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.
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.
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.
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.