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Malcolm Jolley: Pantellaria continues to offer with launch of Gabrio Bini

Commentary
Donnafugatta Estate, Pantelleria, Italy. Malcolm Jolley.

It started with an invitation at the Tre Bicchieri Italian wine show in Toronto. I met an importing agent at another’s table, and as we tried a racy San Gimignano Vernaccia from Tuscany, we spoke about our mutual appreciation of Italian wine. She mentioned that her agency had just secured Bini. They had a small number of samples coming in at the end of May. Would I like to attend their Bini launch?

The way the question was asked made me think I really did want to go to the Bini launch. The only trouble was I either didn’t know or couldn’t remember what Bini was. My new friend, Deena Altman from Bespoke Wine & Spirits must have sensed a compound look of confusion and panic on my face, as she volunteered more information that only confirmed my suspicion that I really did want to go to the Bini launch.

Gabrio Bini is an architect from Milan, who makes wine at his property on the island of Pantelleria, Azienda Agricola Serraghia. As long as it is honestly confessed, ignorance in the wine world is not a sin, since even the world’s most esteemed experts will concede that it is impossible to know everything about everything. Still, it was nice to explain to Deena that I had at least been to Pantelleria and would very much like to expand my knowledge of any wines that come from that magical island.

Pantelleria is a tiny volcanic island of just 85 square kilometres (or just over 50 square miles). It sits closer to the coast of Tunisia than to Sicily, from which it is administrated. It’s known for two main agricultural products: capers and grapes. Both these plants do well in the almost relentless winds that sweep across the Mediterranean and over the island, and which moderate its climate.

Pantellaria spent a bit more than 700 years as an Arab possession (600-1123 AD) before being reconquered by the Norman King Roger II of Sicily. The Arabs left two enduring legacies. The first is domed roof houses, called dammusi, that catch dew and rain water into cisterns. The second is the fat, round and green Zibibbo grape, which is what Sicilians call Muscat of Alexandria (most likely from the Arabic word for raisin, zabib).

If any of this seems familiar to long time Hub readers, it might be because I wrote about Pantelleria in a 2021 column about Ben Ryé, the dessert (and I suppose, desert) wine made by the Donnafugata winery there. My guide on Pantelleria was Antonio Rallo, whose parents Giacomo and Gabriella founded the well known Donnafugata label and wineries on the main island of Sicily.

The Rallo’s are an old Sicilian wine family, who established themselves by making Marsala. Giacomo Rallo would buy some grapes from Pantelleria, and when the young people of the island began to emigrate to find more lucrative work than working hard scrabble volcanic vineyards and constantly rebuilding the dry stone walls that protected the wines from the diving winds, the Rallo family would be asked to buy them. This had been the story for decades until recent signs of new wine life, which is where Gabrio Bini begins to come into the picture.

The story of Pantellerian wine does not end with the emigration of the sons and daughters of its small lot farmers. It begins again with the immigration of some rich and famous people and a discreet high end tourist trade. The island’s most famous homeowner is the designer Giorgio Armani. The island’s second most famous homeowner is the film actress and former Chanel model Carole Bouquet.

Madame Bouquet also makes wine on Pantelleria under her label Sangue d’Oro, the English translation of which, Golden Blood, sounds like a James Bond title and is fitting for the co-star of 1981’s For Your Eyes Only. The Bouquet estate is, I think, more or less neighbours with the Bini winery at Serraghia. I think and don’t know because Bouquet, as a celebrity, does not disclose her address, but it was vaguely pointed out to me as we drove by it on our way from another winery, Coste Ghirlandia run by a wealthy Swiss woman.

Neither Gabrio Bini nor Serraghia have a website, but they do have a marking on Google Maps. There, pilgrims to the winery have posted photographs of the moustachioed man and the clay amphoras he makes wine out of. It turns out Signor Bini and his natural wines are something of a cult phenomenon.

By the time I had worked out the information, I knew I really wanted to go to the Bini launch. I did this week. The purpose of the tasting was to determine the size of an order to Ontario, and it was chiefly for the benefit of sommeliers and buyers from the upper echelon of Toronto’s fine dining scene. (Cult wines are never cheap.)

