TCS Daily


Sour Grapes

By Constantin Gurdgiev - September 8, 2005 12:00 AM

A week ago, in Northern Italy, in a small town at the foothills of the Dolomite Alps, I was a part of an illegal transaction: a glass of an ancient wine that is illegal to produce for sale was in my hand.

Having survived the Gauls and Romans, the dark ages and the Longobardi, the Venetians and the Hapsburgs, occupations, invasions, both World Wars and endless economic crises, this wine, like many other regional varieties, is being changed by the omnipotent "overseers" of Europe's local cultures: Brussels' bureaucrats.

You may think the fate of a handful of wines is trivial in this age of global commerce and economic development. You are wrong. The same forces of bureaucratic fiat that devastate local traditions within the EU are responsible for more than uprooting a few grapevines; they lie at the core of economic and social stagnation that increasingly is synonymous with the words European Union.

Need convincing? Check out just some of the recent headlines from Brussels. "EU's finance ministers are being accused of paying lip service to the Union's fiscal rules," screams one. "Unions and business clash over controversial Brussels proposals," informs another. "European Growth Model is at risk," shouts a third. "Britain demands end to 'unfair' state procurement in Europe." And so on.

All this perpetual crisis rhetoric from Brussels conceals a simple reality of the everyday European existence: absent any general principle of governance and legitimacy, EU bureaucracy evolved from being an overseer of a common economic area occupied by the independent states into a predatory beast constantly in search of new regulatory initiatives. The Left is decrying globalization as a root cause of the homogenizing cultural and social values, yet the real blight threatening the richness of European cultures is not the host of multinational corporations - it's the subsidies and regulations passed down by Brussels' grey suits, operating on the basis of interventionist hunger for wrecking havoc on producers and consumers alike.

Yet the ills of the EU, as numerous as they may be, are multiplied many times over by the national and local governments eager to appease Euro-apparatchiks.

Recently, the Italian press reported a new trend in law enforcement around the larger cities. Hungry for some action, the Italian police are converging, in full force, on the new local craze: private dinner parties. Allegedly, in response to the rising cost of living, young "criminals" in Milan, Bologna and elsewhere in the Northern heartlands are staging private dinner parties, inviting select few guests and charging them the cost of a meal. According to Italian laws, charging money for food cooked at home (and this must include the so-labeled "homemade" pastas and salami) is as grave an offense as drunk driving. The point of enforcement is upholding the EU Food Safety Directives and other postulates, as well as a host of domestic business laws. It is hard to imagine that in the country with a declining national income, rising unemployment and public and personal debt, a minor entrepreneurial venture, like hosting parties at a charge-for-cost can be deemed a crime, but here we are.

The irony is that home cooking parties are nothing new in the land where a combination of high taxes and absurd regulations mean that local gourmands have to resort to self-service in order to enjoy the best their cuisine and wines have to offer without re-mortgaging their homes.

A sadder twist to this tale of "tax-evasion-Italian-style" is that in some cases, private parties are the only way in bypassing the EU-wide regulations on services and food products. Take for example one of the oldest wine producing regions in Italy: Collio Orientale in Friuli. Collio is a home to Europe's first officially produced and registered wines, with labels dating back to the early 1400s, shipped to German, French, Austrian and English courts and noble homes.

It is also home to several unique grape varieties, like picolit, ribolla gialla and nera, pocalza, refosco, pignolo, fragola and verduzzo, some of which were in production in the days of the Roman Empire. Most of these grapes are specific to the area and many produce wines with varied sugar and alcohol content, making them illegal to sell. One ancient wine, called Scioppettino, traditionally fermented after the bottling - thus the name is derived from the word shotgun - giving it a slightly sparkling quality, had to be converted into a still dry because continued fermentation did not allow for stability. Another ancient grape fragolino, still grown in few vineyards for table consumption, can not be used in wine production despite the local demand. Admittedly, some of these regulations predate the EU, yet the Brussels-promoted localization of agricultural production does nothing to restore the vanishing traditions.

Instead of supporting smaller varieties with local demand, agricultural subsidies to producers of commercial varieties of grapes together with the standardization of "quality" requirements are pricing the ancient grape types out of the market. With them, the small growers relying on hand-collection, natural fertilizers and fermentation are forced to sell their vineyards to larger, commercial producers that are capable of availing themselves of more aid.

As the result, thanks to the benign oversight of local authorities, Friulan wine lovers can only purchase these old crus in bulk, bottling the wine themselves. Around harvest time, the growers, not allowed to sell wine, set up small food stalls on their properties, called frasca, where any visitor can buy some simple local food, such as salsice and polenta, receiving wine "free of charge". The frascas popularity is so strong, that a friend of mine christened his family minivan a frasca-mobile. But do not look for them in the advertisement section of the local newspapers - frascas are about as clandestine as private dinner parties in Milan.

The fate of the oldest Friulan wines is more than a local story of the new displacing the old - it is a lesson in the real nature of the damaging subsidies and regulations that the EU is stamping out at a breakneck speed.

On the one hand, the EU bureaucrats' zeal for controlling and regulating production of goods and services erects barriers to the development of new products. The so-called "protection of origin" labels on food are just one of the examples how any entrepreneur interested in introducing new varieties into the market will immediately find herself subject of the EU regulations. Forget the fact that, for years, consumers around the world knew the difference between the French, the Lebanese and the Greek Feta cheese varieties. Thanks to the EU, the former two were recently made illegal in order to secure the markets for the third one. Now, go ahead and try improving on the Greeks if you are a Dutch or a Belgian producer.

On the other hand, huge subsidies paid to the agricultural producers in the EU mean that an Italian grocery store is more likely to carry vast quantities of cheap and tasteless tomatoes from the hot houses of Holland, than riper and better quality Southern Italian ones. The logic: the Dutch grower gets a large production plus export subsidies - the Italian one gets a production subsidy alone.

Pinch me if any of this has something to do with multinational corporations. The real damage done to European producers of food and wines is that of the distorting subsidies to the growers and exporters - instead of preserving our heritage and strengthening our culture, they promote entrenchment of vested interests.

The author is a Research Associate at Trinity College-Dublin and Director of the Open Republic Institute (www.openrepublic.org)

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