Interview: Carlo Petrini

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  • Tuesday 19 July 2011

Richard Baudains asks Carlo Petrini about evolving tastes, the redundancy of wine scores and the rationale behind the organisation's first wine guide.

Carlo Petrini
Carlo Petrini Carlo Petrini

Carlo Petrini is the founder, president and prime mover of Slow Food. He hates being referred to as a guru, but you can see why the epithet has stuck.

Petrini is a natural communicator with undeniable charisma and a big message. Pinning him down to an exact job description, however, is not easy: ‘My mother used to say to me, “but Carlo, what exactly do you do?” and I never really was able to explain.’

Petrini was born and grew up in the country town of Bra in Piedmont, on the edge of the great wineproducing area of Langhe, where he still lives today. He paid his way through sociology studies at university with a variety of jobs before gravitating towards grassroots politics.

From the early 1980s onwards, his personal history has been inseparably linked to that of the Slow Food movement, from its origins as a local wine and food appreciation group, through its evolution into a global network of communities engaged with the planetary issues of what Petrini has dubbed ‘eco-gastronomy’: biodiversity, sustainability, nutrition, cultural identity and social justice.

Slow Food, which is a self-financing, non-profit organisation, today has more than 100,000 signed-up members, distributed between 1,300 local groups in 130 countries. Its manifesto is summed up in the title of Petrini’s book Buono, Pulito e Giusto (Good, Clean and Fair).

In it, Petrini argues that the informed and responsible appreciation of real food not only improves our quality of life, but is also one of the key elements in the profound rethinking of the modern lifestyle necessary to save the planet from ecological disaster.

A complete description of Slow Food’s activities would fill a lot more space than this article allows. They range from community ventures such as farmers’ markets or chef Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse School Garden project in the US, to huge international events such as the Salone del Gusto and the Terre Madre convention.

Slow Food has a prolific publishing arm and its own university. It has set up a Foundation for Biodiversity, collaborates with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and campaigns against genetically modified organisms (GMOs). All in all, it is a pretty dynamic outfit.

The starting place for all this, however, was wine. Petrini has always had a passionate interest in it, nurtured in his native Piedmont and through extensive travels in France. The first association he formed (which later became Arcigola) was dedicated to the appreciation and promotion of Barolo.

Petrini recalls that in those early days traditional precepts of winemaking still held sway in the Langhe:

‘A whiff of horse stables was considered a mark of the highest quality in a Barolo. The wines were hugely oxidised. Producers would store their wines in demijohns [20-litre containers] under the roofs of their houses all year round, so they would maderise. That’s the way the old timers used to like their Barolo.’

But change was around the corner. The 1980s were heady years for Italian wine. It was the decade in which the Italian wine renaissance took off, when producers cast aside the models of the past and began experimenting with exciting new ones.

Arcigola was at the cutting edge of the transformation, tapping into the enthusiasm of the up-and-coming generation of producers and transmitting it to a new and curious wine drinking public in Italy. Much has changed since then, I observe, and Petrini agrees.

‘The most significant thing has been the exponential growth in the number of people interested in wine. In the 1980s we were speaking to a relatively small elite. Connoisseurship was the prerogative of the French. Now wine has become accessible to a vast, global public, and this has undoubtedly lead to a general raising of standards.’

I wonder whether Petrini thinks the downside to this has been a globalisation of styles. He takes a positive view: ‘I believe we are coming out of that period. It was a feature of the decade between 1995 and 2005, but in the past three or four years there has been a turn around.

The trend today is towards greater personalisation, something which comes from a return to native varieties and a respect for the ecosystem, but also the creativity of the vigneron.’ In short, a reaction against consultant winemakerwines?

‘Yes, absolutely. I always say to producers, “make the wine which you like to drink yourselves”, because the wine which a producer himself likes has personality.

A wine made like a suit to accommodate the latest fashion mortifies the producer. If a wine doesn’t express the winemaker’s own sensibility, it doesn’t express very much at all.’