The first wine was the Serraghia Bianco Zibibbo Vino Secco 2022. Zibibbo is most often made sweet, shows flowery aromatics and tends on the blowsy side. Here was almost pure apricot expression deep and bone dry fruit that was stunning. The pours at the tasting were small; the wines had to stretch out. It didn’t matter because the intensity of flavour was so resonant, like a big and full sound coming out of a deceptively small speaker.

The second wine was the single vineyard Zibibbo, the Heritage 2022. I could smell the stone fruit and orange blossom as the wine was being poured. There is skin contact, which gives the wine some gentle tannic structure, and my impression was of a more precise and polished version of the Serraghia Bianco, with a slightly longer finish. At this point I had become a Bini convert, ready to join the cult.

The third wine was the Serraghia Fanino 2022, a rosé made from an equal blend of Sicilian grapes: white Cataratto and red Pignatello. Though it sounded familiar at the tasting, I had to look up Pignatello to find out it’s what’s called Perricone on the main island of Sicily. More oranges here and a light cherry note. Very easy to drink.

The fourth and final wine was the 2022 Onda, made with 100 percent Syrah. It was silky and showing dark red to black fruit Syrah spicy with white pepper and Mediterranean scrub herbs and held itself in a kind of lightness. Deep Googling reveals that this wine is named after Gabrio Bini’s dog, who must indeed be a very good boy.

I can confirm with some certainty that the Gabrio Bini wines come with some frequency to the provinces of B.C., Alberta, Quebec and later this year Ontario.

Why The Hub has signed the Ottawa Declaration on Canadian Journalism

Commentary
The Canadian flag flies on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Friday December 4, 2015. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

Although one of us is quite literally a boy scout, we’re not generally joiners. In our professional lives, we’ve purposefully sought to protect our independence and own distinct voices.

This week, however, we’ve made an important exception. We’ve signed onto the Ottawa Declaration on Canadian Journalism, initiated by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and endorsed by nearly ten digital news outlets across the country, as a counterintuitive expression of our independence.

We want to explain to the Hub community why we think the Ottawa Declaration is important and why we signed it.

The declaration stems from a recent conference hosted in our nation’s capital by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, in partnership with The Hub, on the future of Canadian journalism. The conference was marked by a diversity of perspectives and voices on the state of Canada’s new media and its future. We were proud to be part of it.

If you put a few dozen journalists in a room, one cannot expect much consensus. The conference was no exception. Yet there were still a few ideas that found broad—though far from universal—agreement.

First, notwithstanding concerns about the collapse of the news media industry, various start-ups representing a range of editorial approaches and business models are in the midst of trying to figure out how to revive it. Second, the current government subsidies model—which quite intentionally preferences legacy players—is at best creating an asymmetrical playing field and at worst impeding the process of innovation and new investment. And third, government subsidies—especially if poorly designed—risk further reducing the Canadian public’s trust in the media.

We encountered similar ideas and arguments over the course of The Hub’s own inquiry into these issues over the past several months. With the support of Meta, we were proud to launch the Future of News series in November 2023 to look comprehensively at these questions through a combination of podcast interviews, opinion commentaries, and journalistic profiles of a diverse group of media outlets across the country.

The series was clear-eyed about the challenges facing the sector. Even Rich Lowry, the former editor-in-chief of the conservative magazine National Review, lamented the decline of some of the local outlets he had grown up with. But it was generally more sanguine about the industry’s future than one typically finds these days. That’s largely because of our belief in the market’s ability to begin anew. The process of creative destruction doesn’t somehow pass over journalism.

Relatedly, our view is that the government subsidy regime—which after accounting for direct and indirect subsidies, it must be understood, could be as much as 50 percent of an eligible journalist’s salary working at a digital news media outlet—risks freezing into place all of the bad decisions and wrong assumptions that the market has rejected over the past decade or longer.

As taxpayers, it seems counterproductive to send our hard-earned money to companies that have failed to effectively respond to the powerful market forces that ought to have come to animate the industry. It’s the public policy equivalent of rewarding the horse-and-buggy operators for failing to keep up with market developments in the last century.

