Standing in Montalcino on the morning of July 3, on Conti Costanti's historic Brunello di Montalcino—producing estate, Italy's agricultural minister and the U.S. Ambassador to Italy guaranteed that Brunello would continue to flow to the United States, its biggest foreign market.
With more than 100 members of the press watching, Agricultural Minister Luca Zaia introduced a decree he had signed that morning creating a certification process for Brunello producers exporting to the United States. Zaia said that the government had acted to bring an end to the threatened embargo on Brunello by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
Since November 2007, Italian police, under the direction of Siena's public prosecutor, have been investigating whether Montalcino producers are using grapes other than Sangiovese in their Brunellos, in violation of DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) rules. In March, the police impounded at least 1 million bottles of 2003 Brunello from Argiano, Marchesi de' Frescobaldi's, Castelgiocondo estate, Antinori)'s Pian delle Vigne and Castello Banfi, on suspicion that their Brunello vineyards contained illegal grapes.
As the investigation continued, the TTB demanded that the Italian government provide guarantees that any Brunellos sent to the United States were authentic. Under Zaia's decree, the process of guaranteeing the wines will fall to the Florence office of the ICQ (Central Inspectorate for the Control of Quality of Agri-food), a department of the Agricultural Ministry, following laboratory tests on the wine itself and document controls. According to the decree, successful applicants should receive the certificate within 15 days.
Echoing Zaia's confidence in a happy conclusion to three months of tension, U.S. Ambassador Ron Spogli said, "We can rely on the Italian government to give the necessary guarantees in good faith. We take their certification as final. Everything's in good shape now." A spokesman for the TTB in Washington, D.C., confirmed that the certification process satisfied the agency's requirements.
"This is the first time that the government has guaranteed exports in this way," said Zaia. "But the TTB's demands required a concrete response. We had to move quickly to quell rumors that there was a health hazard involved."
Zaia said that the new decree would not in any way interfere with the ongoing enquiry by local Siena magistrates. On June 26, the investigators cleared Antinori's Pian delle Vigne Brunello 2003, concluding that it was 100 percent Sangiovese. Argiano chose to declassify its Brunello 2003 in June, leaving only Marchesi de' Frescobaldi and Banfi awaiting clearance.
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