1890: “Beware the newsletters!”

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Ottavio Ottavi

“Giornale Vinicolo” (“Wine journal”) was an italian pioneeristic pubblication started by the enologist Ottavio Ottavi in 1875 and lasted for 57 years. The journal was an invaluable tool for vine growers, winemakers and winesellers, offering advices on how to grow grapes, how to treat illnesses and pests and how to avoid wine faults. Every issue examined the state of italian and foreign wine markets (sometimes focusing on specific countries) and featured reports on conventions and seminars. Its critical and scientific approach makes it a very interesting reading (the famous Antonio Carpene, founder of Carpene-Malvolti, is one of the contributors), even though some technical aspects are by now outdated.

In 1890 phylloxera was ravaging France, but north Italy too was experiencing the first outbreaks of this plague, with downy and powdery mildew posing other problems in the vineyards. The journal warned its readers by giving advice on good grapegrowing practices and reporting researches, surveys and projects aiming to stop the lethal insect. Between these I found an entertaining article titled “The 11th commandment” (N.8-23 February, Year XVI), a good insight on grape growing in the 1800s, but also a way to understand that centuries may pass, but human nature does not change. Here are some extracts I translated. My comments are marked in bold characters.

“[…] Here it is (the 11th commandment): BEWARE THE NEWSLETTERS.
Farmers receive little correspondence and so they will likely read a newsletter: they will refuse an agrarian journal, because there is too much to read; but they will pocket a newsletter, which they will then read after dinner, at the beginning of a regular digestion, in that physical and mental state when even the most unfriendly and suspicious bear becomes, without knowing it, tamer and more open to other people’s thoughts.
The newsletter is always very well made. The author, normally a big shot, completely unheard-of, but full of academic and honorary titles, starts saying that he worked and studied all of his life to relieve the poor farmers’ life. The reader already feels sympathy for this eminent stranger.
He then pities the poor farmer, forced to buy every year sulphur, strange devices, and, God forbid, the copper sulfate, which is – he states – just a palliative treatment. In fact, he continues, “copper sulfate is a slow poison that accelerate the decomposition of the vines.”
At the thought of his vines horribly decomposing, the farmer is terrified. What an horrible sight should be that of your own vines rotting! This benefactor who warned him in time deserves all his gratitude. The grape grower forgets that copper is widely used in Italy, France, Austria, America etc etc. He sees only his decomposing vines. He smells their corpse.
Finally, after having cleared the ground, gained his reader confidence and discredited the copper sulfate, the unknown but illustrious author knows that the time has come to teach his moral lesson.
Last year the moral was the Germinator (remember?), than came the Regenerator, the Duparc liquid, the phyto-pesticide fertilizer, the mineral guano (the author of the article cites various scams of his days, I am not sure of the translation, but it should give an idea of the bizarre expedients devised to make money out of the farmer naivety) and other mysterious mixtures. What is inside? Nobody knows and nobody can look into it because the disciples of the famous Descalonne would give no credit to laboratory results. (I don’t know and couldn’t find anything about this Descalonne, but the skepticism towards official science reminds me of today’s conspirationists). Buy, pay, do not question. Sola fides sufficit (in latin in the original text, “faith alone suffices” or “believing it is enough”).
The most clever ones in this exploitation of credulity (“exploitation” is in english in the original text) stolidly write that their cure will heal vine’s illness . But what illness? The one in the roots, the terrible phylloxera? The one in the leaves? The grape rot? The answer is shrouded in mistery, a cunning mystery. Every farmer uses the remedy in his own case, he buys, he pays.
Dear readers, what about a tonic to heal that disease we commonly call “man”?
So, be kind, add to your decalogue the eleventh commandment: Beware the newsletters, because this is the advice of you friend

ITALO ENOTRIO.”

I translated the original term “circolare” with “newsletter”, but really that was no more than XIX century spam. The author wits is remarkable and the article hilarious, think about the image of the farmer liken to a bear or the irony describing the scammer. The signature in the end, “Italo Enotrio”, is a pen name and a pun: both words means “Italy”, as Enotria was the country ancient name. It could also refer to Italo, ancient King of the Enotri, a pre-roman people who inhabited today’s Calabria (the tip of the “italian boot”).

I will present other articles from “Giornale Vinicolo” in the future. In the last post we saw the poor state of italian winemaking in the 1800s, but the simple fact that this journal existed means either that the situation had greatly improved in the second half of the century or that  Redding and the others were a little bit too rough in their description of italian wines.
We will see.

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