Natural Wine = Consumer Fraud?

Naturalwine.consumerfraudWhile it seems to me a bit over the top that Italian officials would raid a famed Roman wine store for promoting "Natural" wines in violation of Italian consumer fraud laws, the episode reported by Jeramy Parzan at his respected Do Bianchi blog does speak to the nebulous intellectual and commercial space the "natural" wine movement has carved out for itself not just in Italy, but across the globe.

According to Parzan, famed Enoteca Bulzoni was raided by Italian officials and is in line to be at least fined for selling wine under the banner of "natural", a term and category unauthorized under Italian wine laws. The violation apparantly amounts to "consumer fraud".

There is no question in my mind that promoting any wine as "natural" is a case of consumer fraud, but whether it ought to result in a penalty or fine or arrest is another question altogether for which I can not find reasonable justification. Condemnation for trying to dupe consumers? Yes. Pity heaped upon the champions of the term "natural" for the obvious implied denigration of those that aren't "natural"? Appropriate. Contempt for the champions of the idea of "natural wine" for making no formal effort to define what they mean? Acceptable. But fines and penalties? I don't think so.

Parzan, an excellent and enthusiastic promoter of italian wine and italian wine culture, finishes his report on the Italy's "NaturalGate" with this:

"At a time when the financial crisis has led to an overarching reset in the Italian wine industry and when small producers and retailers continue to struggle to stay afloat, is there really any harm in a little sign on Viale Parioli?"

Parzan's rhetorical question begs a more comprehensive question: At a time when transparency and honesty seem to be the talk of the wine world (or at leasts its media), is promoting a deceptive, denigrating, made-up and fraudulent category of wine really of any value to consumers and the wine trade?

16 Responses

  1. Jeremy Parzen - July 10, 2012

    Tom, thanks for the mention and link here… I think one of the interesting things about this episode is how it’s made Italians begin to address the issue you raise above (and that you have raised here on your blog many times). I wish I had time to translate the many posts and opinions that came in the wake of this news… one thing is for certain: the Italian government has taken note and it will be interesting to see what happens next…

  2. andrea gori - July 11, 2012

    Thanks Tom and Jeremy for speaking about this…
    While the episode itself it’s seems anything but a commercial between rival enoteques in Rome, from many voices (including Davide Paolini and me), it’s coming the idea that these episodes are starting now to happen because so called natural wines are becoming mainstream, let’s say about 5% of the fine wine market.
    It will end the same way as “biological wine”…you’ll find big names with their “natural” range made under rules that have nothing natural!
    That’s the way it goes in Europe

  3. Thomas Pellechia - July 11, 2012

    If no penalty, then what is the value of having rules?
    Unless you want these matters to remain fodder for endless opinions on the falseness of advertising and promotional claims, how can you justify simply complaining or illuminating but doing nothing to penalize?

  4. Tom Wark - July 11, 2012

    I view the use of “natural wine” as fraudulent, yes. However, because it is not defined like “organic” it is merely an artistic claim…a claim with no validity and one likely to confuse consumers, but really just a term of art. For that reason, I can’t agree to civil penalties.

  5. Thomas Pellechia - July 11, 2012

    But Tom, you are juxtaposing your feelings and opinion with Italian rules and the showmanship way that the carabinieri go about enforcing them.
    As Jeremy’s post points out, “natural”, is a term and category unauthorized under Italian wine laws. It doesn’t matter what you believe about the word for the Italians to act on an infringement of the laws.
    This is what gives blogging a bad name–opinion not based on fact 😉

  6. Tom Wark - July 11, 2012

    I’m not suggesting that the Italians have no right to act. Likewise, I would not suggest that the FCC does not have a right to act when broadcast television allows the word “fuck” to hit the airwaves. However, I can disagree with the propriety of the FCC pursuing prosecution, just as I can with the Italians pursuit of the retailer in Italy.
    Maybe I’m not understanding what you are getting at.

  7. Lizzy - July 11, 2012

    Mainstream? about 5% of market is “mainstream”, Andrea??

  8. Mike Tommasi - July 11, 2012

    First of all, wine issues are governed by European Union regulations, which are law (unlike directives that require a national law to implement it). There is no Italian wine law.
    Second, you are not allowed adding to a label on a wine, or other food or drink, descriptors that are not recognized by the law. Labeling a wine “natural” or a yogurt “good for your digestion” are illegal. Because in the absence of a clear recognized definition and in the absence of means of verifying the truth of a claim, the claim is rightly considered frivolous and potentially misleading.
    A shopkeeper can write whatever he wants about his wares, so long as he does not tamper with the label he is doing nothing illegal. The fraud squads would do better sticking to their domain of competence.
    There is a long history of wine fraud. Before the law started regulating wines, hundreds of people would die every year from poisonous adulterated wine, this went on for centuries. So there are good reasons to keep wine regulations strict.
    Natural wine makers are so far incapable of agreeing among themselves on what constitutes a natural wine and codifying it in a legal way. In fact, they now expend more energy fighting clan wars than fighting the true enemy: crap industrial wine laced with massive doses of sulfites.
    Natural winemakers can be classed into several categories:
    – those that are not so natural but say they are,
    – those that work truly naturally but make crap wine
    – those that make a very small amount of wine naturally but would have you believe that their entire production is like that
    – a minority that makes damn good wine with very little added anything.
    The latter category is truly exciting but constitutes 1% of 5% of the total wine output…

