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Unfiltered: Sting Becomes a Tuscan Vintner

Plus, bag-in-a-box wine gets an artistic upgrade in France, a robot learns to prune vines, proprietary naming rights go overboard and an Australian crime syndicate targets Penfolds Grange

Posted: March 19, 2009

• Rock music icon Sting has joined the ranks of celebrity vintners. The star has announced plans to release 30,000 bottles of two red wines next fall that will be produced using fruit from his 300-hectare, organically farmed estate in Tuscany, Tenuta del Palagio. The estate sports a 16th-century villa, a swimming pool, wooded areas, several small lakes, olive groves and, of course, a recording studio. Riccardo Nocentini, the mayor of nearby Figline Valdarno, some 20 miles south of Florence, says the former Police front man is a "serious farmer" who employs 15 permanent staff as well as seasonal workers during harvest on his property. Sting, long a supporter of environmental causes, has said he considers the release of his wines a defense of rural Tuscan biodiversity and agriculture. The family currently produces honey and olive oil from the property under the Il Palagio Sumner Family label (Sting's birth name is Gordon Sumner). Currently, most of it is sold in England, but he reportedly has plans to open a shop on his Tuscan property soon.

We presume this barrel didn't include any of Coca-Cola's original recipe.

• Just when you thought that bag-in-a-box wine lacked panache, along comes Bib'Art. Gérard Bru, the owner of the Languedoc's Château Puech-Haut, was inspired by his own collection of used barrels painted by artists to create works of art that consumers could take home with them. Keen on supporting the arts, in 2005 he decided to commission painters to transform barrels into collectors' items. Since then, more than 100 artists, including the likes of Vincent Bioules and Hervé Di Rosa, have lent their brush to the project. Each artist receives a full barrel of wine from the estate, which they agree to send back empty, but entirely revamped. Now Bru is creating miniature aluminum replicas of these artworks. Dubbed Bib'Art, the novel packaging contains hermetically sealed plastic bags full of wine and is fitted with plastic taps, along the lines of its boxed counterparts. Eye-catching to say the least, these 5-liter limited editions, contain one or two bags of vins de pays or AOC Languedoc wines in red, white or rosé.

PruneBot says, "Keep hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times."

• Is it only a matter of time before even the winemaker and drinker are replaced by robots? Unfiltered has seen a robot sommelier, a robot that dispenses advice about health and food and a hand-held robotic tongue that can differentiate between grape varieties. Now we hear that a California company is developing a robot for the vineyard. Vision Robotics, based in San Diego, recently demonstrated a prototype of its Intelligent Robotic Vineyard Pruner at the Sutter Home Delta Ranch. The pruner, which is still in development, scans the vines using two cameras to mimic human depth perception, creates a 3-D model and then follows a pruning plan based on grower-customized "pruning rules." CEO Derek Morikawa told Wine Business News that the device is being developed to help growers meet their vineyard labor needs, though if the economy keeps shedding jobs at its current rate, Unfiltered thinks that growers could soon find themselves awash in wine drinkers willing to work for grapes.

• One of the few things Unfiltered remembers from high school history class—or maybe it was Ben Stein's lecture in Ferris Bueller—is the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. Passed in 1930, Smoot-Hawley raised tariffs on over 20,000 imported goods. Other countries retaliated by raising tariffs on American products, international trade plummeted, and the financial crisis of 1929 accelerated into the Great Depression. But certainly the world is too smart to pass protectionist measures during today's recession? On March 10, the European Union stopped allowing in American wines with labels containing the following words: chateau, classic, cream, crusted, crusting, fine, late bottled vintage, noble, ruby, superior, sur lie, tawny, vintage or vintage character. It turns out a clause in the 2006 trade accord between the United States and the E.U., which removed trade barriers for wine as long as Americans didn't use place names like Champagne, Port or Burgundy, banned the above words after three years. So what are Chateau Montelena or Clos du Val supposed to do? Clos du Val has stopped shipping to Europe, except to the U.K., where its name is trademarked. The federal government says negotiations are underway to fix the problem, but it could take some time. Perhaps Congress could lift the 300 percent duty on Roquefort cheese the Bush administration imposed last year after Europe refused U.S. beef that contains hormones?

• Sydney criminals apparently have expensive taste in wine—police seized dozens of bottles in a raid on a fraud syndicate this week. Included in the stash were dozens of bottles of Penfolds Grange, valued at more than $450 each. The group used stolen credit card information to buy $3 million dollars worth of electronic goods, tools and luxury wine. The items were put up for sale at discounted rates on online shopping sites, although it is yet to be revealed whether any wine had been sold in this way. Police raided five western Sydney properties and arrested two men following a tip-off after discounted retail-store gift cards appeared on eBay. It is alleged that the syndicate had been operating in a number of countries for some time, and had sold more than 6,000 items online. A spokesperson for Penfolds said that the company works closely with online shopping sites like eBay on matters such as this. Bottles of Grange have been laser-etched with identification numbers since the 1994 vintage to prevent fraud. Of course, all the laser etching in the world won't stop anyone from stealing them.

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