Due to its world-class viticulture and historic winemaking tradition, Italy is considered a renowned country in the international wine market. With twenty winemaking regions and over four hundred different types of grapes, the country claims the top spot in winemaking globally.
Many of its famous wines, such as the Barolo, Barbera, and prosecco, have taken the world by storm, offering stiff competition for other elite wines from Bordeaux, Champagne, Napa Valley, SonomaValley, and other well-known winemaking regions in the world.
Figure 1: Prosecco di Valdobbiadene un nobile vino by Ferruccio Zanone – Flickr
Moreover, the country’s wines have gained love in recent days, following the country’s strong history of making reputable wines. While Italian wines are good, the story behind them is not so good. Its elite wines’ formidable history is marred by a dark history that is not known to many of its lovers. Please follow through with this article as we take you through this story.
Figure 2: Barolo Landscape by x1klima – Flickr
Winemaking in Italy has been going on for more than 4000 years. Ancient people produced wine using wild grapes, but it was not until the 8th century that the Greeks first recorded and introduced the winemaking process. The Greeks loved the Italian terroir, calling it Oenotria, meaning “the land of wine“; this indicates that the Greeks may have found the native Italians already making wine, albeit with inferior methods.
Figure 3: The Sunny Vineyard by Daniel Vogel – Unsplash
Due to their settlement in Italy, they introduced novel and improved winemaking practices, leading to the industry’s rise. Later on, the winemaking industry significantly improved when the Romans took over power.
The Romans loved wine. Under their reign, the winemaking industry flourished proportionally to the rising market demands. The wine produced in those ages was stronger than most Italian wines today due to its high alcohol content; people had to dilute it with water to make it palatable. Besides, the Romans loved sweet wines and could incorporate other means, such as adding honey to sweeten wine.
When the Romans took over Italian regions, large-scale and slave-run plantations emerged in the country. The Roman Empire introduced rules regarding viticulture that saw Italy remain the sole source of wine in the empire. Consequently, exports to other parts of the empire could be made in exchange for enslaved people. Therefore, slavery in Italian viticulture burgeoned under the Roman Empire. Winemaking increased and became a part of Italian culture.
By AD 92, so many farmlands had been planted as vineyards that Emperor Domitian had to destroy some of them to release land for food production. However, slave-run plantations continued and evolved into modern-day slavery even after the fall of the Roman Empire, which led to Italy’s winemaking decline. Besides, each winemaking region maintained its distinct characteristics even after the country was untied between 1848 and 1871 – called the Unification of Italy. These outcomes explain the differences in the modern-day winemaking regions.
In the contemporary world, workers in Italian vineyards and wineries face many challenges placing them in a vulnerable position while they produce the country’s elite wines. The deplorable state of the Italian agricultural sector has placed workers in vineyards and other sectors in a vulnerable position where their conditions are exploited for the benefit of a few elite people and companies.
Since most of the country’s vignerons are small-scale, they face hiring challenges. Consequently, recruiting agencies exploit their condition, taking a larger share of the workers’ salaries.
As a result, workers, especially women, work long hours with little income due to intermediaries and lack of employment.
In recent years, the exploitation of migrant labor has become common in Italy as many aspirant people move to the country in search of a better. Therefore, the agricultural sector has been laden with immigrant labor, slashing workers’ wages in the fields. Such conditions experienced in vineyards and wineries have led to poor working conditions. Migrant laborers are poorly treated, and this takes a toll on their health.
For instance, there is a case of Paola Clemente (49), a woman who died in 2015 while sorting grapes due to fatigue. Clemente’s case is the tip of the iceberg for many cases where workers suffer serious health issues due to the working conditions in the vineyards and wineries.
Hence, worker exploitation is rampant in several Italian vineyards due to the influx of immigrants. Most migrants hail from West Africa and Eastern Europe, and most enter the country illegally. Their illegal status places them on the spot for various chances of exploitation. In a recent case, Settimio Passalacqua—a winemaker with extensive vineyard holdings—was arrested for practicing ‘caporalato,’ a practice likened to modern slavery.
The practices involve recruiting migrants by intermediaries for labor in the fields during the harvest period; these migrants are paid as low as three euros an hour, which is considerably lower than the official threshold for minimum wage in Italy.
This illegal practice leads to the exploitation of migrants who tend to work for very long hours to earn a sizable amount. As a result, some of them die in the fields – cases that take longer to be reported or are ignored. Besides, migrants cannot complain due to their illegal work status, which challenges them to attain better working conditions. Nevertheless, vineyard owners and winemakers perpetuating migrant exploitation continue to make wine gracing some of the luxurious events and people’s tables.
