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 last 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 Ms. 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.
By the end of July, Ms. Passalacqua’s wines had been dropped by both her New York-based importers, as well as by Dry Farm.
Ms. 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.”
Mr. Passalacqua is accused of engaging in caporalato, in which intermediaries act as labor 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.
It’s a problem that has particularly plagued southern Italy, often in conjunction with organized 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 criticize 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 centered on Mr. 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 unrecognized 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 labor force. For harvests, vineyard owners typically find the necessary hands among friends and family.
But Ms. Passalacqua farmed 80 hectares, almost 200 acres, making her an outlier in natural wine as well as a sort of unicorn for importers.
They saw a rare opportunity to scale up their businesses, to buy in quantity and sell bottles that would retail in the moderate $20-to-$30 range, especially important at a time when most wines from France, their prime source for natural wine, have been subject to a 25 percent tariff.
“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 Ms. Passalacqua fell squarely into the larger discussion of social and economic privilege. While some people scoffed at Ms. 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,” Mr. 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.”
For Jenny Lefcourt of Jenny & François Selections, which imported Ms. Passalacqua’s Calcarius brand, the question was not so clear-cut. When the initial reports came out, she stood by Ms. Passalacqua, not wanting to blame the daughter for the sins of the father.
Ms. Lefcourt’s hesitancy opened her up to accusations of hypocrisy, of refusing to sacrifice economically, even though Jenny & François has portrayed itself as a company that stands up for social justice.
“This isn’t about cancel culture,” wrote Jennifer Green — who publishes Glou Glou, a wine zine, and runs Super Glou, a small natural-wine importing business — on Instagram. “This is about our impulse to preach at the altar of wokeness, only to abandon that platform when it suits our whims and especially our wallets.”
The response stung Ms. Lefcourt, who has been a pioneer in American natural-wine culture and recently marked Jenny & François’s 20th anniversary as an importer.
“I’m a political person, and I hope to represent people whose beliefs align with my own, who respect human dignity and never discriminate or exploit,” she said. “I wanted to give her a chance to defend herself.”
By the end of July, though, she, too, had decided to drop the brand.
“There’s land that her father owns that her vines are planted on, and even if the labor she used was paid fairly, if she’s using that land she’s profiting from the exploitation of labor,” Ms. Lefcourt said. “Even that’s not clear, but it’s still too close for comfort, and I don’t feel she separated her interests enough from his.”
Regardless of whether Ms. Passalacqua’s wines are sold in the United States — and plenty of the wines are still on retail shelves — it should not be forgotten that this is ultimately a story about the vulnerability of agricultural workers and wine’s role in assuring them safe, humane and dignified working conditions.
Romanticizing wine as a natural, pastoral product often results in omitting the human labor that goes into its creation. This omission can often create the conditions for exploitation.
“We have been willing to fetishize agricultural products that are appealing to us, without scrutinizing the entire supply chain,” Ms. Green said. “When we’re discussing farming, we leave out the farmworkers.”