 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters in the foyer prior to question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

But, as industry players, that’s not the only problem with government subsidies. It may not even be the biggest problem. The main reason why we signed the declaration is the growing risk to public trust.

As the declaration sets out, less than 40 percent of English-speaking Canadians currently tell pollsters that they trust the news media. It’s hard to see how causing the industry to become dependent on government will do anything but hasten a further decline. People will understandably come to question whether the news stories that we’re seeing (or not seeing) are motivated by the industry’s growing reliance on the state to finance its day-to-day operations. Will it pull punches? Will it choose its stories differently? Will it succumb to the government’s particular interests and preferences?

Even if the answer to these questions isn’t yes, the perception that it might be is hugely detrimental. It risks raising questions in the public’s mind about the independence of the press and the veracity of its reporting.

The consequences won’t be limited to subsidy recipients either. The spillovers will extend across the entire industry. Those receiving government subsidies, in other words, may be trading off their short-term interests for the rest of us—for the future of journalism itself.

Consider for instance that the next federal election will be held in an information environment in which the majority of journalism that voters consume is either directly or indirectly subsidized by the government and where the subsidies themselves are the subject of political debate. It strikes us as a toxic environment for the news media. There’s no ultimate victory. Either outcome undoubtedly does damage to journalism.

The solution, in our minds, is to eschew the government subsidies—to protect The Hub’s independence and forgo as a qualified Canadian journalism organization hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding. This option of course comes with its own risks. Subjecting oneself to the vagaries of the market is complicated and uncertain. But on balance we believe that it’s better than subjecting ourselves to the whims of the state. And that’s why we ultimately decided to sign the Ottawa Declaration on Canadian Journalism.

The Ottawa Declaration on Canadian Journalism

– A free and independent press able to hold the powerful, including government, to account is an essential feature of Canadian democracy.

– Recent federal legislation and regulation could soon see up to half or more of the salaries of full-time journalists and editors working for digital news outlets funded by government coordinated subsidies.

– These large-scale subsidies, totalling hundreds of millions of dollars to date, are in addition to the federal government’s direct funding of the CBC/Radio-Canada, which currently employs one in ten journalists in Canada in its news divisions.

– The widespread subsidization of news journalism is happening against a backdrop of plummeting confidence in the news media, with 37 percent of Canadians indicating they “trust” the press and less than one in five supporting government funding of newsrooms.

– The broadly unpopular subsidy regime represents a challenge to our democratic process insofar as it raises questions in the public’s mind about the independence of the press, thereby undermining the perceived veracity of reported news.

– The subsidy regime also creates an uneven playing field whereby some news outlets, primarily legacy media companies, are able to qualify for government support and others are not, stifling much needed innovation and private investment in the sector.

– To ensure Canadians have access to news free from the appearance of government influence, and therefore more likely to garner public trust, our media companies will not accept the per employee subsidies currently on offer from government and industry.

– We acknowledge that outlets serving some minority communities may need to avail themselves of the subsidies to provide their audiences high quality news in absence of a viable commercial market for their journalism. We pass no judgement on these groups.

– We encourage other digital news media outlets to sign this declaration and reject the payroll subsidies. In trying to “save” journalism, these subsidies damage the independence of the press, stifle much needed innovation and private investment, and fail to rebuild readers, listeners, and viewers’ trust in our industry.

 

Signatories:

Rudyard Griffiths, publisher/co-founder, The Hub
Sean Speer, editor-at-large/co-founder, The Hub

David Clinton, publisher, The Audit

Holly Doan, publisher/owner, Blacklock’s Reporter
Tom Korski, managing editor, Blacklock’s Reporter

Tania Finch, founder, The Broken Typewriter

Sam Cooper, founder, The Bureau

Bruce Annan, former president of Electronic Media, Toronto Star, former vice-president, Metroland Printing, Publishing & Distributing

Andrew Coyne, columnist, The Globe and Mail

Tara Henley, writer and podcaster, Lean Out

Paul Wells, political journalist

Jonathan Kay, editor, Quillette

Candice Malcolm, founder and editor-in-chief, True North
Andrew Lawton, editor-in-chief, True North

Derek Fildebrandt, publisher/president/CEO, The Western Standard