Celebrity wines have become highly popular in recent years.
A phenomenon of the last quarter century of winemaking in the United States has been the advent and increasing popularity of wines endorsed by, or oftentimes owned and produced by, artists from all segments of the entertainment industry, not to mention the lesser-known Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and titans of the finance industry.
Many wines with celebrity labels on bottles are vanity wines, an expression of wealth and ego satiating. But others are true labors of love and, with significant investments, are highly acclaimed.
The current desire of wealthy Americans to create a unique expression of their vinous preferences has its roots in Western Europe.
For centuries, dating back to the ancient Roman and Greek eras, wine has been considered an integral part of one’s lifestyle. Royalty and the wealthy owned their own vineyards, producing wines that paired well with their sophisticated and luxurious dinner menus. Middle class families sought out local wine merchants to satisfy their desire for wines. Many farmers and sharecroppers at the bottom rung of the social ladder tended their own backyard patches, typically harvesting just enough to sustain themselves from crop to crop.
European artists of the Renaissance era were sometimes paid for their efforts by goods rather than cash. Wine was an acceptable, and at times, favored form of payment.
My affinity for 15th and 16th century Italian artists, from Leonardo da Vinci to Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli and Caravaggio, led me to the theme for this week’s column.
I was aware that several Renaissance celebrities owned their own vineyards, producing wines that matched their personal palate and preferences. I recently came upon an archeological discovery that elevated my admiration for one of my favorite cultural masters.
In 2015, in a patch of land in Milan, researchers from the Museo Vigna di Leonardo identified the remnants of a vineyard belonging to da Vinci. Apparently, the master artist, inventor and scientist, who gave meaning to the modern-day term Renaissance man, also dabbled in oenology.
Through DNA techniques, the organization identified the wine produced by da Vinci and restored the vineyard to its original footprint and viniculture. The first harvest of 330 bottles will be auctioned this September, in conjunction with the 500th anniversary of the master’s death.
The vineyard had been thought to be lost to the ravages and vagaries of centuries of urban development and war. Once again, modern science has intervened in history to allow us a glimpse into da Vinci’s life and lifestyle.
First, the backdrop. After completing a commission in the dining room of a Dominican convent in Milan for the Duke of Milan, for what was to become one of the most famous and recognized paintings of all time (guess which painting; it has a wine and food theme), the Duke gifted da Vinci a 2.5-acre vineyard near the convent. Leonardo immersed himself in the science and practices of vineyard management and wine making, referring to wine as “the divine liquor of grapes.”
Unfortunately, the very next year he lost the vineyard and departed Milan when the French invaded and conquered the city-state. But da Vinci’s many accomplishments were well known and the French king invited him to return to Milan and his vineyard. The vineyard was sustained long after da Vinci’s death, but was destroyed by Allied bombings in World War II.
Fast forward to 2015. Based on advanced DNA techniques, scientists were able to test samples of the rootstock of the destroyed vineyard. They determined that the original vineyard produced a wine similar to the modern-day white wine Malvasia. The vineyard was restored in 2015 as it was originally planted, yielding its first crop in 2018.
I’ll keep you informed on the details as the wine auction gets closer. What a thrill it would be to enjoy a celebrity wine that meticulously replicates the unique expression of da Vinci’s vinous preferences.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.