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Italian Wine Makers, Tainted by 1986 Scandal, Are Toasting Latest Grape Harvest

Associated Press

After a bountiful grape harvest that promises a good vintage, Italian wine makers are hoping to draw the curtain on the tainted wine scandal that shook consumers’ confidence and sent exports into a nose dive.

Grape production in 1986 increased 14% over the previous year, and wine producers speak favorably about the wine in the making, although few believe that it will match the 1985 vintage that was widely considered the best of the decade.

Wine laced with methanol was blamed for 24 deaths last spring and severely damaged the acceptance of Italian wine. Exports plunged 39.2% in the first eight months of 1986, compared to the same period in 1985, according to the Italian Statistics Institute. Export earnings of $500 million for wine through August were 21% lower than in the corresponding period the previous year.

“Qualitatively, the 1986 harvest can be defined as on the whole good, in some cases first-rate, but not holding pretense of excellence,” Giuseppe Martelli, director of the Assn. of Italian Wine Technicians, said recently.

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The quality of last fall’s yield varied regionally. Tuscany, Lombardy, Sardinia, Friuli and Trentino fared particularly well.

“We’ve had two wonderful vintages--'85 and ’86,” said Pablo Harri, chief wine technician for Tuscan producer Villa Banfi, noted for Brunello, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

“The grapes had more balance this year, more balance from the point of view of alcohol, sugar content and acidity,” he said. “There was enough water to make the berries full and enough sunshine to allow them to mature.”

Enthusiasm also is running high at Martini & Rossi, a Piedmontese producer of vermouth and Asti Spumante.

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“We expect a very good vintage, comparable to last year,” said Augusto Rivelli, export sales manager for Martini & Rossi. “Due to the very good weather we had in September and October, the grapes came to a very good point of maturation.”

Italian wine production in 1986 is projected to be 1.9 million gallons, compared to last year’s 1.7 million gallons.

Whether the harvest will bring success to vintners depends to a great degree on consumers’ memories of the methanol scare.

Investigators found that more than 300 brands of wine contained potentially lethal levels of methanol, a substance that occurs in small amounts naturally in wine making, but which some unscrupulous vintners added in large doses to raise the alcohol content of cheap wines.

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Ingested in large quantities, methanol, or methyl alcohol, can cause blindness, coma and death.

The government declared a state of emergency after the scandal and eventually arrested more than 20 people.

Particularly damaged by the scandal were Italy’s important markets in France and West Germany, which import mostly cheaper, lower-quality wines. There were no indications that methanol-tainted wines were shipped across the Atlantic, but Italian wine exports to the United States tumbled 28.4% in the first eight months of the year from the same period of 1985.

The scandal made 1986 “the worst year in the Italian wine industry in this century,” said Guido Scialpi, former publisher of a wine magazine.

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