So to what extent is wine a slave to fashion? ‘There is a natural evolution of tastes,’ says Petrini. ‘Today we give more value to freshness, where previously we looked for opulence. That was right for its time - we needed to experience opulence - but now we need wines that are easier to drink with food. Wine evolves like everything.’

What other trends does Petrini observe? ‘In Italy there’s a marked shift towards respect for terroir, sustainable viticulture, for local varieties and for tradition, which is one of things that gives a terroir its distinctive character. Going biodynamic or organic can be a marketing ploy, but on the whole the new generation has far more respect for the soil.

In the 1980s and 1990s, growers used to shovel on the chemicals. Now they do it much, much less.’ But not all developments have been positive. The opening up of world markets has heaped new commercial pressures on small producers, who today are forced to spend less time in the vineyard and a lot more on promoting and selling their wine.

‘The figure of the vigneron has changed. In the past a family used to work the vines directly. Now they use salaried workers. The grower is losing touch with the vineyard, becoming more of a manager. Some producers are able to combine the growerbusinessman roles, but it is hard.’

Wine publishing has always been one of Slow Food’s core activities (Petrini himself compiled what is still the definitive work on the crus of Barolo). The big title was the ground-breaking Vini d’Italia annual guide published in conjunction with food and wine publisher Gambero Rosso.

‘Was’, because in 2009, after 21 years of collaboration, Slow Food and Gambero went their separate ways.

The mould had become too restricting. Slow Food needed the independence to develop a guide to Italian wine that mirrored its overall philosophies. The outcome is a densely packed tome called Slow Wine that departs in many ways from the conventions of the genre.

Most radically, it dispenses with using points to rate wines. ‘It was one thing to use point scores 20 years ago when we started; the context was different. There was a complete lack of communication about wine. But today wine drinkers want to make their own judgments.

They want description and information, not to be conditioned by so-called ‘authoritative’ judgments. What is the sense in saying that this wine is worth 82 points and this other one 80? The time was ripe for change. Everyone is better off today without scores.’

The assumption for readers is that all the producers included in the guide make quality wines. A select few are singled out with Slow Food’s snail logo, which denotes a special affinity with the movement’s philosophies.

Petrini insists that in selecting these producers ‘the intention is to describe rather than judge. The guide picks out small artisan producers – those who typically don’t have a marketing budget and don’t get into the media. The ones that nobody takes any notice of. Attention towards this kind of producer is in the DNA of Slow Food.

But this is not to say that the wine they make is necessarily superior to any other, or that they have greater merit. Big producers who practise low environmental impact methods perhaps deserve even more praise, because it is much more difficult to work in this way on a large scale.’

So, in an absolute scale of values, what is more important, the way a wine is made or the way it tastes? Petrini avoids taking the question head on.

Slow Wine, he says, does not set out to make that judgment but to give readers the information they need to make it themselves. I try to press the point: the guide details producers’ viticultural methods. Does that mean that I should only buy my wine from growers who practise sustainable viticulture?

Should I avoid those who use herbicides, for example? Petrini’s reply leaves readers to decide the bottom line:

‘The use of herbicides doesn’t affect the quality of a wine in the short term, but it eventually leads to the loss of fertility of the soil and that is a serious matter.’

His message – addressed to producers as much as (perhaps even more than) wine drinkers – is that wine must not get so wrapped in itself that it loses sight of the bigger picture.

Petrini deals with big, universal concepts and paints with a broad brush. He raises the issues of the Good, the Clean and the Fair, but is not the person to ask to resolve the inherent tensions between them. That is our job – the people who buy, drink and write about wine.

The hottest debates in wine used to be about Parker ratings. Petrini invites us to consider whether there are not bigger and more stimulating issues to debate as we crack open a bottle together.

Richard Baudains has written on Italian wine for Decanter since 1989 and is the Decanter World Wine Awards Regional Chair for Veneto.

For more information, visit www.slowfood.com and www.unisg.it (Università delle Scienze Gastronomiche)

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