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Tempest in a Glass of Pisco

Peru and Chile are fighting again, this time over a liquor that each country lays claim to. Sales savvy and national pride are in the mix.

June 03, 2003|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MALA, Peru — The national drink of Peru is a clear liquor distilled from grapes that grow in and around the valleys of a region called Pisco. In neighboring Chile, they too make a clear liquor distilled from grapes. That drink is also called pisco.

For Johnny Schuler, Peru's leading pisco connoisseur and president of the Brotherhood of Pisco Tasters, the existence of a Chilean drink claiming the name pisco is a kind of theft, like the 19th century Chilean invasion that wrested away Peru's southernmost province.

So, backed by Peru's vice president and a bevy of Cabinet ministers, Schuler and other members of the pisco elite here have come up with a plan.

Like politicians looking for votes, they conduct tasting sessions with influential European wine masters in swank Madrid hotels, hoping to win influential converts to the idea of Peruvian pisco's superiority. They circulate historical documents proving pisco's 16th century provenance on the Peruvian side of the border -- even though no border existed then.

The Chileans have countered with a series of media reports dismissing Peru's pisco as second-rate swill. And both sides have launched diplomatic offensives from their embassies in Brussels, Ottawa, Mexico City and at the headquarters of the World Trade Organization in Geneva.

"We've been asleep for 450 years, but now we're fighting back," said Schuler, an ebullient restaurateur with a showman's booming voice. "We want Chile to say pisco is from Peru. We want them to stop using our name."

The battle over pisco is but one of dozens of worldwide tussles over regional product names -- known to trade lawyers as "designations of origin" or "geographical indications." Such names are recognized and protected, to a certain degree, by the same international treaties that protect computer software as intellectual property.

In September, WTO ministers will meet in Cancun, Mexico, to consider a European proposal to enforce WTO-recognized "denominations of origin" in all 146 member countries.

Until then, various countries are pursuing legal and other actions. Greece, the birthplace of feta cheese, successfully petitioned the high court of the European Union in October to force German and Danish imitators to stop using the name.

Mexican diplomats have fended off a challenge to their country's tequila monopoly from South African producers of an agave-based liquor.

On May 20, the producer of Parma hams in Italy won a case in Europe's highest court against English imitators, the latest in a series of Italian battles against "food piracy."

In all those cases, as in South America's pisco war, the controversy is a blend of cultural nationalism and economic expediency.

The Italians, for example, say that all the ersatz Parmesan cheese being sold around the world lowers the reputation of the real thing. Eat Parmesan made in the region around Bologna and Parma -- where people have been making it for more than 600 years -- and you will never touch a Wisconsin "Parmesan" again, they say. And Italian cheese makers will be a little richer.

So it goes with pisco.

Alfredo Gordillo makes pisco just like his grandparents did, with grapes grown in the narrow river valleys that run along Peru's arid Pacific Coast.

He held aloft a glass of his pisco and asked a visitor to note the distinctive fruity aroma. That, he said, is something you won't find in that grape brandy they make in Chile.

"Pisco in Peru is a way of life. It's part of our culture," Gordillo said.

You can drink the 80-proof liquid straight -- in small sips, like cognac. To the uninitiated, it might taste a bit like rum. But allow it to linger in your mouth and you will soon take in its hint of citrus and walnuts.

Chileans also mix it with cola to create "piscola"; Peruvians use lemon juice, an egg white and other ingredients to make "pisco sour."

Gordillo's grapes ferment into wine at his bodega in Mala, about 50 miles southeast of Lima. The wine is then cooked in a caldron the size of a small truck. From the top, through the caldron's brass swan's neck, comes the silky liquor called pisco.

Good pisco, like good art, can't be rushed.

"I can get pisco after just two hours, but to make it right, you have to let it cook for eight," Gordillo said. And he throws away the first and last bit of what comes out of the caldron, keeping just the succulent "body."

Chilean producers, Gordillo said, make pisco quicker but with such a high alcohol content that they have to add water to make it drinkable.

"Here in Peru, we're inefficient," Gordillo said. "But it's on purpose. It's a very old, ancestral process."

Pisco might as well be a metaphor for the two countries' history since the fall of the Inca empire in the 16th century. Peru has produced cultural treasures often exploited -- and appreciated more -- by outsiders. The Chileans, meanwhile, have become South America's most successful merchants and marketers.

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