Would You Buy A Wine Made By A Racist?
Eric Arnold, 9/05/2013 @ 3:24PM
The words “courageous” and “wine journalist” aren’t ones that routinely enter my brain within about 24 hours of each other, much less in the same sentence. In fact, wine journalists tend to be just the opposite given the fact that most decided early in their careers they wanted to be nowhere near trading floors, war zones, crime scenes, inner cities – or even vineyards and wineries for that matter. There’s not even much journalism called for in the profession, as the major requirements for the job are: Sip, spit, score, opine, move on. But in a recent bizarre, awkward situation involving a racist diatribe by an Italian winemaker, one very courageous wine journalist made the claim that her profession can be an agent of change for the better. Getting to that point, though, wasn’t at all as smooth as it should have been. Even in a clear, cut-and-dried situation involving blatant, abhorrent racism, it seems difficult for a journalist/critic to take swift, appropriate action.
Here’s what happened. Vintner Fulvio Bressan of Friuli, Italy, posted to Facebook FB +2.29% an odd rant making no secret of his feelings for Italy’s African-born Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge (whom Bressan labeled a “dirty black monkey”). In response last week Monica Larner, Italian wine critic for The Wine Advocate, took the temperature of her readers via the publication’s message board. Part of her post appears below:
That [Bressan’s] wines are “personality-driven” cannot be exaggerated. … The man is larger than life on all levels. He presents his opinions with the grace of a sledgehammer and keeping his company can be intellectually exhausting. He has developed a highly personalized winemaking philosophy and has endeavored to make sure his wines compare to no one.
After reading his unacceptable Facebook rant, I know his wines will leave a sour taste to most. Many consumers will boycott his bottles. They have the luxury of choosing the brands they want to bring into their homes. Others may decide that what’s in the bottle should be considered independently of who made it.
A few days of unanimous reader response later (against Bressan, and in support of Larner’s having called attention to the matter), Larner posted another comment thanking her readers, announcing that she will no longer cover or critique the man’s wines. Great. But why couldn’t Larner simply draw a line in the sand over Bressan, immediately? Why hesitate?
Perhaps it’s that wine journalists aren’t typically driven by urgency or general topicality. Larner did not respond to a message seeking comment, but her initial maneuver might have something to do with the fact that Italy, where Larner lives and works, is currently experiencing rampant racism. Never mind an Italian wine company’s Nazi-themed labels, in recent months, black players for AC Milan – and their teammates – have walked off the pitch due to a chorus of racist chants ringing throughout the stadium. While Larner, in subsequent posts to the Advocate’s message boards, stated that such behavior and sentiment represents a tiny fraction of the Italian populace, I find that hard to believe. AC Milan is Italy’s equivalent of the Yankees, so can you imagine the Bronx Bombers needing to halt a game for the same reason? Hardly. So perhaps some tiptoeing might have been necessary considering where Larner lives. But it doesn’t seem that way when you read her follow-up comments in which she announced her boycott of Bressan’s wines. She made a statement that she was seemingly prepared to make the instant she read the vintner’s despicable words:
[This] decision was simple and it makes me feel good on a basic, human level. As for Bressan, I’m sure he will survive this dark phase and perhaps he will emerge a better man. Let him macerate on his own skin so to speak, for a long, long time…
What would have been lost by saying as much in immediate response? My first thought was that maybe critics view the world in an entirely different manner from the rest of us. But from a couple inquiries, it seems they’re just as confused on how to handle the issue of race as anyone else.
“I’m a firm believer in a rigid separation between the art and the artist,” NPR film critic Ian Buckwalter replied to me via email after I asked him how he’d react if a filmmaker he regularly covers or reviews had behaved in a manner similar to Bressan. “I’m not going to stop writing about (or enjoying) the films of Roman Polanski because of his sexually predatory past, or Woody Allen because of any lingering creepiness surrounding his personal life. I don’t think Mel Gibson is anywhere near the equal of either of them, but neither am I going to avoid his films just because I find his personal behavior repellant.”
It’s a fair point – but only if other critics agree to the same, precise MO. I asked New York Observer restaurant critic Joshua David Stein if he would continue reviewing the restaurants of Danny Meyer, Mario Batali or Bobby Flay if one of them had taken to Facebook as Bressan did. Stein said that he would. “But I would also write about whatever objectionable things they said. I don’t think critics should review anything in isolation so it is only natural that the commentary would factor in.”
This is the exact opposite opinion of Buckwalter’s separation of art and artist. Buckwalter told me that, for him, “maintaining radio silence about a craftsman you find distasteful runs counter to one of the primary purposes of criticism, which is to foster and engage in discussion, not to quell it.” Starting a discussion was Larner’s initial approach, but when it comes to comments such as Bressan’s, aren’t we doing a disservice to ourselves if we even bother with a discussion? It wasn’t as if Bressan raised the possibility that Minister Kyenge was unqualified for her job. He compared her to a lesser species. What’s there to discuss?
Again, Larner deserves credit for taking a stand – but it shouldn’t have taken more than a few minutes to do so. While the hesitation could be explained as a code among critics that, to the rest of us, is a garbled alien language, it’s more likely that racism lurks in far more people and in places than we actually want to know. After all, the wine industry suffers from a well-documented, global history of mistreatment of migrant farm workers (a lower-profile version of racism, but racism nonetheless). Systemic as racism is, it can only be addressed in the same, no-exceptions manner as opportunities and targets such as Bressan present themselves. And to be clear, the wine industry doesn’t need fewer Bressans; it needs its Bressans to reveal themselves as clumsily and abhorrently as he did, so the Larners can react appropriately and with quick confidence. Only then can consumers be expected to do the same.