali, better known to the blogosphere as Aristide.
Over the past few months, "Aristide" has taken on two causes. The first was to spearhead an initiative to counter the deplorable EU ruling which now allows the use of wood chips to impart that oh so oaky flavor to lesser wines. (Not that there weren't plenty of producers already using them on the sly.)
This initiative, which he calls Chips Free, is intended to be a self-regulating, honor-system program: a wine producer swears that he does not use either trucioli (wood chips) or oak extract, and displays the Chips Free logo on his label.
I was and, sorry to say, remain a bit skeptical about the efficacy of this program. Honor systems tend to break down because, well, not so many people are all that honorable. Still, I have to hope it works as intended, encouraging greater transparency (honest disclosure) among wine producers, especially the smaller ones who need some way of distinguishing themselves from the herd. One such producer has already jumped on board and now displays the Chips Free logo on his back label.
The second cause has to do with much more information on wine labels -- what additives (way beyond sulfites) are present, what processes were used (micro-oxygenation, etc.), and so on. As he writes, "The debate over chips is the tip of the iceberg of a large number of physical and chemical processes used in making wine -- 99% of them legal -- of which there isn't a trace on the label." He goes on to list about 30 additives and processes, some of which are new and I guess still somewhat controversial (e.g., reverse osmosis) and some age-old (various fining agents).
This is where even some of Aristide's friends start to pull back, arguing that enough information is sometimes way too much, and that none but a few wine fanatics would pay any attention to the slew of info. It might even put people off wine altogether. As the young girls say, "Ewww. Too much information."
My take on it is this. Sometimes you have to overstate your case to make your case resonate, to get people talking, to change ideas and to take constructive action. Aristide is doing Italian wine a favor by pressing for self-starting reforms, to incrementally improve both its quality and its reputation. And, like charity, it has to begin at home.