In Wine We Trust: The Valentina Passalacqua Saga

The explosive Valentina Passalacqua saga is a cautionary tale for anyone who would exploit a human being for business advantage. It’s also a deep dive into business accountability, transparency and crisis communication. It may also mark the moment when the wine world begins to worry less about sulfite additions and native yeasts and more about responsible farming, business ethics, and the fair treatment of workers.

The plight of Valentina Passalacqua may be a tipping point.

Despite the fact that it is the father who is under investigation, the natural wine community has unleashed its wrath on his daughter — leaving many to wonder, including wine writer Simon Woolf, “Why did the natural wine world react with such venom?”

To which I add: “. . . and why so loudly in public?”

The first alarm bells went off in July when one of Passalacqua’s American importers, Zev Rovine, announced that he was dropping her as a supplier because the two did not “share a similar approach in how to address the chronic exploitation of workers.” This was in response to allegations her father underpayed and mistreated migrant workers under the outlawed system of caporalato.

Because the business connections between Valentina and her father are murky at best, some observers took Rovine’s announcement to be virtue signaling. Indeed, he made no accusations against her other than to voice his discomfort with her position of privilege as the daughter of a wealthy entrepreneur in an economically challenged area of Italy. This public “outing” didn’t seem to faze Passalacqua, who responded in a conciliatory way and vowed to move forward in the spirit of cooperation and renewal with all of her business associates.

Unfortunately for her, appearances seem to matter in the court of public opinion.

Was Rovine right to publicly “out” Passalacqua without solid evidence? Probably not.

Was he right to drop her from his portfolio? Absolutely.

Here’s why.

Business relationships like theirs are based on trust and transparency. That’s it. Others are more solidly built on a foundation of trust and third-party oversight. Even though Passalacqua claimed to practice biodynamics she chose not to work with any of the certifying bodies, including Demeter. This is not a big deal, in and of itself, as many natural producers find certification cumbersome and expensive. But there were early rumblings that Passalacqua’s eighty hectares were different. The amount of labor required to work a farm that size in a biodynamic fashion didn’t square with low cost of her wines in the marketplace. For some, things weren’t adding up.

Woolf, in his exhaustive gathering of the facts, points out that many of the initial allegations were refuted by Passalacqua’s councel, but he concedes that skeletons remained hidden in her closet. I prefer to call them red flags. In my opinion, there are one too many of them, especially the irregularities found in samples tested by the Renaissance des Appellations, a membership organization of natural wine producers. From what I can determine Passalacqua is no longer a member. We don’t know the reason why.

Her lawyer cites business naïveté and poor judgment for some of her choices, but the choice to work without certification may have been the most naive, or, if one thinks skeptically, the most calculated.

If Only

What might Demeter certification have offered in this situation?

From Demeter’s International Standards for Production and Processing:

3.4. Principles of social responsibility

Social responsibility is one of the fundamental principles of the Demeter standards, including respect for and observance of human rights. The requirements of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which are enshrined in the legal framework of many countries, are valid for all people and govern all human resource relationships. This is also true in all Demeter certified enterprises, therefore everyone working in these organisations must receive equal opportunities independent of their ethnic background, creed and gender.

The management of these enterprises is responsible for guaranteeing the health and security of all people working for the organisation and ensuring that no one is endangered through their work. All co-workers have the possibility to avail themselves of their rights. They have the right to congregate, participate in collective bargaining and make representation to management without discrimination. Demeter enterprises aim to eliminate social inequity including lack of social rights, forced or inappropriate child labour, below standard working conditions and/or wages, occupational safety and health issues etc.

As part of the annual inspection and certification process all licensees shall make a self-declaration confirming that these guidelines have been met. (Emphasis mine.)

While Demeter frames the issues quite nicely and takes a stand for worker’s rights the self-declaration requirement is an inadequate guarantee of compliance. It is increasingly important that certifying bodies go beyond farming and production to include work place issues in their reviews. And they should do so with rigor.

Do Your Job

Passalacqua’s subsequent actions were hardly conciliatory and not especially cooperative.

She challenges her American importers to undertake the same due diligence the state monopoly of Norway, Vinmonopolet, did in September after the harvest. She places the onus on Rovine and the others who dropped her to hire independent investigators at considerable cost, after the fact, and after the window for timely evidence gathering had closed. It’s one thing for Vinmonopolet to sanction Passalacqua’s activities, it’s another to ask a small importer without state resources to do the same. In fact, the suggestion is disingenuous and deflects from the real need for up-front transparency, especially given her rejection of third-party oversight.

In my view, a September visit to investigate activities that occurred in July should not be given much weight. I’m pretty sure anyone would be on their best behavior knowing the world was watching.

I feel pretty safe in saying that the onus should always be on the seller to provide an accounting of business practices that are satisfactory to partners and consumers alike. It’s not just Passalacqua’s reputation on the line, it’s also Rovine’s, and ultimately the reputation of natural wine producers everywhere.

I have to disagree with Woolf’s conclusion:

“. . . it wasn’t so much Passalacqua that broke the trust, but rather the natural wine community.”

I don’t think so.

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