Wojciech Bońkowski
Wine & tea writing

The Bressan Affair: journalist boycott is wrong

Posted on 11 September 2013

Even if you’re not into Italian wine, you might have heard about the “Bressan affair”. Famous Italian vintner Fulvio Bressan has issued revolting racist comments about Cécile Kyenge (Italy’s Congo-born first black minister) and the outrage that has followed has actually made it into both the professional and general press.

Looks like Che, speaks like Il Duce: Fulvio Bressan. © Fin Vin.

Looks like Che, speaks like Il Duce: Fulvio Bressan. © Fin Vin.

A vast number of bloggers and commentators have written up the story (a useful summary, with links, is available on IntraVino) and I have nothing to add about the original Bressan racist attack other than join the unconditional condemnation. Thankfully, although our European justice systems leave much to desire, they do in this case offer enough room for manoeuvre and I hope that both Ms. Kyenge will privately sue Bressan for moral damages and he will also be publicly prosecuted and hopefully fined.

Where I want to step in, though, is the journalistic reaction to the events. Wine writers are largely responsible for making Bressan’s verbal abuse public: Hande Laimer broke the news on 22 August which were then given more resonance by Jeremy Parzen at Do Bianchi. At first there was indignation. Then the word “boycott” came up. It actually became a trending hashtag on Twitter (#bressan) and was adopted by several wine writers, some spontaneously and some after a few days (of reflection or watching which direction the public mood would drift?). Notably, Monica Larner of The Wine Advocate issued this statement on Facebook while Italy’s leading wine guide, SlowWine, also issued a detailed justification (amplified here with an even more convoluted reference to “impartiality”) for not reviewing the Bressan winery in their upcoming editions.

I am in an embarrassing position here to say I disagree with Monica Larner, SlowWine and others. It is awkward because it puts me in the position of someone who supports Bressan. I certainly don’t want to sing the “no political correctness” song sung by some authors (the issue is not political correctness but racist violence, be it only verbal), and wouldn’t state as my friend Franco Ziliani did, “I will tonight open a bottle of [Bressan’s] Carat 2007”. I am fully in favour of personal boycott – in fact I tend not to buy wine from producers who are assholes. But the situation is different with wine journalists.

Painful contradiction: Bressan makes great wines.

Journalists are there to provide a service. To tell the story; relate the facts. Personal opinion is welcome in the commentary, but should not obliterate the facts. The uncomfortable fact is that Fulvio Bressan makes great wines, some of Italy’s best. Incidentally I had a tasting of his wines a month ago; they were extraordinary. The 2006 Pinot Nero was one of the best PNs I ever tasted from Italy, and the 2001 Pignol (Pignolo, an endangered variety for whose survival Bressan takes much credit) is one my outstanding wines of this year. Surely it is fact worth mentioning to the reader, one that many if not most readers will expect from a wine journalist.

Monica Larner argued: “Bressan’s rant makes the news: It is the breaking story that must be put on record. A wine critic is different: I get to choose the wines (and corresponding stories) I’d like to write about. The defining responsibilities between the two professions (objective journalist versus opinionated critic) are different in my view” (quoted from a public discussion on her Facebook wall; I hope she doesn’t mind. Larner’s decision is criticised from another angle here). SlowWine issued a poignant argumentation of its civic responsibilities to the community making it impossible to talk about Bressan in their guide. But honestly I just don’t get that distinction between “civic” and “non-civic” wine books ans I fail to see the thin red line between journalist and critic. When there is free lunch at the press room, everybody is a journalist, and I remember a vehement discussion in Italy why wine guide contributors should be members of the famous official journalists’ syndicate (whose privileges include free train travel). I don’t want to get personal here, but there is no technical difference between the responsibilities of a journalist and critic.

I started my career in journalism as a music critic. Music, in fact, supplies much food for thought on boycott and morality. Richard Wagner was a declared racist who published an anti-Semitic pamphlet; he then seduced the wife of his best friend. Beethoven was so brutally possessive that he drove his teenage nephew to a suicide attempt. Herbert von Karajan joined the NSDAP in 1933, and continued to conduct through World War II for Nazi officials and troops. Yet I can’t imagine a music critic reporting to his editor-in-chief, “I won’t review this concert; I’m boycotting Karajan”. Your personal condemnation of however vile the artist is should not come in your way as a journalist.

There’s another aspect to the story. Bressan now faces boycott from some of the world’s leading wine media. But what about others? When Casanova di Neri, Frescobaldi and other producers were found guilty of counterfeiting Brunello di Montalcino in 2008, that didn’t stop The Wine Advocate from awarding them very high scores. They were right: the Casanova di Neri wines deserve high scores. When members of the Antinori family publicly glorified Mussolini in Mondovino, committing an offence that at least here in Poland, gets the same penalty as Bressan’s racist rant, I can’t remember much indignation let alone “boycotts” of Antinori in wine publications.

Albiera Antinori © Antinori.it

Albiera Antinori: “Mussolini did great things”. © Antinori.it

Bressan has offended anyone’s civic sense and decency. Name & shame is the right answer, and consumers should definitely be given the right to choose whether or not their money goes to Bressan’s pocket. (No doubt, with Italy’s and Europe’s sorry state of mind today, he will get a lot of support from like-thinkers). Journalist boycott, however, is wrong. Wine journalists or critics are not there to judge the morality of producers. It would be a dead end. Those who boycott perhaps want to avoid the contradiction of condemning Bressan as a person while praising his wines, as they objectively deserve. Burying your head in the sand won’t resolve the dilemma, though. Bressan’s wines will remain great. Life comes with many challenges, and the uneasy tension between Bressan’s repulsive political agenda and the sweet pure fruity taste of his wines is one of them. Now that’s a story I’d like to read from a wine critic.

