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22: On Accusations, Boycotts, and Doing Journalism in the Times of Cholera
If the problems are structural, what should the response to the individual be?
On Saturday night, the wave that has been building since Lisa Lind Dunbar began publishing on Instagram accounts of sexual harassment and other violations in the hospitality industry finally broke onto the shore of Denmark’s national media when Dunbar herself gave an interview on the debate program Deadline.
One of the points she has emphasized, both on television and in her posts and the essay she published in Atlas magazine, is the structural nature of the problem, and she has expressed anger at what she presents as an unhelpful focus in naming individual names. “I have been met with a sensationalism-prone interest for stories about named individuals of the more famous kind. Preferably ‘within the last few years,’” she writes. “Needless to say that ought not to be a necessity to capture the interest of the media.”
Personally, I find it somewhat disingenuous to decry a focus on individuals while simultaneously publishing enough details of an accused perpetrator’s identity for an insider to figure out who is being talked about. In fact, I’d say the approach actually encourages people to focus on individuals; it’s the equivalent of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.
But that aside, it’s also one of the places where the difference between journalism and social media is starkest. Journalists have to corroborate a claim before they publish it, especially if that claim may be disputed or damaging to someone’s reputation. In the best case scenarios, that corroboration will include documentary evidence, eyewitnesses, and others willing to go on the record to testify that they have experienced the same thing. It will also include knowing the identity of the accused so that that person has an opportunity to respond.
That best-case scenario is always hard to come by–this is where the real work of reporting comes in– but it’s especially difficult in a small, insular world like the hospitality industry where people may fear losing their jobs or being ostracized from the community if they come forward. And it’s even more difficult when the subject is something like sexual harassment, for which there is often no documentary evidence and, whether we like it or not, is something whose boundaries society is still negotiating.
That’s why it can take so long for legacy media to publish these stories. In cases like Kim Severson and Julia Moskin’s exposé of Mario Batali and Ken Friedman, they published their reporting—and went on to be part of the team that won that year’s Pulitzer Prize—only after they spent months gathering and corroborating the accounts of enough sources who were willing to speak on the record.
When those sources tell their stories, they talk about the people who committed the violations. They may understand that the problem is endemic, and they may blame hierarchical relationships or a larger culture that permits and even encourages the behavior. But they do not say, ‘The system groped me’ or ‘The power structure made inappropriate comments about my appearance.’ They say, ‘That person did this.’ Corroborating that, and then reporting it accurately, is what journalism requires.
It’s what comes next that, to me, is the real question. I entirely agree with Dunbar that a singular focus on the individual perpetrator as a bad seed or someone with a different understanding of boundaries obscures the broader nature and roots of the problem. But if we understand that problem to be structural, how *do* we respond to the individual? Do we punish them? Attempt to educate or reform them? If we want to direct our efforts at the industry or society at large, what does that actually look like?
These are really big questions, and there are so many different and complicated aspects to them that it can be hard to think about. So I thought it might be helpful to try to focus the conversation on one very specific aspect that has emerged in the wake of the accounts: the question of how the natural wine community here in Copenhagen should respond to accusations that a popular winemaker has sexually harassed and assaulted multiple women.
None of the nearly dozen people I’ve spoken with in the past week has been willing thus far to go on the record (which is telling in its own right). So I’ve spoken with some people outside of Copenhagen who have firsthand experience with this question: if a winemaker is accused of bad behavior, should importers, bars, restaurants, and shops stop buying and selling their wines?
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All across Copenhagen, bottles of one label of natural wine are disappearing from winelists and shelves. They are not disappearing because of demand, although the wines are very popular; they are disappearing because the person who makes them has been accused of wrongdoing. The winemaker has not been legally charged or convicted of a crime; they have not even been publicly named. But following accusations on social media that they sexually harassed and assaulted women, some bars and restaurants have quietly stopped serving his wines. And pretty much anywhere in Copenhagen that sells natural wine (which, in case you haven’t noticed, is a lot of places) is debating whether they should follow suit.
Needless to say, it’s raising a lot of questions. Can a wine list be a meaningful form of activism? Do importers and sommeliers have a responsibility to ensure that the wines they buy are made by people who share their ethics? When it comes to transgressive behavior, what responsibility, if any, does the larger culture surrounding natural wine play? And then there’s that old, anguished query, once reserved for poets with fascist sympathies and filmmakers who marry their ex-girlfriend’s adopted daughter: Can—and should—we separate the work from its creator?