The Italian wines are part of a thriving and uncontrollable agricultural industry that has witnessed people getting eaten up by consumerism based on exploitative labor. Consumers want the best wines and may not mind the wines’ journey to the table unless a significant exposure of exploitation occurs and gets reported in the media, as in the case of Settimio Passalacqua. Nonetheless, these conditions of greed and negligence have led to the rise of mafia groups and organized crime. Caporalato has become rampant in the country’s agricultural sector and a blemish on its elite wines.
According to an estimate by the International Labor Organization (ILO), a threefold increase in the number of people in bondage in the contemporary world has been observed compared to the transatlantic slave period. Practices such as caporalato have placed more in servitude, an approach that is profitable for the intermediaries but keeps workers in a cycle of debt. Therefore, while Italy is the leading wine producer in the world today, the story behind its wine production is dark.
Migrants, women, and seasonal laborers are forced into a paternalistic relationship with intermediaries, as they depend upon intermediaries for recruitment and other worker-related interests. There has been increased homelessness in town producing grapes and wine resulting from worker exploitation. These practices are spread across the country but receive little attention from the justice department as most laborers are reported to lack nexus.
Besides, the industry is abetted by an agricultural sector that has primarily remained informal since ancient times. While most farmers depended on rural workers for the labor, this practice has transformed over time, and now many farmers, especially in viticulture, depend on migrants.
Therefore, it can be concluded that slavery introduced by the Romans did not end with the fall of the Roman Empire but evolved into a more profitable and organized modern-day slavery. Unfortunately, migrants, women, and unskilled laborers are at the receiving end of this blatant exploitation.
However, the sorry state of the wine sector has recently received some attention in the media due to the explosive nature of countless cases highlighting the poor working conditions of workers in the vineyards and wineries.
Consequently, vineyard owners have resorted to intermediary forms of employment to avoid strict wage labor laws for cheaper migrant and seasonal workers. Nonetheless, recent cases have placed the industry under the spotlight. The government is taking several measures to prevent the exploitation of workers and migrants in the Italian wine sector.
17 August 1838 – On this day, Antonio Carpene was born. He was an Italian chemist involved in the study of viticulture. He was a famous oenologist and a driving force behind the creation of the first enology school in Italy. Notably, he focused on better production methods for manufacturing sparkling wines. Hence, his research has been attributed to Italy’s strong sparkling wine industry. Besides, he has been credited for producing the first Prosecco wine. His contributions to Italy’s field of viticulture involved a series of books that granted him an honorary degree in viticulture from the University of Padua. Furthermore, his love for chemistry led him to name his first children chemistry-related names, Rubidium and Etile (Ethyl). In general, Carpene was an influential figure in Italy’s viticulture in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
9 July 1876 – On this day, Italy’s first school of viticulture and enology in Conegliano was established. Antonio Carpene was one of its pioneers and is credited for playing a key role in its creation. The institution was inaugurated on 24 September 1924. The school has since grown to become a center for viticulture in the country, having more than 6000 graduates. It is currently involved in advanced winemaking and viticulture research and better wine marketing practices. Italy has dramatically benefited from the school, with many of its graduates becoming prominent vintners in the country and abroad; this is demonstrated by the extensive wine production and claiming the top spot in the global market.
4 September 476AD – On this day, the Roman Empire fell. The Roman Empire greatly influenced Italy’s winemaking sector since it was its sole producer. Besides, the Romans loved drinking wine. Consequently, when the Romans took over power in Italy, they increased wine production, and wine became an integral part of Italian culture. Furthermore, wine was an essential commodity for trade as the empire exchanged it for other goods from other regions. Wine production significantly grew during the empire’s reign. However, after emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed on 4 September 476AD, the empire fell, negatively affecting Italy’s wine production and experiencing a downward spiral. After the fall of the Roman Empire, wine production significantly reduced and was unspoken of much until it rose in the 18th and 19th centuries. The rise continued in the 20th century despite challenges like the Phylloxera attack. Currently, Italy is leading the world in wine production and exports; one of four bottles exported today is Italian wine.
 Ruggero Scaturro, “Modern Slavery Made in Italy—Causes and Consequences of Labour Exploitation in the Italian Agricultural Sector,” Journal of Illicit Economies and Development 3, no. 2 (2021): 181–89, https://doi.org/10.31389/jied.95.