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More Than Vintage: Tracing The Art Of The Wine Label

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BAROLO - One of the wine labels is of Veuve [widow] Clicquot champagne -- when the widow still had a husband. The label bears the name of her now-unknown husband Eugene.

Another label comes from one of the oldest vineyards in Burgundy, Labaume l'Ainé. It bears no date but is dated before 1798, the year of the invention of a lithographic technique that revolutionized the look of wine bottle labels.

There is also a complete series, from 1945 till today, of wine labels done by artists Picasso, Chagall, Mirò, and Andy Warhol for the Baron de Rothschild, to celebrate the end of the war.

There is almost every kind of wine label among the 242,000 collected by Cesare Baroni Urbani. Never before exhibited, the labels have just been donated to the picturesque town of Barolo, in the northern region of Piedmont, which is famous for its wines.

After more than a year of negotiations, the mayor of Barolo, Walter Mazzocchi, signed the contract this week. The collection will be exhibited in a special section of the Barolo Castle Wine Museum.

Professor Baroni Urbani is a zoology professor retired from the University of Basilea. He and his wife Maria, who is in Barolo today with him, have spent 20 years assiduously collecting what is probably the largest existing collection of wine labels.

"Every single label is different," he says. "When I had duplicates, I swapped them with other collectors." As with stamps, the highest-value labels are those in perfect condition, who have not been detached from the bottles. "They come directly from wineries’ stocks, or label printers' overruns, as well as from auctions and swaps." 

The easiest way to add to a collection is to send a request to the vineyards with a stamped self-addressed envelope, counting on their good will. "Sometimes someone also sends back a bottle of wine, but that’s quite rare," admits Baroni Urbani.

Rare, exotic wines

He took advantage of his work travels to exotic places to bring back rare labels from Nicaragua, where wines have not been made for decades, or from Namibia, where missionaries produced wine for use in the Catholic Mass.

Among the most original labels is a 1985 label from Nova Wines, in California, dedicated to a famous blonde actress - "Marilyn Merlot."

But more than the individual labels themselves, Baroni Urbani loves the history, the curiosities, the anecdotes, and above all the geography of wine that the labels represent. In the collection are labels from 106 countries -- practically all the countries that produce or once produced wine -- including some not recognized by the United Nations.

“Unfortunately there are none from Iraq. It seems there was a Coptic community there that made a few bottles, but I have never been able to get in contact with them," says the collector. “I have also been ripped off a few times, and there was the time when I went all the way to Ecuador only to discover that the vineyards there were run by the Riunite winery from the north-central Italian region of Reggio Emilia.”

One of the most expensive labels turned out to be a bit of a swindle. It was a label dated 1775 from the German vineyard Rüdesheimer, maker of Goethe's favorite wine. "I paid hundreds of euros for it, convinced it was unique. But there are at least three or four others in circulation, and the date is wrong." 

The complete collection has been estimated at more than 300,000 euros, but Baroni Urbani does not want to talk about money. "Passion has no price. I have found a prestigious location that will give continuity and value to the results of so many years of work."

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