Deep in the bowels of the historic Agenzie di Pollenzo, in the heart of Italy’s Langhe region, rests a stockpile of more than 100,000 bottles of Italian wine, on view as visitors file by in museum fashion.
This is not, it turns out, your standard wine cellar. Opened in 2003, the Banca del Vino (“Wine Bank”) is the brainchild of the international organization Slow Food. As its name implies, the Bank promotes Italy’s wine as a sort of currency that illuminates the country’s history and cultural significance. The project’s main motive is to combat the concept of time.
The idea of stockpiling Italy’s best wines and creating a stage on which to showcase them was born out of a quickly growing wine deficit that enthusiasts started noticing nearly 20 years ago. “The 1990s were the boom years for Italian wine, which was great for revenue but bad for aging wines,” says Francesca Rinaudi, the Wine Bank’s manager. Because of rising demand for Italian wine over the last two decades, many top producers sold their wines soon after their release, without storing enough for aging. Thus by the time, say, a 1990 Barolo was entering maturity, few remained on the market.
This is not a new problem for wine. But it’s one that has very few viable solutions.
In 2001, Slow Food’s president, Carlo Petrini, proposed that the organization start storing a critical collection of distinguished bottles to combat the looming deficit. “Petrini’s idea of establishing a place to promote Italian wine culture and preserve the historical memory of Italian wine was novel,” says Jonathan Gebser, an editor at Slow Wine, Slow Food’s nascent wine publication. “Nothing similar existed in Italy back then.”
Slow Food refurbished the historical Agenzia di Pollenzo cellars beneath its University of Gastronomic Sciences, and the Banca del Vino began accepting wines for storage from winemakers.
“Wine is not just an alcoholic beverage… nor is it just a luxury item. It is a cultural asset… [and] the Wine Bank allows one to see and to remember the importance of the territory, people, culture, mentality and work that was put into it.”
The producers who take part in the program “deposit” 180 bottles from up to three of their labels each year. Though they still own the bottles, the wines become part of the Banca del Vino’s operations and will ultimately be opened as part of tastings and programs, or made available for sale to visitors, students and producers—but only after they’re aged to their full potential, which is determined by Rinaudi and the Wine Bank’s aptly named director, Federico Piemonte.
The Bank’s goal in preserving these wines and using them to educate is not only to disseminate Italian wine culture, but to conserve it as a means of combating the pace of globalization and its negative impact on the Italian wine industry.
While these goals have always been central to the function of the Wine Bank, its criteria for inclusion and approach to determining a wine’s value has evolved of late. In the beginning, the organization worked with the Vini d’Italia—a wine guide that Slow Food published in conjunction with Gambero Rosso, Italy’s leading food and wine magazine. Vini d’Italia’s style of evaluating wine relied solely on taste, in keeping with a more traditional approach to wine criticism.
Since then, the wine bank has evolved to become an unconventional tasting cellar that celebrates and promotes the biodiversity of Italian wine.
“When drinking wine, one should not just think of it as ‘that liquid in the bottle,’” says former wine bank employee and University of Gastronomic Sciences graduate Florian Minzlaff. “Wine is not just an alcoholic beverage… nor is it just a luxury item. It is a cultural asset… [and] the Wine Bank allows one to see and to remember the importance of the territory, people, culture, mentality and work that was put into it.”
Beyond its collection, the Bank is also a dynamic educational center; it houses a museum that conducts classes and offers guided tours, walking visitors through the historical and geographical attributes of each region and allowing visitors to taste how those factors affect each region’s wines along the way.
“Slowly but surely, the Wine Bank is changing the consumer mentality by showing a different approach to wine,” says Rinaudi. “Our main goal is still wine promotion, but I am proud that we have managed to do that without becoming a commercial organization.”