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The wine world, too, is re-examining its business practices and responsibilities after an accusation involving migrant labour in Puglia leads to self-examination and, perhaps, new awareness of the treatment of agricultural workers.

Wine joins the 2020 debate over privilege and justice

Aug 14, 2020 5:50 AM

IN this topsy-turvy year of the Covid-19 pandemic and a national uproar over politics and racial injustice, few things are immune from the widespread cultural re-evaluation.

The wine world, too, is re-examining its business practices and responsibilities. In recent weeks, the focus has turned to the case of Valentina Passalacqua - a natural-wine producer in Puglia, the region at the heel of Italy's boot - whom few Americans had ever heard of until recently.

Over the past year, though, she drew a meteoric rise in attention as her products were picked up by two of New York's most important importers of natural wines, Zev Rovine Selections and Jenny & François Selections. Her wines were also featured by Dry Farm Wines, a natural-wine club that ships to 44 states, promising bottles that "whisper in nature's perfect logic and design".

But her upward trajectory as a natural-wine exemplar took a swift nosedive in early July when her father, Settimio Passalacqua, a marble and agriculture magnate in Puglia, was placed under house arrest by the carabinieri, the national police. Prosecutors accused him of the systematic and illegal exploitation of migrant workers in his produce operation.

The Italian authorities have not suggested that Passalacqua was complicit in the crimes they say her father committed. But over the last month, many people in natural-wine circles, using the social justice language of 2020, turned on her, questioning both whether she was operating separately from her father and whether she had benefited from the economic privilege of his actions, regardless of her personal culpability.

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By the end of July, Passalacqua's wines had been dropped by both her New York-based importers, as well as by Dry Farm.

Passalacqua has maintained that her winery and vineyard are independent of her father, and has strenuously denied any involvement with his business.-

"I am outraged by the working conditions my father is accused of creating at this farm, and he should be punished if he did what he is accused of," she said in a statement from Goldin Solutions, a crisis public relations firm in New York.

"Every person deserves the respect and dignity of a living wage and good working conditions, which I am proud to provide at my vineyard. I am optimistic that the importers will resume work with me quickly as they become assured of the fact that blaming me for what my father allegedly did at a totally different business is contrary to the spirit of supporting women entrepreneurs who run ethical operations."

Passalacqua is accused of engaging in caporalato, in which intermediaries act as labour contractors, arranging for migrants, in this case from Northern Africa and Eastern Europe, to do agricultural work while confining them in slum conditions and paying them substandard wages.

An issue of human dignity

It's a problem that has particularly plagued southern Italy, often in conjunction with organised crime. Back in 2010, immigrant agricultural workers near Rosarno, in Calabria, the toe of the boot, rebelled violently against exploitation and shameful conditions. The violence shocked the country, and prompted many, including Pope Benedict XVI, to criticise the exploitation of immigrants.

In 2015, the death of a vineyard worker in Puglia inspired new laws aimed at protecting agricultural workers. But experts contend that many agricultural workers in southern Italy continue to face slavelike conditions.

The accusations, though centred on Passalacqua's agricultural operation and not his daughter's vineyards, are a reminder of the precarious position of agricultural workers all over the wine world, whose work is often unrecognised and who frequently depend on the conscience of their employers to assure them of proper working conditions and benefits.

It's an issue of human dignity that the entire wine world must confront, particularly in the United States, where stringent immigration policies and the Covid-19 pandemic have compounded risks for agricultural workers.

But the suggestion of human exploitation has particular resonance in the natural-wine realm, which - whatever the motivations of individual producers, importers and retailers - often portrays its environmental, ecological and production methods as moral and ethical choices.

Nonetheless, questions regarding migrant workers rarely come up. Most estates are small enough, 10 to 30 acres, to be farmed with a local labour force. For harvests, vineyard owners typically find the necessary hands among friends and family.

"When you throw an 80-hectare winery onto the market all of a sudden, it fills these critical holes in natural wine," said Zev Rovine of Zev Rovine Selections, which imported her Valentina Passalacqua wines, one of several Passalacqua brands, until mid-July. "Very few natural wines are cheap, and she filled that hole with as much wine as you might want."

The question of whether to continue doing business with Passalacqua fell squarely into the larger discussion of social and economic privilege.

While some people scoffed at Passalacqua's efforts to distance herself from her father, others pointed to benefits that she enjoyed as a result of the wealth he created over many years in businesses that may not have always been above the law.

In a sense, her case could be likened to that of white American families in the 20th century who were able to build wealth by buying real estate in areas that racially discriminated against Black people, creating economic advantages that extended for generations. Though perhaps descendants of those families have done nothing wrong personally, they have still benefited from past injustices.

"I do believe Valentina in her heart is a really good person, that she sees injustice and wants to change things," Rovine said. "She says she's fought her father all her life, and that she doesn't believe in her father's way of business.

"But it was too hard to separate her from her family's history. Not knowing what the truth is, it's too close for us to say this producer doesn't do any of this stuff. I can't tell my clients that, I can't tell my employees that, I can't tell myself that." NYTIMES