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Crackdown On "Natural" Wine Exposes Legal Loophole in Italy

Cloud-covered vines at the Cinque Campi natural winery, Puianello, Emilia-Romagna, Italy
© Cinque Campi | Cloud-covered vines at the Cinque Campi natural winery, Puianello, Emilia-Romagna, Italy
Ministry raid on Rome store may spur growers to seek a legal definition for their product.

During the Italian summer that has just ended, two officers from the agriculture ministry paid a surprise visit to the Enoteca Bulzoni wine store in Rome, which has been operating on the Viale Parioli since 1929. Its owners, Alessandro and Ricardo Bulzoni, grandsons of the founders, were formally notified that they would be fined – and possibly prosecuted – for selling “vino naturale” (natural wine) without certification.

But therein lies the sting: While it is against the law in Italy to sell natural wine without certification, it is also impossible to sell it with certification, since no such category of wine exists under Italian law.

A ministry official quoted in the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano explained that “the phrase ‘natural wine’ does not exist and, therefore, does not correspond with the accepted appellations, and, for this reason, it is not verifiable.” He continued: "No similar appellation exists in the regulations that govern the commercialization of wine in Italy or in the European Union.”

The official added that the regulatory regime was designed to protect the consumer. Using the label “natural wine” was misleading to the public, he said, and damaging to the Italian wine industry.

When the owners of Enoteca Bulzoni were duly fined, Alessandro Bulzoni said: "I'm not complaining about the fine itself, but about the legislative loophole in the definition of the term 'vino naturale.'"

Legally, natural wine in Italy is in the same position as in the rest of the world: there is no official, universally accepted definition of “natural wine,” and unlike organic wine, there are no “natural wine” certifying bodies. (Organic wine is different from natural wine in that it simply has to be produced from organically grown grapes, whereas the vinification of natural wine is as important as the grapes from which it is made.)

But there does appear to be a consensus among natural-wine organizations on a definition. La Renaissance des Appellations in France has developed guidelines for winemakers on steps to take to convey their appellation's characteristics in the wine they produce. The first version was written by Nicolas Joly, owner of Coulée de Serrant and a leading proponent of natural wines. It includes the avoidance of “all synthetic chemical products”, an insistence on grapes being hand-picked, and the prohibition of foreign yeasts, reverse osmosis, acid adjustments and chaptalization.

Nicolas Joly pictured at Domaine du Chateau de la Roche aux Moines, home of Savennières-Coulée-de-Serrant
© AFP/ Frank Perry | Nicolas Joly pictured at Domaine du Chateau de la Roche aux Moines, home of Savennières-Coulée-de-Serrant

Similarly, the president of the Italian natural-wine organization VinNatur, Angiolio Maule, told Wine-Searcher: “The term ‘natural wine’ means no chemical treatments in the vineyard or in the cellar, to respect – as much as possible – the characteristics of the territory, and of the variety, while protecting the environment and the consumer.”

Responding to the agriculture ministry's action against Enoteca Bulzoni, Maule said: “We think that it was an unjustified, bureaucratic over-reaction.” His organization has pledged its support to Bulzoni, including the provision of its pesticides analysis "that objectively vouches for the meaning of natural wine.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, American natural-wine writer Alice Feiring also reached out to the Roman wine store, even offering to fly to Italy to testify on Bulzoni’s behalf in court should the need arise. Feiring was reluctant to comment without first-hand information, but she admits to being suspicious about who or what instigated the agriculture ministry's inspection.

“Now that there are these [natural] wines popping up – they are getting space on wine lists, they’re making some headway – it doesn’t surprise me that this would have happened," says Feiring. She believes the visit was sparked by a “disgruntled producer.” 

That view is shared by Giulia Graglia, an Italian natural-wine writer and filmmaker whose work includes "Senza Trucco" (Without Makeup), a film about female natural-wine producers, and "Il Re del Mosto" (King of the Must).

“I believe that someone, annoyed by the phenomenon of natural wines, some big producer, has probably sent the inspection,” says Graglia. She is convinced that natural wine "is becoming very, very big” and conventional producers are feeling threatened. In Graglia's view, they “don’t know how to react to this thing, because they’re losing the market. So, they’re attacking."

Graglia has found that the very term "natural" is controversial. “I have been present at conferences, at round-table discussions, and there are conventional producers who are very angry, who say, ‘But if you call your wines natural, it seems that we don’t make natural wines,’” she says.

Whether or not the visit to Enoteca Bulzoni was instigated by an irritated producer, both Maule and Graglia believe that it could have a beneficial side-effect. “We think that thanks to this ‘scandal,’ many more people have learned about natural wine,” says Maule. He believes that consumers will now be in a position to make more-informed decisions.

Cinque Campi vineyards, Puianello, Emilia-Romagna, Italy
© Cinque Campi | Cinque Campi vineyards, Puianello, Emilia-Romagna, Italy

Graglia, too, hopes that the episode will have “positive consequences,” including that the world of natural wines, which she says has "many internal groups, many internal associations," may be pushed to unite, "to really find a single placard, a name, a shared manifesto.”

While many natural-wine producers would object to a certification process, Graglia argues that the rules they follow are already more or less the same. In other words, finding consensus on what constitutes natural wine should not be an onerous task, and doing so would address the problem of consumer recognition. In her view, "you really need something to permit the general public, who go to supermarkets, who go to the big shops, to understand that [a particular] wine is made without chemicals.”

Feiring, on the other hand, would be devastated to see the world of natural wines become politicized: “To me, it’s a heartbreak that a category of wine that has been grassroots, and just doing what is in one’s heart, all of a sudden becomes a package … There’s something unseemly about it to me.” But she also feels that it’s inevitable, as the world of natural wines comes of age.

“Any group goes through this wonderful moment where you’re together and everything’s in balance, and then group politics get involved and it changes,” Feiring says.

Both Feiring and Maule would prefer the introduction of a requirement to list on the bottle the ingredients and processes used, as a good method of identifying natural wines. As Maule puts it: “It would be right for all producers of wine – natural, conventional, organic – to put the ingredients on the label, as with all other foods.”

In the end, neither Feiring nor Maule nor Graglia foresees any deleterious effects of the Enoteca Bulzoni episode for makers or lovers of natural wine. Feiring hypothesizes that if there were some sort of crackdown in Italy on the use of the phrase “natural wine,” then people in the industry would simply choose a new term. She explains: “You just don’t use the word 'natural,' you use ‘low manipulation.’ Everybody knows what you’re talking about anyway. You develop some sort of code.”

Some Italian commentators say that a sign advertising "vini naturale" in a smaller, less important shop than Enoteca Bulzoni would have gone unnoticed. There are also suggestions that the authorities were excessive in their response. Few people believe that the Bulzonis were acting with intent to defraud. Rather, they were searching for an appealing way to describe wines that were not precisely organic.

Alessandro Bulzoni said: "For years we have been aware that certain types of products do not really offer the intrinsic quality that they would have one believe. We therefore found another type of product with nutritional value: that's why we defined it as 'natural.'"

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