Paula Deen, move over. Next to esteemed Italian winemaker Fulvio Bressan, you're a small fry when it comes to dishing racist slurs.
In a shocking Facebook tirade that prompted a storm of online protest, Bressan called Italy's first black government minister, Cecile Kyenge, a "dirty black monkey" and referred to illegal immigrants as her "gorilla friends." Not that it matters, but the vintner was responding to Kyenge's suggestion that taxpayers' dollars be used to house undocumented aliens in hotels.
Although the remarks have since been pulled, Jelena Bressan, his wife and business partner, confirmed the substance of the posting to me in an e-mail, saying Bressan was not available for comment. She also drew my attention to an "apology" posted a week later in which Bressan declares he is not a racist and that he intended the remarks to be directed "exclusively at [Kyenge] and not at all people of colour."
Monica Larner, Italy critic for the influential Wine Advocate publication founded by Robert Parker Jr., announced she would cease tasting the wines. Slow Food, the global gourmet association based in Italy, said it would drop Bressan from its Slow Wine guide. In a more graphic gesture, London restaurateur Jacob Kenedy last week ceremonially smashed five bottles of Bressan's wines on the pavement outside his highly rated Soho establishment, Bocca di Lupo, which specializes in regional Italian cuisine.
In commercial terms, any loss in revenue would be a drop in the demijohn compared with the hit Deen took in the pocketbook. The Georgia-based celebrity chef was dumped this year by the Food Network and several major corporate sponsors after she admitted she had used the N-word to describe African Americans. CNNMoney cited an estimate by an editor at celebritynetworth.com that the controversy likely cost Deen "several million" dollars in annual revenue.
Bressan, based in the northeastern region of Friuli and celebrated for his all-natural, organic techniques, farms on just 20 hectares and is such a small player he labels every bottle by hand. In Ontario, the products, which sell for between $40 and $90, are available only by the case directly from the importer. Paul Perugini, of Toronto-based Perugini Fine Wines, says he's "thinking about" whether to drop the wines in light of the controversy. "It's very unfortunate," he said. "The guy's one of the best winemakers in Italy and definitely in northern Italy."
And the loathsome assault has prompted consumers (and wine critics) to ponder the obvious question: When, if ever, should we punish a producer for doing something other than making bad wine?
It took a less egregious case to tip the scales for Jay-Z. In 2006, the American rapper pulled Cristal, the elite $300-a-bottle Champagne popular among hip hop's elite, from his chain of sports bars because of a comment by the managing director of Louis Roederer, the brand's producer. Upon being asked by The Economist whether the wine's association with the "bling lifestyle" might devalue the brand, Frédéric Rouzaud had said: "That's a good question. But what can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it."
Racism or just a French-luxury-goods purveyor's elitist discomfort with the U.S. urban-music scene? I'd suggest the latter, but don't ask me to argue with Jay-Z.
Verbal comments and personal views are not the only issues, of course. Many organizations have called for a boycott of Israeli goods, including wine, associated with lands occupied in the Six-Day War, a fact of which I'm reminded pretty much every time I include a review of an Israeli product.
Last month, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights group based in Los Angeles, implored distributors to stop carrying any wine from Vini Lunardelli, an Italian producer that sells a "historical line" depicting such deplorable figures as Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Himmler on its labels. Andrea Lunardelli told The New York Times the wines are purchased mainly as "jokes." But Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Wiesenthal Center's founder and dean, told me he sees it another way. "They're buying it specifically to toast the Fuehrer" at a time when Europe is facing "unprecedented levels of anti-Semitism," he said. "When the memory and the actions of the original perpetrators are still with us and we haven't rid ourselves of such fanatics, people distributing Hitler wine is really beyond the pale."
I'd have to agree. Buying Hitler wine is actively racist in a way that, say, renting a Mel Gibson movie is not. For one thing, Gibson apologized for his drunken anti-Semitic outburst to an arresting police officer years ago. For another, he did not print the diatribe on a wine label or post it on Facebook.
Which brings me back to Bressan. Would I buy the wines? In spite of their fine reputation and high critical scores, no. The man needs a lesson.
Neither would Alice Feiring, a New York-based author who publishes a subscription newsletter called The Feiring Line focusing on natural, organic and biodynamic wines, such as those of Bressan. She's met the exacting producer and found him nothing but cordial despite being warned of his – shall we say? – strong political views. "I thought, my God, does he know I'm Jewish?" she said over the phone.
And while she's been exposed to her share of thinly veiled anti-Semitic remarks while travelling through Europe, she added that Bressan's words fall into another league because they're the kind that start wars. "They were dangerous," she said. "They were so hateful."