Nestled among the lush hills of northwestern Italy that UNESCO declared a World Heritage Site, deep in the heart of the idyllic hamlet of Pollenzo, Italy — population 750 — sits Banca del Vino. The collection is reminiscent of other conservation centers dedicated to saving and restoring diversity. But rather than focusing on the grape, this site reveres the diversity of the end product, commemorating the culture and heritage of Italian wine.
The structure is part of a neo-Gothic complex that was established in 1835 by the Royal House of Savoy as a site for winemaking trials. The elegant white building, with vaulted ceilings and diffused light, now houses a collection of more than 100,000 bottles from 300 Italian makers, hailing from every wine-producing region in the country. There is a particular focus on producers from the immediate Piedmontese surroundings celebrated for rich, robust red wines such as barolo and barbaresco made from nebbiolo grapes.
Banca del Vino was conceived by Slow Food, an international nongovernmental organization dedicated to the preservation of heirloom breeds and crops, culinary traditions and the slow, intentional creation of food. In 2001, the organization’s founder, Carlo Petrini, sought to respond to a rising challenge: As Italian wines grew in popularity and demands on production increased, winemakers had to choose between storing their bottles on-site for extended periods of time or quickly sending them to market to increase space for new production.
Knowing how integral maturation is to the full expression of certain wines, Petrini sought to establish a stored collection not only to honor the history and tradition of Italian wines but also to ensure no wine was consumed before its time.
The program is sustained as a not-for-profit cooperative of winemakers who have been recognized in Slow Food’s Slow Wine guide. That effort, the guide authors write, elevates “small-scale Italian winemakers who are using traditional techniques, working with respect for the environment and terroir, and safeguarding the incredible biodiversity of grape varieties that are part of Italy’s heritage.”
Winemakers who participate in the program “deposit” a maximum of 36 bottles from up to three of their labels that will, ultimately, be shared during educational tastings and/or sold. Wines are aged for as long as Banca manager Francesca Rinaudi and her colleagues deem necessary. This is, on average, three to five years, but some wines in the collection have been aging since 1997 (and were deposited when the site opened).
Visitors can participate in workshops featuring guided tastings of specific regions or curated pairings of wine with salami, cheese or chocolate, as well as experience the wines through guided and self-guided tours of the 2,000-square-meter cellars.
The facility feels like a museum. In the cool, dark expanse honoring time and place, guests find topographical maps and informational posters about storage vessels, aging barrels and the origin of bottles, along with wines displayed in their original wooden cases and soil samples shared by winemakers. Jars of dense, black volcanic soils from Sicily and clay-limestone soils behind bold sangiovese wines from Tuscany, Rinaudi explains, enhance the appreciation of the wine itself. Red, white and sparkling wines are offered through self-service wine dispensers interspersed throughout the cellar and organized by region from north to south.
“We are trying to transmit the didactic part of the wine without being boring,” the 45-year-old wine expert says with a wide smile. “Didactic” is a term often shared in Italian wine circles, intended to convey qualities that are educational as well as artistic.
The repository runs on lean margins. There is no profit in aging, Rinaudi explains, because the bottles are stored for free and most are used for education. But the stories of soil and grapes, the knowledge of history and identity, inspire a different — deeper — kind of savoring, the kind that honors people and place, time and care.
Not all wines require extensive aging, of course. Banca del Vino intern Eirini Daouka has studied wine production in Italy, Portugal, France and Spain and says storage starts with a question: “Does the wine need it?” If the wine is supposed to be consumed young, don’t waste your time or energy. “Drink it and enjoy it.” And, if you’re not sure, she says, seek guidance from a trusted wine store.
The bank is home to one such shop, stocking what Rinaudi calls “easy-drinking wine,” as well as a range of aged bottles — at prices starting at around 7 euros (under $8) — wine accessories, books and a handful of locally prepared foods, such as olives, pickled vegetables, honey and biscuits.
“This is a place where we recognize wine is precious, but we are not precious,” Rinaudi says. “Wine is for everyone, every day. Banca del Vino is a place where you can enjoy, in a comfortable setting, the historical memory of the best Italy has to offer.”
Sethi is the author of “Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love” and the host/creator of “The Slow Melt” chocolate podcast.