It Takes Bottle

Things are usually quiet in the vineyards at the start of the year. While celebrations are held for San Vincenzo, patron saint of wine growers, pruning is done and the previous year’s wine is left to mature in the cellar. It is a time to focus on promotional activities and check market prospects — early indications for 2006 suggest that Italian sales will be good, particularly in North America.

This reasonably satisfactory state of affairs should not distract us from thinking about the future of our wine industry. The decisions taken today will create the identity and image of Italian wine in coming years, inevitably determining its fate. Facing the challenges of competition in the international marketplace means you have to be well prepared, organized and competitive. In this context I feel it is necessary to return to the complex question of the reform of producer consortia.

At present the reform project is still undecided but, pending final developments, those in the wine industry who have always strongly opposed it have made themselves heard. It might be worth repeating the reasons why small producers in particular are so opposed to the suggested changes. There are basically three main points of contention.

The first is what is known as the ‘erga omnes’ provision — readers should not be alarmed at the use of Latin, which is abused too frequently to fudge issues. The expression refers to collective agreements which automatically apply to everyone. So any consortium reaching a certain level of representativeness would be able to establish binding rules on all producers, including those who had never become members.

Further fueling suspicions and opposition is the fact that this move is linked to a new voting system. There will no longer be a democratic assignment of one vote to each member in a consortium but a weighted allocation — strange for a cooperative body — based on the number of bottles each member produces. This arrangement would radically change the aims of mutual support and common interest that caused consortia to be created. It would give those with more votes a power that would be difficult to hold in check.

But the biggest problem remains the question of controls since it is intended to entrust this task directly to the consortia. Smaller-sized producers are concerned that consortia managed by a few large members with erga omnes powers might not be able to ensure total impartiality when it comes to the crucial matter of monitoring the proper application of current regulations.

Faced with this reform, the wine industry appears in disarray and opinions are divided since the Italian wine scene is far from homogeneous. The erga omnes principle and weighting might work in situations where producers are more or less the same size but where this is not the case, tensions are all too evident and there is a real risk of making things worse.

It is absolutely essential — and this is the position taken by the Italian National Farmers Association, which I support — to give purchasers a guarantee of top quality and complete traceability. In a competitive world we can’t risk there being any doubts about quality or effectiveness of controls. We can achieve the desired objectives by applying democratic principles in managing consortia and ensuring that third parties are responsible for monitoring regulations. Institutions would therefore have the job of improving the efficiency of the system without embarrassing public bodies, chambers of commerce or Financial Police, who have shown they are good at their job.

A concerted effort is needed to calmly and sensibly solve the problem. In any case the real challenges involve how natural the wine is and how it compares with products from emerging producer countries where there is a clear lack of regulations. We must get down to clarifying essential issues in the coming weeks.

First printed in La Stampa on February 13, 2006

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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