Valentina Passalacqua and the politics of natural wine

When Italian winemaker Valentina Passalacqua became embroiled in controversy, her former supporters  quickly turned their backs. Simon Woolf investigates – and discovers it’s the natural wine world that needs to answer some questions.

Valentina Passalacqua's estate, Puglia/Simon Woolf
Valentina Passalacqua's estate, Puglia/Simon Woolf

On 1 August, 24 grape pickers began working their way across an 80-ha estate of organic vines in the Foggia district of Puglia. They’ll harvest around 1,000kg of grapes per picker per day, in return for which they’ll be paid €42 ($48.45) per day — €6 per hour — after taxes.

The earliest harvest will be used to make a line of wines that have become ubiquitous within natural wine circles. The Calcarius brand belongs to Valentina Passalacqua, owner of the estate of the same name. Normally, her focus at this time of year would be entirely on the crates of grapes streaming into the winery. But not in 2020.

Passalacqua has been at the centre of an outcry since July. Her father Settimio Passalacqua —  aka the multimillionaire marble king of Foggia — was arrested on 1 July on charges of fraud and caporalato, the use of illegal labour gangs. The charges relate to his vegetable growing business in Apricena, the same municipality where his daughter’s wine estate is based. Despite attempts to distance herself, Passalacqua became embroiled in controversy. She’s been accused of perpetuating modern slavery and of hypocrisy. Her two main US importers dropped her from their lists, and numerous others have stated they no longer wish to sell her wines.

Given that Passalacqua was not charged with any crime, why did the natural wine industry suddenly turn against her?

Rising star

Passalacqua abandoned a legal career to start her wine business in 2010. Ambitious, she built a huge and impressive winery, with a grand reception room and an even grander marble-lined barrel hall. Passalacqua admits the winery was not profitable for its first seven years of operation. Her wines and branding struggled to find their groove. Then she struck gold in 2018 with the creation of Calcarius — wines seemingly tailor-made for the natural wine market. Clear glass litre bottles, low alcohol levels, modernist labels, plentiful supply and attractive pricing assured near-instant popularity — and secured a US import and distribution network.

Her memorable “periodic table” labels became an Instagram hit and Passalacqua was positioned to scale up production. Over the course of a decade, she’d used EU grants totalling €5,000,400 ($5,816,315) to increase her vineyard plantings from 45 ha to 80 ha; the grants are available in Puglia for the conversion of arable land to vineyards.

Calcarius propelled Passalacqua to global renown. She was praised as a world-leading natural winemaker; in forbes.com in March 2020, Jessica Dupuy wrote that “her commitment to sustainability is representative of the world she wants to build for herself and her two daughters. Who doesn't love that?”

The day after her father was arrested, Passalacqua published an Instagram shot of her hanging her head, with text clarifying that she had no connection to his arrest. Two days later, another post showed jovial vineyard workers, accompanied by the message: “I would like to specify that I am completely extraneous to the criminal proceedings that involved my father in the management of his companies.”

Not everyone was convinced.

The backlash

One of the first to ask questions was wine importer Jennifer Green, who also publishes Glou Glou Magazine, a niche publication based in New York. As she scrolled through Passalacqua’s posts, Green was surprised at “the lack of horror at the allegations”. When US wine importer Zev Rovine Selections released a statement saying it was dropping Passalacqua. Green was puzzled by the vague explanation and “motivated by Zev’s statement to dig deeper”.

Green started investigating, with the help of an Italian lawyer. She discovered a 2016 video which apparently showed Passalacqua promoting her father’s vegetable business. Green also read that the Italian press had implicated the entire Passalacqua family companies in the charges — including Valentina Passalacqua’s sole proprietorship. One company in particular appeared to play a starring role: Tenute Passalacqua SRL which, Green discovered, is co-owned by Valentina and her siblings, with father Settimio its administrator.

Green published her findings in a series of damning Instagram posts. “Let the evidence speak for itself. Valentina Passalacqua is indeed part owner of the vegetable company for which her father serves as ‘Amministratore Unico’,” she wrote.

The next revelation was that Passalacqua “ran to the chamber of commerce” on 6 July, changing her company’s registered core business from vegetable growing to wine production — and registering the active date of the change as 1 July, the same day her father was arrested. “Is that what an innocent woman does?” asked Green.

Green also accused Passalacqua’s importers, distributors and consumers of lapping up Calcarius without questioning if it was too good to be true. Others, such as Damian Priday, writing as @thewrathofgrape of Medium.com, weighed in with their own robust criticism of Passalacqua.

Writing on Italy’s leading wine blog Intravino, Antonio Tomacelli stated that Passalacqua’s company was linked to her father. News site L’Immediato shared a video purportedly showing the bust. Both Tomacelli’s claim and the video turned out to be false, but the damage was done. More US importers and distributors including Jenny and Francois Selections and Dry Farm Wines also dropped her.

By late July, Passalacqua had fallen silent while her critics raged on social media. On 5 August, she revealed that her mother had died. A few days after, her father was hospitalised with chest pains.