The natural wine world has been here before. In the summer of 2020, the father of Puglian winemaker Valentina Passalacqua was arrested for illegally exploiting migrant labor on his agricultural estate. The Italian authorities did not implicate Valentina in her father’s crimes, and she herself vigorously denied the accusations, arguing that her vineyard was separate from his vegetable farm and that she paid her workers fairly. But natural wine magazine Glou Glou, relying in part on reports in the Italian media (some of which were later found to be false) lambasted the winemaker on Instagram and led some importers and retailers to drop Passalacqua’s wines. Later, Passalacqua would commission two independent audits of her labor practices, one of which was conducted under the auspices of Norway’s Vinmonopolet (which imports her wine). Neither found evidence of wrong-doing.
Part of what motivated the case was the sense within the community that natural wine was supposed to do things ‘right’--that it had a higher commitment to ethics. “This isn’t about cancel culture,” one of Glou Glou’s posts read. “This is about our impulse to preach at the altar of wokeness, only to abandon that platform when it suits our whims and especially our wallets.” Wine writer Damian Priday echoed those concerns. “People who gravitate towards natural wine do so because the virtues held by the winemakers are close to their own, especially ethical and sustainable production,” he wrote on Medium. “Natural wines and winemakers are held to a higher standard, but it is a standard that is built on trust. Valentina Passalacqua broke that trust.”
A sense of ethical responsibility is what motivated New York importer Zev Rovine to drop Passalacqua’s wines. “We make a lot of decisions in terms of what we work with for environmental reasons and for different things that we think are important causes in the world,” he says. “We try to spend our money in a way that represents our principles. Certain labor conditions are something we don’t want to be a part of.”
Before he made his decision, Rovine conducted what he describes as due diligence. In addition to speaking with winemakers in the region, he had, he says, “many, many hours of conversation with Valentina and with her team, looking through payroll paperwork and documentation—anything that she could provide.” The results weren’t entirely conclusive, but they were enough for him to decide to stop selling her wines. As he explained to the New York Times at the time, “It was too hard to separate her from her family’s history. Not knowing what the truth is, it’s too close for us to say this producer doesn’t do any of this stuff. I can’t tell my clients that, I can’t tell my employees that, I can’t tell myself that.”
Because he saw the conclusion as an ethical decision about who he wanted to do business with, Rovine applied a different standard of evidence than a court of law might require. Glou Glou’s co-founder, Jennifer Green, was open that she was relying partly on assumption and association in making her own ethical decision. “This is about assuming—unless somehow proven otherwise—that these [the exploited migrants on Mr. Passalacqua’s farm] are the workers who picked @valentina.passalacqua’s grapes,” the post read. “Why? Because this is about acknowledging there is no way to harvest eighty hectares of grapes manually, biodynamically, without an enormous human labor force.”
Applying the approach
Rachel Signer, founder of the natural wine magazine Pipette and author of You Had Me at Pét-Nat, argues that that approach may also be justified in cases of alleged sexual harassment. “I think it's an appropriate response when there's an accusation for professionals to choose not to pour those wines until [the winemaker] is proven innocent. That is a way of supporting people who consider themselves victims, and I think that that's really important. Just err on the side of the accuser.”
Others, however, are troubled by it. “An accusation in itself is not a case,” says Douglass Wregg, Director of Marketing at Les Caves de Pyrene in the UK. “We deplore sexual harassment, violence, racism in the work place, but before we pass judgement we absolutely have to understand what has happened or what is going on. This is what makes these cases so difficult. Effectively, you would have to audit every aspect of business and although you may try to do it to the best of your ability, it may not be enough to arrive at the real truth.”
Wregg has thought a lot about this question because Les Caves de Pyrene imports Passalcqua wines to the UK. The company made the decision to stand by the winemaker in part because, “of its prior knowledge of the estate based on several visits” and in part, Wregg says, “for the simple moral reason that we feel people are innocent until proven guilty.”
According to him, nothing Les Caves de Pyrene saw reached standards of evidence for a guilty verdict. “On a legal basis alone, the accusations seemed malicious and actionable, as well as sexist. The case was tendentious, based on hearsay and riddled with conjecture and untruth. In itself, that does not prove innocence, but equally it was not enough to trigger cancel culture and destroy someone’s livelihood.”
Although some of Les Caves de Pyrene’s customers stopped buying Passalacqua’s wines, “many returned, acknowledging that they really didn’t know the facts, but were going on social media rumour,” Wregg says. “If you allow people to prejudge the situation, to condemn someone who has not been legally charged with anything, who denies the accusations, then we are in a very dangerous world where opinions matter more than evidence.”
Individuals, Culture or Both?
When it comes to sexual harassment a kind of whisper network in which women warn other women about certain wine makers has long existed. “There have been low key discussions, and I personally have dissuaded women from going to intern for certain winemakers,” says Signer. “I didn't want to write a big article about how [one person] was a jerk or air his dirty laundry in print, but I was willing to tell women on a personal level: do not go intern for this man.”
