I want to advance a little on the topic of the last column. In it, I wrote that boycotting Salton, Aurora and Garibaldi wines serves more as a relief of conscience and a sign of virtue than as an effective action to put an end to slave labor.
It’s all too easy to let go of something you don’t really need when replacement options come in the hundreds. But then replace it with what? Are you sure the substitute wine meets all ethical, environmental, ESG, and whatever the hell requirements?
Choosing wines is a difficult task in many ways, but I will refrain from commenting on the technical difficulties. As this is an international industry, but with smaller and more numerous actors than, say, the brewery, it is really difficult to know the story behind each producer, each bottle.
Ethical pitfalls and obstacles are everywhere and rarely, as in the case of Bento Gonçalves, do they surface.
My intention is, I confess, to confuse the minds of those who let themselves be seduced by a simplistic view of the episode. Triggering the thinking of those who think they are going to save the world by failing to deliver 70 contos to domestic sparkling wine manufacturers.
Let’s go to five ethical issues that are very common to get in the way of your next wine purchase.
1. Slavery does not exist only in Brazil
When the Bento Gonçalves scandal broke, I already imagined that similar cases could have happened in other countries. The occurrence of abuses in labor relations is favored (I did not say justified) by the cyclical nature of the wine business.
Winemaking is a hybrid activity, half agricultural, half industrial. In industry, there is always something to do: pressing grapes, fermenting, bottling, managing stocks, distributing, etc. etc. In the field, there is a time for frantic work and a time for leaving the vines dormant.
Almost every producer, in Brazil and in the world, chooses to hire temporary labor in the two or three months of the harvest. For convenience, economy and some cynicism –and this is where capitalism’s intrinsic perversity comes in–, they prefer to outsource these hirings. They have legal responsibility for the workers, but do not get involved in the daily work.
I researched work analogous to slavery in vineyards in South Africa – after all, a country similar to Brazil in terms of social inequality. Bingo.
They even made a documentary called “Bitter Grapes” (“Bitter Grapes”, 2016), about the degrading conditions of workers who produce wines to be sent at a bargain price to Scandinavian countries.
This wound, however, is not restricted to the periphery of the capitalist world.
Allegations of slave labor have complicated producers in the French region of Champagne, which produces the most chic drinks in the world, in 2021.
According to the English newspaper The Times, eight of these winegrowers “would have paid grape pickers, mostly from Eastern Europe, less than a minimum wage, in addition to housing them in sordid conditions”.
2. Money laundering and reputation cleaning
A report by the American magazine Wine Spectator raised, as early as 2013, the suspicion that Russian and Chinese mobsters were buying wineries in France to launder money.
In 2020, the infiltration of mobsters –the originals– in the Italian wine business was investigated.
How to know which wine belongs to a criminal organization? Nearly impossible, as discretion is the key to this particular offense.
There are also companies whose owners are tycoons with a nebulous business portfolio from the social and environmental points of view – and who want to shine their own image with the glamor of wine.
Scandinavian miners, South American oil workers, that bunch. In common, they always assemble “state-of-the-art” wineries, the maximum in agricultural and industrial technology and practices.
In Brazil, we have the case of Guaspari, in the interior of São Paulo, chic in the latter and owned by a family that pressured the authorities to exploit mineral resources in indigenous lands.
3. Vineyards are monocultures
Extensive areas of plantation of the same product wear out the soil and mess up the compass of the ecosystem. In this regard, vineyards are not much different from soy, sugar cane or cotton farms.
4. The pesticide plague
If nothing is written on the package, it has pesticide. It goes for peppers, it goes for tomatoes, it goes for wine.
5. Forgery and smuggling
A lot of people are on WhatsApp transmission lists with offers on Argentine wines at outrageously low prices. Malbecão 300 sticks for seventy. Friendship is either contraband or forgery. In other words: when buying, you are either a criminal or just a sucker.
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