Then Passalacqua started to fight back.

Things get ugly

Passalacqua’s US lawyer sent Green a cease-and-desist letter on 18 August, asking her to take down the Instagram posts and apologise for “Glou Glou’s malicious smear campaign”. Green has so far not responded nor taken down the posts. Passalacqua claims to have been the target of a co-ordinated “commercial war” conducted against her by “jealous competitors” in both Italy and the US. On 26 August, her Instagram account — which has more than 18,000 followers — was hacked and made to display the name “Cexy And Frauder 😈🌹 ”.

But the Italian media muddled an important nuance. Tenute Passalacqua, the company that Green and many others latched on to, is not part of the official investigation, nor are any of the other Passalacqua family companies, apart from Settimio Passalacqua’s sole proprietorship. “The other companies, including Valentina, were placed under what is called ‘judicial administration’,” says her Italian lawyer Giacomo Woodhead Angemi. “It is not an investigation. It is to assert that the individual has nothing to do with the person accused of the crime."

Passalacqua says she changed the registered nature of her business to meet the EU grant funding deadline, showing that she was about to convert the final parcel of arable land into vineyards. She says: “I was so much surprised about the reaction, and about the bullying.” Woodhead Angemi admits that “maybe Valentina was a little naive”.

As for the claim that Passalacqua might be using the same illegal labour gangs as her father, she told Meininger’s she does not hire casual labourers. Her 24 vineyard workers are under permanent contract, and she pays them the local legally agreed minimum wage (€54 gross for a six-hour 40 minutes working day). If €54 — €42 after taxes — seems paltry, it is still around twice what Settimio Passalacqua is accused of paying his alleged illegal workforce.

Asked if she believes her father is guilty of the caporalato charges, Passalacqua says: “If he did something wrong, I want that he has to pay.” She adds that “it's not my rules to judge anyone, not my father, not anyone. I believe in justice, and the justice system will do its job.”

Passalacqua’s background as a lawyer means she understands that justice system. She defended her father in 2009, when he was accused of stealing electricity from the mains supply for his marble business. The case was dissolved on the basis of insufficient evidence. The current charges against her father may well also evaporate. Woodhead Angemi says that only after the preliminary phase of the investigation — which could take several months — will the judge decide “whether to go to trial or not”.

Passalacqua’s closet isn’t entirely skeleton-free. Despite her enthusiasm for biodynamic viticulture, and her organic certification, she is not certified by Demeter nor its equivalents. Her membership of France’s Renaissance des Appellations, an association for biodynamic winegrowers, ended according to administrator Virginie Joly because “the person in charge of the estate gave wrong information about the biodynamic practice and the samples that were tasted were made specially for our tasting and had nothing to do with the general production”.

If Passalacqua has made enemies, she says it is partly due to the challenges of being a female business owner in southern Italy, which is still dominated by patriarchal and mafia interests. Despite such challenges, Passalacqua appears to have significant resources at her disposal. She hired a crisis PR firm and team of IT specialists to aid her response. If the Instagram posts from Calcarius drinkers are anything to go by, her business is likely to survive.

What does it mean?

Why did the natural wine world react with such venom? As soon as her father’s story broke, commentators attacked her on apparently unrelated fronts. One Instagrammer commented: “I mean are these wines even organic, much less natural?” Erstwhile fans vowed never to drink her wines again.

While natural wine was built on the idea of an additive-free product, the Passalacqua affair has shown that it’s morphing into a political and social movement. Damian Priday wrote on medium.com : “In a sense natural wines and winemakers are held to a higher standard, but it is a standard that is built on trust. Valentina Passalacqua broke that trust.”

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

As Passalacqua’s harvest team finished up for 2020, they were interviewed by an independent auditor. Passalacqua’s client Vinmonopolet (the Norwegian alcohol monopoly) commissioned audit specialists ALGI to spend two days at Passalacqua’s estate to complete a report.

“Vinmonopolet can confirm that we have had a third party auditor visit the winery for two days in September,” Kristian Hogstad sustainability manager for Vinmonopolet wrote to Meininger's. “Through this process the producer has offered all information our auditor has requested.” In that email, Hogstadt said the process had been “positive for the involved parties and Vinmonopolet”. He added that the use of bonded labour is a “zero tolerance” issue for the monopoly.

Passalacqua now wants her North American importers to undertake their own due diligence. “In order to avoid that social media can make judgement about people and destroy their reputation, we need to start with this approach in natural wine,” she says, adding “It’s more structured and more professional.”

The natural wine world cannot throw the book at major producers such as Passalacqua, while blindly assuming that smaller family wineries have a perfect record on human rights and labour issues. This niche industry, which has long run on fairy tale marketing, must face its own growing pains and adopt a fair attitude to all its suppliers.

As for Passalacqua, her wines are still on the shelves of Vinmonopolet – because the monopoly preferred to get all the facts before they passed judgement.

Simon Woolf

This article has been updated to clarify when Jenny and Francois Selections dropped the wines from its portfolio.

 

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