  • Mario Crosta

    Well. “Wine journalists or critics are not there to judge the morality of producers. It would be a dead end”. I’ve the same opinion. Good bye

    • Luca

      I don’t agree with you Mr Crosta.
      The wine reflect the producer soul.
      Somebody don’t like th word “boycott”, ok it’ fine.
      Let’s say : since few weeks ago I don’t like no more Bressan’s wines.
      Taste bad. Bitter

  • Donian

    A well-reasoned piece, W, I must say.

    • http://www.bonkowski.me/ Wojciech Bońkowski

      Thank you.

      • Donian

        To be clear, and fair, W., you do know me as another elsewhere. But comment very much stands.

  • JerzyMaslanka

    Bressan is such a small player, that here in Alberta we don’t even have
    the chance to buy his wine as it is allocated only in small quantities to
    Ontario. So if I would go against the Monica Larner, Robert Parker Jr., Slow
    Food, Jacob Kenedy, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Wojciech Bonkowski and bought the Breassan wine. Is this would make me a racist? Then, should I start boycott the Israeli wines from occupied land?

    In the past quite often Polish death camp and Polish concentration camp terms have sometimes been used in international media by public figures in reference to
    concentration camps built and run by Nazi Germany. It took many years for the entire Polish and Israeli community to educate people and to point the difference.

    In Canada, 60 years ago daily racist statements against Polish, Ukrainians people
    were so “normal. Today use of the phrase of “Polish Jokes” are simply not acceptable in this society anymore. Why? Because people are helping each other to understand better each other. Today, Alberta Antinori and Fulvio Bressan needs a lesson as much as the entire Europe. I think the Europe already forgot what the First and Second War was about. If yes…go and visit the Auschwitz.

    My suggestion to you and wine writers …please don’t try to influence
    others to take the sides. Your passion is to write about wine and you should
    stick to your passion and your ethics. The wine is your ethics! Not the
    politics!

    If I would have chance today to buy Bressano Wine what I would do? I would buy a case because I understand now than his wines are bigger than Brossano itself and I would do anything to help Brossano to understand the word RESPECT and HATE and help him to understand that people who are drinking his wines don’t HATE HIS WINES why he should than he HATES THEM ?
    Important…we need him as well as he needs us.

    Jerzy…and I am a Catholic.

    • http://www.bonkowski.me/ Wojciech Bońkowski

      Every human being, including wine writers, has the right to be indignated by racism and voice that indignation. It would be difficult for any half-decent person to omit the whole thing and produce sterile tasting notes of Bressan’s wine. There is however a big difference between voicing an opinion and boycotting a producer from a journalistic point of view, i.e. pretending they don’t exist.

      I agree on one thing: Bressan wines are not the Bressan guy. The losers in the whole story are the other members of the Bressan family including Nereo, who founded the winery and is largely responsible for its level today. Interestingly not one journalist mentioned Nereo Bressan in their stories.

      • JerzyMaslanka

        Because probably many of wine Journalists have no clue who Nereo Bressan is…but this is a problem of today’s Global Wine Journalism…a lot’s garbage in the paper. Can’t not
        disagree on anything what you wrote. Great article!

      • JerzyMaslanka

        “You know, I’m not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man, like Tammy Wynette. I’m sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he’s been through
        and what we’ve been through together. And you know, if that’s not enough for people, then heck, don’t vote for him.

        Hilary Clinton 60 minutes interview.

        Just to want to share with you Wojtek, that I have receive
        the e-mail from Jelena Bressan. After reading your blog, I have wrote to Bessano Family and try to understand better directly from them the position. In addition, I have directed them to your blog. After reading Jelena respond I have better understanding of the other side. Jelena wrote to me ;

        “me and all Bressan family are NOT RACIST and are NOT FASCIST” for us, everybody is welcome here
        (black, white, yellow or blue…) if there is work and if there is RESPECT for the tradition of people who has built this country”.

        I would encourage to contact them and try to present on your blog “their part of story”.

        Cheers,

        Jerzy

        • http://www.bonkowski.me/ Wojciech Bońkowski

          Thanks for this Jerzy. However I was not addressing the Bressan statement itself. (And then find it even more convoluted to say one is not racist after calling someone “black ape”, “your gorillas” etc.). My post is about the journalistic reactions to it. I guess enough has been said about Bressan’s abuse itself.

          • JerzyMaslanka

            No question his remarks are disgusting and unpleasant, but it is only reaction to the problems that Italy is experiencing now. After all, he may or never fully understood repercussion of his remarks. I believe the entire Bressan family deserves second chance. Ironically, they become the subject to racism by the
            Monica Laimer itself.

            As to your original post?
            If the profit from the Bressan Wines was helping anybody toward to support actions to destroy others than Bressan Wines should be subject to a boycott and the appropriate Government Agencies should look into this matter…but I don’t believe that the this line was ever crossed. More, I believe that it is the urgent responsibility of Monica Laimer and The Wine Advocate publicly apologize to the rest of Bressan Family.

  • Max Kapelanski

    I was wondering when you would mention Wagner. A friend told me she read a serious philosophical piece on how his music really does exemplify racism. I don’t really think racists have a special taste in wines, though!

  • Helmut O. Knall

    Thank you for this article!

    Helmut.

    • http://www.bonkowski.me/ Wojciech Bońkowski

      Thank you Helmut!

  • Holly

    *yawn* All I’m hearing is, “It’s not my problem so I don’t care.”