As a wine journalist who travels extensively, Signer has had her own bad experiences with harassment. In addition to an encounter in Paris with a renowned Italian winemaker who is, she says, “considered a sleaze” and who was once “quite borderline inappropriate flirtatious,” she also had an uncomfortable run-in with a beloved Champagne maker. “I didn’t know when I went to visit him, and we went to dinner after, that he was going to kiss me in the carpark,” she says. “A male journalist can just rock up alone and not worry about winding up in a weird, awkward, potentially scary situation with a winemaker. Instead, I had him kissing me in the carpark.”
There are characteristics of the wine world in general that render it especially susceptible to sexual harassment. An emphasis on drinking not only makes it easier for transgressions to occur, but also for accusations to be dismissed because one or both parties were drunk. The national origins of many winemakers also plays a role. “There’s an attitude like, Oh, he’s just French, or he’s just Italian, they’re like that,” Signer says.
A specific characteristic of the natural wine world also plays a role: the tendency to turn producers into heroes. It’s not unusual for visiting winemakers to be fêted with bacchanalian parties, elaborate dinners, the full rockstar treatment. “There is this sycophancy toward winemakers, where they are like gods,” says Signer, who admits that she herself has been guilty of it. Both women and men are implicated in the cult of personality surrounding winemakers, and for some of the former that translates into what she describes as “a groupie kind of attitude.”
But winemakers who come to see themselves as entitled and fans whose fawning may be interpreted in unwanted ways are not the only risks of this kind of celebrity. It also tends–just as it does with chefs–to erase the many people working alongside them. “There's an assistant winemaker. There's a vineyard manager. There's a harvesting manager. There's probably immigrant labor,” says Signer. “I'm not saying we shouldn't acknowledge and respect that the winemaker has this vision. But the big picture matters too.”
Outcomes, desired and otherwise
Thinking about the big picture raises a lot of other important questions beyond whether these kinds of decisions should be based on social media reports or not. One of them is a consideration of outcomes. What is the intended or desired effect of deciding to stop selling or pouring a wine? If the desired outcome is structural–that is, a transformation of the industry as a whole–what needs to happen for an action taken against an individual winemaker to be meaningful?
In the wake of its investigation into Passalacqua’s practices, Rovine’s company put together a statement of values (which, in addition to fair labor practices includes zero tolerance for racism and sexual harassment) to which it asks all the winemakers with whom it works to adhere. Other importers have begun auditing their producers’ labor practices, or requiring them to answer self-assessment surveys. Passalacqua herself has brought in union representation, and although she did not respond to Bord’s requests for an interview, she told wine journalist Simon Woolf in 2020 that she thought importers should conduct their own due diligence “in order to avoid that social media can make judgment about people and destroy their reputation, we need to start with this approach in natural wine.”
That approach is itself controversial; one importer who asked to remain anonymous argued that it went beyond the scope of their job to check the backgrounds of their producers. “I don’t have the training, or honestly the interest, to assess someone else’s virtue,” he said.
There is also the question of whether and under what circumstances, an accused producer—or chef, or bar owner, or insert profession here—can return to the fold. At this juncture, it’s fair to say that Passalacqua’s reputation is still tarnished and there are shops that, having removed her wines when the case first broke, still do not sell her. “It is easy to destroy a reputation in the blink of an eye,” says Wregg. “It is so much more difficult to rebuild that reputation, because the accusations are still out there. In the legal system you have to be proved guilty of a crime; in the world of social media you can scarcely prove your innocence beyond all reasonable doubt. In the end, Valentina had to get audited by two separate monopolies, but even that isn’t enough for some people.”
Rovine stands by the view that the decision to stop selling a winemaker can be an effective tool for achieving meaningful change. “I think that the community holding community members accountable is valuable,” he says. ”If you lose your clientele based on [how you behave] or you can’t be in a restaurant that you want to be in because of it, if you're shunned by the community, it has a real economic impact on a business. If it bars you from a certain community that you might want to be in, that has an effect.”
But when it comes to the Passalacqua case, he also admits to doubts. “To this day, to be frank, who knows what the right decision was? I made the decision that I thought was right at the time with the information I had.” He also holds out the possibility that, given certain actions, he might change his mind in the future. “I think it would take changing some fundamental things in the way her community works, and doing some effort to repair damage that was potentially done, not necessarily directly by her, but by her family and the estate that she's on. I think it would take long and concerted effort, which to be frank, I think she's pretty committed to, if you look at what she's been doing.”
“There’s good she can do in this world, and I think taking away her ability to do that is a shame,’ he adds. “So who knows? I follow her progress. I don’t know if it means we will ever sell her wines again, but I support her in trying to do something good.”