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Some Grapes No Longer Good to the Last Drop

Associated Press Writer

It was the first harvest of the new millennium, yet little seemed to have changed since the Greeks and Romans tended vines here in the flatlands of Puglia, the heel of boot-shaped Italy.

Like generations before them, local women converged on the vineyards to handpick the grapes. Laborers carried wooden buckets laden with fruit across the reddish sands of the vineyards to waiting tractors, one of the few signs of modern times.

But change was very much on Sergio Botrugno’s mind for that 2000 vintage, and he knew his octogenarian father, Romolo, wouldn’t like it.

“I knew he would get angry, so I asked him to stay at home,” the son recalls. “He showed up in the fields anyway and started swearing at me. He thought I had gone mad.”

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Towering over the vines and the stooping women, the former pro basketball player gave a near-sacrilegious order: Ignore most of the crop and harvest only the best for his family’s first bottled vintage.

The reaction was sheer horror. “No, no, this one is good, we can use it,” a woman shrieked.

The harvesters were used to picking up every shriveled or moldy grape and squeezing its juice to the last drop.

But the upstart winemaker knew that if the family business was to survive it would have to break with cherished traditions. In that aim, he had an ally: the European Union.

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The bureaucracy that runs the 25-nation bloc of European democracies is embedded in the lives of its 455 million citizens, including the quality of their air, the size of their taillights, the content of their sausages and the way they make wine.

The EU has long warned that falling sales and plummeting prices -- caused by competition from imported wines and the decline of wine as a daily fixture on European dining tables -- threatens one of the continent’s most time-honored products. Through funding and legislation, the EU has been encouraging producers to choose quality over quantity, slashing yields to keep prices afloat, and fostering wines that appeal to new consumer trends.

The challenge from non-European wines is heating up.

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European wines, mainly from France, Italy and Spain, still account for 65% of the world’s production and 57% of its consumption. But imports from countries such as the United States, South Africa, Chile and Australia have skyrocketed in the last decade -- South Africa’s more than seven-fold -- while EU wine exports have risen only slightly. Experts predict that on current trends, Europe will soon become a net importer of wine.

In June, the EU Commission proposed a radical overhaul, cutting production of low-quality wines and paying winemakers around $2.5 billion over the next five years to take almost a million acres of vineyards -- about 11% of the total -- out of production.

The change, envisioned for the 2008 growing season, would slash subsidies for weak producers and direct more funds to those willing to modernize.

An egalitarian impulse also is at work: The new system encourages small growers to bottle their wine under their own labels, rather than sell it in bulk and anonymously for blending into the great-name vintages.

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Botrugno, 44, says the EU is saving the industry from ruin. But it goes against everything his father knows.

“It was a massacre of wine,” said Romolo Botrugno. “Every day they would massacre the wine.”

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But what the father calls a massacre, his son calls a boon.

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He says he invested $600,000 in restructuring, $420,000 of it covered by EU funds, and his sales have almost doubled from the yearly $150,000 the business made before 2000.

His wines can fetch up to $50 a bottle, even though he sells to local merchants for about $6 a bottle. That’s still five times the $1.20 the Botrugnos got for each liter of bulk wine.

They have benefited from a 1999 EU shift that allocates an average $570 million every year to help vintners restructure their business. Winemakers across southern Europe -- from Sicily to France’s Languedoc-Roussillon to the Spanish region of Penedes -- are seizing the opportunity not only to survive but to boost the prestige of regions that had been known for producing low-quality table wine.

The less-is-more drive requires vintners to prune leaves, branches and budding grape bunches in early summer to save the plant’s energy and help it concentrate the sugars and aromas that make great wine.

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So far, this move has changed the face of 5% of Europe’s vineyards, with Spain benefiting the most, according to an EU Commission report.

Botrugno, who has a college degree in agronomy, credits EU funds with helping him implement the transformation.

To receive funding, he had to redesign the business around EU requirements, guaranteeing a higher level of employment and taking the winemaking process into his hands from grape to bottle, rather than selling his produce in bulk.

It has been round-the-clock, backbreaking work. But Botrugno says he feels repaid because his wine is now under his own name, instead of being sold wholesale to producers in the north to disappear into more upscale Chianti or Barolo.

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“Our wine was Chianti, but our name didn’t appear on the label and those producers were the great winemakers,” said Botrugno. “Unlike so many Tuscan families, we don’t have an aristocratic coat of arms to put up.”

Another Puglia winemaker, Roberto Erario, says the EU help is bringing technology to Europe’s less developed regions.

“EU policies have allowed us to modernize our farms, leveling the playing field with producers in the north,” said Erario, from the town of Manduria, south of Brindisi.

The hot southern weather could easily ruin a vintage by disrupting the fermentation process. But with EU funds winemakers can afford stainless steel tanks -- temperature-controlled and able to slow fermentation, concentrating color and aromas, he said.

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Together with twin brother Silvio, 33-year-old Erario runs a cooperative of about 1,000 vintners, which in 2001 got $1.2 million in EU funds that allowed them to bottle part of their wine instead of selling it off in bulk.

Their Cooperativa Agricola Pliniana has doubled sales since 1999 largely thanks to a yearly 300,000 bottles of Manduria’s traditional Primitivo wine. This full-bodied red that tastes of bramble and red berries is made from the same grape variety as California’s Zinfandel, and sells well in Italy, Japan and the United States.

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Some in the industry have mixed feelings about the revolution.

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It meets consumer demand for better wine, but “it’s distancing the vintner from traditional winemaking,” said Piergiovanni Pistoni, head of the wine division at farmer’s lobby Confagricoltura and a winemaker from the Friuli region in Italy’s northeast.

“Before, wine was made first of all by taking care of the vine and the land. Now it’s becoming a technological product. Of course, before we would often make the opposite mistake, trying to produce as much wine as possible, without thinking of market needs.”

Like most European winemakers, Botrugno and Erario believe their biggest challenge comes from overseas.

Here too the EU wants to help.

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Its plan would bring order to a restrictive and often confusing labeling system and make it simpler for consumers to see what they are buying, for instance by emulating the non-European practice of stating type of grape on the label.

Botrugno has honored his skeptical father by labeling one of his wines after him.

The patriarch, now 91, sounds unconvinced, but resigned.

“I’ve abandoned the vineyard,” he says. “Maybe what they do now is better, but I don’t have the strength to carry on.”

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