One of Italy’s leading prosecco companies has been slammed by a leading British restaurant critic as well as rights groups in Italy and the UK for sponsoring a gathering of far right and ultraconservative activists earlier this year.
The firm, Villa Sandi, which has been described as “the most important exporter from the Prosecco area”, was a sponsor of this year’s World Congress of Families (WCF) gathering of Christian right groups, in Verona, Italy in late March. It sells its fizzy wine around the world, particularly in the UK, US and Germany.
Far-right politicians including Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini and representatives of France’s National Rally and Hungary’s Fidesz parties addressed the event, which was also attended by representatives of Germany’s AfD; a Spanish campaign group with close links to Vox; European aristocrats; Russian politicians, Trump supporters; and numerous anti-abortion and anti-LGBT rights activists.
Speaking to openDemocracy, Jay Rayner, a restaurant critic for the UK Observer newspaper called for customers who disagree with the WCF’s opposition to reproductive and sexual rights to abstain from buying its sponsor’s fizz.
He said: “Some proseccos leave a nastier taste in the mouth than others, but none more so than Villa Sandi. In a complex, dark and often wretched political world consumers need information, and now we have it. If you don't like your prosecco made by a company like Villa Sandi which sponsors coalitions of racists, bigots and ultra nationalists, determined to mount a war on rights for women and the LGBT+ community, do not drink or promote their products. It's as simple as that.”
Peter Tatchell, a leading British LGBT rights activist, echoed Rayner’s call for a boycott, saying: “It is outrageous that Villa Sandi is sponsoring this sexist, homophobic congress, which is supported by far right politicians. I urge consumers to show their anger by boycotting the company’s products.”
Sarah Wiener, a celebrity chef in Germany and a Green party candidate for the European Parliament in Austria, also criticised “the antifeminist financial support of certain food companies, who use donations to support radical right-wing demands and attitudes that nibble at our democratic achievements.”
Wiener, who cooks on TV, has a line of cook books and restaurants, said she wants to eat food “with bad attitude” as little as “standardised, heavily processed food”.
In Italy, Yuri Guaiana, Senior Campaigns manager, at the All Out rights group added: "Companies can spend their money as they please, and the clients can do the same now that they know the values supported by Villa Sandi and Brazzale SPA", referring to another corporate sponsor of the event – a large Italian cheese company.
Gabriele Piazzoni, general secretary at the Italian LGBTI+ rights group Arcigay, said: “it’s disturbing” to see large companies supporting “an event which stands for a medieval idea of society”, that is against “women’s and same-sex families’ rights, and more generally [against] any kind of family considered as non-traditional”.
He warned that this “is indicative of how social progress achieved in these years does not protect us from those who hold an anachronistic and illiberal view of society, and possess the economic means to support these kinds of initiatives”.
Responding to our research, Patrik Hermansson at the UK anti-racist campaign group HOPE not hate, said: "Even though the far right like to present themselves as defenders of the people, in reality they are often funded and supported by the very elite interests they claim to be against... That’s the ultimate sad irony for those voting for these parties, promised milk and honey but delivered ashes.”
The far right are often funded and supported by the very elite interests they claim to be against
In 2018, Villa Sandi said it had record revenues of €93.9 million. It is owned by the brother of Mario Moretti Polegato family who has an estimated net worth of $1.6 billion and also control the Geox and Diadora shoe companies.
Speaking on the phone to openDemocracy, Villa Sandi confirmed that they had sponsored the event in Verona, saying that they had done so because the regional government – long controlled by the far-right Lega party – had asked them to and that “it was only because the region patronised this event” that they had.
The WCF summit was also sponsored by a business called Brazzale, which claims to be the oldest Italian dairy company. Its brand Gran Moravia calls itself “the eco-sustainable chain,” and is famous among vegetarians for rennet-free cheese. In 2017 it had €160 million in revenues and also exports across Europe.
Brazzale did not respond to openDemocracy’s requests for comment. At the Verona event, the company had booths and pamphlets about the policies it’s adopted to encourage its employees to breed (paying workers more per baby they have).
Its chief executive, Roberto Brazzale, is publicly anti-euro and has spoken at anti-abortion events before – including the first ‘Festival for Life’ organised in Verona last year, and the 2017 March For Life in Rome.
This WCF network of US, Russian and international ultra-conservative activists has been meeting for decades but this year’s event was more high-profile than most – featuring numerous representatives of far-right parties looking for record wins at this week’s hotly-contested European Parliament elections.
Organisations – and companies – have paid thousands of dollars to sponsor these summits. A sponsorship guide for the 2015 event in Salt Lake City, for example, offered packages including “premium sponsorships” starting at $20,000 including logos on posters, booths, and company adverts in programmes.
Ahead of the summit in Verona, rights groups protested the presence of numerous Italian politicians on the speaker list and the use of government logos. But the role of corporate sponsors went comparatively unnoticed.
Organisers invited businesses to sponsor the event calling it “an exclusive opportunity to show an international audience” their commitment to ultra-conservative ‘pro-family’ policies.
"An exclusive opportunity to show an international audience their commitment to ultra-conservative policies"
openDemocracy also found several other large companies among the sponsors of previous WCF summits – including the Spanish airline Iberia, which was the only business listed as a sponsor of the 2012 event in Madrid.
Iberia was questioned about this sponsorship at the time, by a communications professional on Facebook. The airline responded: “the Congress organisers are clients of the company, in the same way that there are many other event organisers with which rates are agreed according to the volume of sales and routes. This does not imply that we share [participate in] the opinions that our clients may have”.
Today, an Iberia press officer told openDemocracy that in 2012 they asked the WCF organisers to take the Iberia logo off the event website and thought this had happened. “Iberia is an open-minded company, which encourages diversity and, of course, we do not believe that we can be labeled as homophobic or anything similar”, she added, pointing as an example to the company’s sponsorship over several years of the Fitur Gay (LGBT) tourism fair in Spain.
Previous corporate sponsors of the WCF include the US company Shamrock Foods – which has revenues of $3 billion a year and is described by Forbes as the largest family-owned dairy company in the southwest. It sponsored the 2007 WCF meeting in Warsaw, as did the Polish oil company Orlen that operates thousands of filling stations in Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany and Lithuania.
openDemocracy contacted Shamrock Foods and Orlen for comment about their sponsorship of this event – receiving no responses.
* This article was amended on 23 May to include comment from Arcigay.