A Racist Winemaker–Would You Drink His Wines?

bad_wine_woman_drinking As Alder Yarrow reported over the weekend, Italian winemaker Fulvio Bressan spewed a despicable, racist rant on Facebook directed at Italy’s first African-Italian government minister, Cécile Kyenge. Objecting to her suggestion that qualified, undocumented immigrants be given temporary housing, Bressan vomited (in translation):

“hey, dirty Black MONKEY, I DON’T PAY TAXES to put your GORILLA friends up at a HOTEL. Please take them to your house where you can be the big shot with all that money of yours. Oops. That money isn’t even yours. Because Italians give you that money. YOU SHITTY NEGRO GOLD DIGGER.”

He has been rightly vilified by the wine world for this swill. But it raises the ethical question—do we have an obligation to refuse to drink his wines?

Alder Yarrow, in a thoughtful post, argues that

“There are so many great wines in the world, why would I want to give my money to someone whose view of the world would permit them to speak in such a manner about an individual person?”

Indeed. I have no intention of drinking or reviewing this guy’s wine. But this kind of answer doesn’t quite get at the philosophical issue here. Suppose Bresson’s wine was not merely good but extraordinary, absolutely unique and irreplaceable, and capable of producing the kind of consummate experience wine lovers dream about?

I must confess that I would not hesitate to drink it if the experience was sufficiently rare and unrivaled.

This is not a new issue. It has hounded the art world for centuries. Many artists, musicians, and intellectuals whose work we deeply admire were loathsome people whose words and deeds were every bit as detestable as Bresson’s. The composer Richard Wagner was a notorious anti-semite, great humanitarian and champion of civil liberties Arthur Koestler was allegedly a serial rapist, the landmark work of cinematography Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl was a piece of Nazi propaganda.

I confront this issue repeatedly at a personal level. I deeply admire, and my own thinking has been significantly influenced by, the work of Martin Heidegger, a 20th Century German philosopher who was a committed Nazi. Of course his work is always tainted by that association but the power of his thought nevertheless survives.

We can admire artistic vision without endorsing all the actions of an artist.

Alder Yarrow argues that works from the past do not pose the same dilemma as Bresson’s wines do for contemporary wine lovers. History heals these moral wounds:

Those questions are easier to contemplate, however, because we’re talking about people long dead and gone. There’s a sense that somehow enjoying the Ring of the Nibelung [by Wagner] today can be done without the act being an implicit endorsement of the man who created it. For some it can be appreciated as a work of genius without needing to deal with the nastiness that may have accompanied that genius. History, after all, is complex.

It’s another thing entirely, however, to contemplate the abhorrent views of a living producer of something we appreciate, as Paula Deen has recently proven so widely and publicly.

I’m not sure I see the reasoning here. Why does the fact that the artist lived in the past make a difference? How does time itself erase the immoral taint or make it more palatable? Anti-semitism and Nazism are not so alien to our world that we no longer comprehend them as shocking.

We should not confuse morality and art. As persons, we must strive to be good if we are to live a fully human life and earn the trust of those with whom we live. But artists and winemakers have a different aim. They must, above all, be interesting. Their capacity to be interesting is in no way diminished by moral failings. Art need not reinforce our moral sensibilities—it must compel and hold our attention, it must fascinate.

Yarrow is correct to argue that

“…drinking wine consists of more than simply consuming a beverage. Wine may quench a thirst to be sure, but for many of us, it is a thirst for story, for meaning, and for beauty, all of which are shared with and produced by the place from which the wine comes, and the hands that make it.”

Certainly the meanings that Bresson’s wines express have lost their charms. But meaningful expression is only part of what wine is about; flavor is equally important. If a wine has it in spades it might earn a spot in the moral-free zone.

To my knowledge I have never had Bresson’s wine. Although well reviewed, I suspect it is a pretender to that rarified throne of the transcendently beautiful and can be readily replaced by one of a less tainted origin.

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