  9. Thomas Pellechia - July 11, 2012

    In your opinion “natural” is both a fraudulent and an artistic claim. I don’t understand that position at all.
    Fraudulent is serious; artistic claim is frivolous. How can they coexist?
    In any case, to the Europeans, fraudulent is against the law. Penalties are applied to lawbreakers. I don’t understand your problem with that.
    Unless all you are saying is that you think the penalty doesn’t fit the crime. To that, I say: the Europeans disagree.

  10. Tom Wark - July 12, 2012

    Surely a term can be both fraudulent and a term of art: “That wine is so natural”…Term of art, a la “That wine is wonderful”
    “That is a very natural wine”…a fraudulent claim, given no wine is natural. So the use of the term in a wine context can be both an artistic claim, as well as fraudulent.
    Finally, I’m not saying the Italians have no legal right to prosecute. It appears they do. I’m saying that the prosecution or pursuit of prosecution is a heavy-handed use of police power. Now, if the term “Natural” were used on a label, well then, it would be a different story.

  11. Thomas Pellechia - July 12, 2012

    In other words, you disagree with the way they handle enforcement.
    If the law prohibits use of a word in promotional material as well as on the label, then that’s what the law states. Do you know whether or not that is the case? I don’t know if it is, but Italians being the paragon of efficiency (clearing my throat) that’s what it must be.

  12. Tom Wark - July 12, 2012

    My understanding is that it wasn’t a labeling thing, but rather a signage thing. The retailer advertised “natural Wine” for sale.
    It’s hard to believe that the Roman police would find this a real threat. But I’d be more interested to read the law that was violated. That might be interesting.

  13. Thomas Pellechia - July 12, 2012

    here you are:…/Wine_Promotiion_and_the_State_EU_State_aid_law_and_its_impact_on_the_promotion_of_wine.pdf

  14. Arnold Waldstein - July 13, 2012

    Hi Tom…
    You are better than this post. I keep telling myself that.
    A long term reader of your blog. A wine lover and blogger. And yes a true believer in Natural Wine as a consumer category of real value and one very much in use in NYC.
    Sure this legal fiasco is just that.
    You are simply shock blogging though around it to gain attention. Or so it seems.
    I’d love to keep reading your blog. I learn from it and enjoy it.
    Posts like this are really trivializing. Pulp fiction to my mind.

  15. JohnLopresti - July 14, 2012

    European terminology is slightly different from US English usage. Customs around agriculture also are different in the Old World. It’s easy to find photographs of castles hundreds of years old surrounded by long-terraced vineyards in parts of Germany, for example.
    Europe’s labeling history also is a storied one.
    I appreciated the mention, above, of what I understood to reference the sorts of contrasts which exist among European countries, both in language and regulations within viticulture and enology.
    It is difficult to imagine, politically, in the US, that agribusiness sorts of growers would agree to limitations on fruit, variety, and cropload, of the sort common in Italy. Similarly, in France, there is a longstanding model of regulating labeling designating when the fruit was picked. And there was some early contentiousness in the US when food chemistry and microbiology began to modernize winemaking, with respect to the vinification technique esoterically called chaptilization; it’s allowed for Moselle wines in Germany, it’s disallowed in Italy and California; and there are FDA scientific based reasons for its disfavor in US enologic technique.
    Still, it’s a diverse world; and I am sure that in Italy some creative souls will discover another term for naturale. Perhaps that descriptor best would be left to the world of classical art criticism.
    In US English, calling a wine ‘biological’ would seem stilted, imprecise, and overly technical; and it means more than ‘natural’ in European languages.
    The post, and comments, elicited quite a few smiles, Tom. But these are serious matters in many places, for an array of quite differing reasons.
    Though, all that said, I like Mike T’s characterization of the part of the enologic spectrum to which natural attempts to belong conceptually. Call it a term of art. At least one of my grandfather’s made wine, and I doubt he’d have any problem if someone encouraged him to tell the family at a banquet that his winemaking process was all natural. But it’s a different world in legal and agribusiness realms.

  16. [email protected] - July 19, 2012

    347 5757 1641 Voice on demand SUCKs!!

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