Controversy engulfs natural wine producer Valentina Passalacqua

A rising star in the natural wine scene has had her reputation sullied and wines dropped by several US importers after her father was recently placed under arrest for sharp labour practices at his agricultural businesses in southern Italy, raising questions about her potential involvement.

Up until July, Valentina Passalacqua was a rising star in the world of minimal intervention wine. A woman in the man’s world of Puglia, farming biodynamically and creating bright, spunky, low alcohol wines using autochthonous varieties such as Bombino and Negroamaro.

There were orange wines and ‘pet nats’ and so forth. The ‘Calcarius’ range in particular, named after the local limestone soils, with a label made up to look like the periodic table entry for calcium and sold in litre bottles, has been particularly prominent recently in the sort of shops and bars that pride themselves with offering the latest, hippest wines of the moment.

It also helped that with 80 hectares of her own, rather larger than many other natural winemakers, her wines were in fairly plentiful supply and competitively priced in what tends to be a premium segment of the market.

In July, however, there was a very serious turn. Valentina’s father Settimio is a major landholder in the region, owning close to 2,000ha on which he grows fruit, cereal crops and vegetables.

On 6 July he was placed under house arrest by the Carabinieri, charged with being involved with a practice known as ‘caporalato’.

This is a practice by which agricultural workers are recruited by intermediaries to work on big estates, especially at harvest time.

The dark underbelly of it, however, is that the people recruited tend to be immigrants – especially from Eastern Europe and West Africa – many of whom are there illegally and/or do not have work permits and organised crime has its pervasive hand all over the recruitment process.

Workers are then paid an absolute bare minimum (little more than €3 an hour) as well as being forced to work long hours with few if any breaks and then put up in slum-like and at times unsanitary conditions.

There have been numerous deaths among these labourers over the years (though none at the Passalacqua estate), mostly in traffic accidents. As the workers are not there legally they do not have protection and corruption causes certain figures in authority to turn a blind eye.

Many NGOs have described caporalato as a form of modern slavery.

The controversy in this case falls very squarely on Settimio Passalacqua and there is currently no evidence that the malpractice of her father extended or extends to Valentina’s own vineyard holdings.

Questions have been raised, however, as to Valentina’s own personal involvement with her father’s business, her knowledge of what was going on, the extent of the separation between her business and his and if, in any way, any labourers recruited through caporalato did any work in her vineyards.

Valentina has been robust in her own defence, distancing herself from her father’s deeds and maintaining that all work done on her property was conducted entirely above board by her own dedicated team of local workers.

She said in a statement: “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.

“Every person deserves the respect and dignity of a living wage and good working conditions, which I am proud to provide at my vineyard.”

Nonetheless, several importers and retailers have moved to distance themselves from her wines, especially in the US where ‘Glou Glou’, an independent ‘zine’ dedicated to natural wine, cottoned on to the story early and took the bit firmly between its teeth on the matter.

As a result, two of New York’s biggest importers, Zev Rovine Selections and Jenny & François Selections, as well as a States-wide importer, Dry Farm Wines, have dropped the Passalacqua wines.

Zev Rovine said in a statement on its website that while he gave Valentina the benefit of the doubt with regards how she says her winery is run and while also acknowledging her achievements, “ZRS will no longer be importing and selling the wines of Valentina Passalacqua. I do not have any evidence that Valentina has done anything wrong, and she has, in fact, worked to be transparent. However, I do not feel that we yet share a similar approach in how to address the chronic exploitation of workers.”

Rovine went on say that his company would, in addition to taking labour conditions into much closer account before taking on new agencies, be making donations to organisations and charities fighting unfair working conditions, a move that has been followed by other retailers carrying the Passalacqua wines as well.

Valentina added in her statement that she was “optimistic” that her erstwhile importers would resume working with her 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.”

In the UK the story has not, so far, received much attention. At least one indie retailer, Top Cuvée in London, has announced it has suspended sales of Passalacqua wines, “until the situation becomes clearer”.

That said, Valentina’s UK importer, Les Caves de Pyrene, has said it has weighed up the allegations and chosen to “stand by” the producer.

The company’s managing director, Amy Morgan, told the drinks business that: “Ethical sourcing, and the fair treatment of workers in all aspects of our supply chain is paramount to us and, in this vein, we feel it would be both unethical and unfair of us to condemn Valentina for the alleged actions of her father.   We have spoken at length with Valentina herself and are assured that she was not aware of any such exploitation, has had no part to play in the activities that her father has been accused of, and is devastated by the allegations.”

She concluded that should further evidence arise to the contrary, “then we will of course act accordingly. In the meantime however, we will continue to list her wines and do our best to represent and support her as we always have.”   

It is certainly true that there are questions still to be fully answered in relation to what was going on at the two Passalacqua estates and perhaps it raises the spectre of other uncomfortable questions that need to be asked about other regions and producers as well.

Valentina Passalacqua has also been contacted for comment.

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