Sat in the park one hot day in June, I cast my eyes across the picnicscape unfolding around me and was struck by something peculiar; at least five different groups of friends, sat on their individual checkered blankets, were sharing a bottle of orange wine. Not just any wine, but Calcarius orange wine — a saturated peachy colour reminiscent of a freshly plucked fruit, with ‘Ca’ scrawled across the label akin to how Chanel might emblazon its interlocking Cs, or Gucci its double Gs.
Highly drinkable at 11 percent, this cloudy, natural wine was all over Instagram, too; oft-accessorised with a can of Perello olives and a bag of those truffle crisps. That Ca wine and those verdant Spanish olives have become as synonymous with urbanites partaking in aperitif hour as Boris’ daily conferences during lockdown. Scrawled across the back of Ca’s label was a slogan; ‘Peaceful Living.’ It felt like a fittingly wishful motto for stressful times.
“Ca has eye-catching branding,” says Brodie Mash, co-owner of wine and restaurant Shop Cuvee in North London; he says sales of Ca orange wine have been strong through the whole of lockdown. “People really do make decisions based on how a bottle looks. [Outside of a restaurant] the label is really all the customer has to go by.”
At £25 a pop, this Puglian wine was one I’d devoured many times during those hard at-home days, when a nice bottle was about the only thing making those endless hours indoors feel bearable. My flatmate and I had sat on our stoop in the evenings with a bottle, grateful for fresh air and glad to be boozing on something that felt like a worthy splurge. Like others, we’d self-pledged to support independents and small-batch producers during the pandemic.
But last week, news broke in Italy that Ca wine was linked to an ongoing modern slavery investigation — Ca’s winemaker Valentina Passalacqua’s father, with whom Valentina co-owns a sprawling 80-hectare vineyard, was placed under house arrest following accusations of “caporalato”, a form of human exploitation where an individual profits nationally and internationally from capitalism at the expense of workers. The vineyard employs over 200 workers, sourced via organised crime from slums in North Africa and Albania, with illegal working hours, pay and conditions. Peaceful living? Not at all. Passalacqua - whose grapes reportedly come from the vineyard - moved quickly to distance herself from her father, releasing a statement on social media declaring “the conduct ascribed to my father is 100 percent unrelated to me and my winery.”
As yet, there has been no direct evidence that those enslaved workers were picking grapes for Calcarius wine; Passalacqua has yet to provide evidence that they weren’t. Many independent wine shops have stopped selling the wine, pending the outcome of the investigation. (That Passlacqua was directly involved with the running of the farm until a few years ago suggests she knew what was going on.)
“We didn’t want to list a product that was potentially made under illegal working conditions,” says Mash, who put out a statement saying Shop Cuvee had suspended sales of Calcarius. “Normally we would do this quietly, but being such a popular product meant it was essential to [say something] so our customers were not confused as to why they could no longer find the wine on our website.” Ca’s popularity only served to fuel awareness.
Many of my friends have stopped buying it, too: Chinazo Ufodiama, a London-based PR and co-founder of the Unpretty podcast, has switched instead to drinking Chin Chin — a vinho verde from Portugal. “As a black woman, it is difficult for me to ignore the fact that she (and consequently her business) has benefitted from that modern day slavery – the exploitation of black people, again, in 2020,” says Ufodiama. “Simply disassociating herself from her father and his business and not acknowledging her own complicity (staying silent or turning a blind eye is complicity) feels like a marketing campaign to save face.” But why hadn’t we contemplated the origins of our ‘nice’ wine before? Like all consumers, Ufodiama and I took that ‘Peaceful Living’ slogan at face value. But neither of us do that with our clothing, or beauty products. If a fashion brand states a garment or a collection is sustainable, I want to know how. What makes wine any different?
Perhaps it’s because the price and messaging means customers just expect it. We assume that organic, biodynamic wines, which are grown in conditions to benefit the planet, are wholesome in all aspects. “This isn’t a £6 supermarket wine, it’s a luxury product,” says Ufodiama. “You don’t expect to hear stories about exploitation in relation to a luxury industry.” And we self-consciously know less about wine - we don’t know how to grow or make it. And so it can seduce us with chic branding, nice packaging and romanticised descriptions of the soil and the casks.
But alcohol is as much a trend as anything else; the summer of Whispering Angel was followed by the summer of Aperol. If we’re going to help fuel the popularity of a bottle of booze by constantly posting about it on Instagram, like anything else we should contemplate its origins. We need to do better. It’s almost horribly ironic that the wine we all felt good about buying now leaves this bitter aftertaste.