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  • Writer's pictureSanto Vino


Updated: Jun 18, 2021

In the 19th Century, Italian wine estates such as Carpano (1786), Martini e Rossi (1840) and Cinzano (1757) took Europe and Unites States by storm with their vermouths, the fortified wines which still today fuel the world’s cocktails passion. Other wineries such as Gancia (1850) and Contratto (1867) in Piedmont, Biscardo (1878) in Veneto, Ricasoli (1872) in Tuscany and Florio (1833) in Sicily, started advertising their wines the way vermouth companies did, through the original designs of artistic promotional posters and by personalizing their bottle labels.

Wine was already a cultural object in most European countries, consumption was growing and so was competition. Owners and wine makers who wished to advertise their products as symbols of their family and territory needed more visibility and therefore new brand communication tools. Of course, they thought of art.

The history of art and wine can be traced back to the beginning of civilization. Like art, wine is about passion, creativity and interpretation. Since art has always been a privileged vehicle for communication, producers started to commission artists with the purpose of creating advertising boards, promos and banners which would convey to consumers the history, identity and character of their wines.

Thus, 20th Century’s Modernism invaded the city streets of Italy in the form of advertising posters visually grabbing the attention of Italian consumers. These advertisements were designed by some of the greatest illustrators of the time: Leonetto Cappiello, Enrico Sacchetti, Marcello Dudovich, Plinio Codognato and Gino Boccasile, who produced an array of playful, allusive, and experimental imagery unmatched by any other European or American posters of that era.

Early 20th Century Italian advertising design was inspired also by the new aesthetics of Futurism, which emphasized modernity through the use of bright colors and bold typefaces. One of the most brilliant Futurists was Fortunato Depero who revolutionized advertising poster style and created a series of stunning billboards for some of the largest Italian firms of the time establishing, in particular, a long association with Campari for which he designed also its iconic – conical - small bottle.

Prophetically, Depero declared in 1930 that “the art of the future will be powerfully advertising art.” True enough, a successful brand has to evoke some kind of emotional response in the intended consumer.

After WWII, a score of Italian wine estates understood that imagery on their bottle labels could give the consumers, among others, the impression of quality so they started to illustrate their wine labels with artworks by famous Italian painters, often natives of their region. Art creates powerful images capable of delivering messages. Gradually, labels became permanent messages outside the wine bottles, not only a way to relay information about the wine, but a form of art themselves. The perceptions of culture, quality, class and exclusivity that art spilled into the labels undeniably enhanced and complemented wine’s appeal and recognition.

In the 1950’s La-Vis winery in Trentino Alto Adige started to use Giovanni Segantini's paintings for its white wines Ritratti line. Other wineries turned to international painters, such as the Podere Morini di San Biagio Faenza in Emilia Romagna which in 1972 requested the Chilean artist Pablo Echaurren to create a label for its Sangiovese. In Sicily, Cantine Sociali Menfi in Agrigento reproduced Renato Guttuso’s drawings on some of its labels: the bottles of its 1986 Libecchio Bianco e Rosso di Sicilia released in limited editions have become since collectors' items, sanctioning once more the close relationship between wine, art and connoisseurs.

There were also artists who become wine makers themselves incorporating their works in their bottle labels. This is the case of Sandro Chia, an internationally renowned Italian sculptor and painter and one of the major exponents of the Italian Neo-Espressionist Transavanguardia who, in 1984, bought the cellars of the Romitorio Castle, north-east of Montalcino, Tuscany. His sketches and paintings are since represented on his bottle labels like the oil on canvas chosen for his Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 1981, today a rare collector's item.

Likewise, Carlo Hauner, a Brescian artist and designer of Bohemian origin, fell in love in 1963 with the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily, bought a vineyard in Salina and became a wine producer. The colors of the sea, the Mediterranean islands, the Sicilian women and Aeolian architectural elements were the subjects he chose in order to characterize the labels of his sweet Passito Malvasia Riserva delle Lipari.

Although a lot of Italian wineries have commissioned original art for their label designs, only a few had projects with different artists on regular basis.

The Vietti winery, which produces prestigious Barolos and Barbarescos in Castiglione Falletto, a medieval village located among the vineyards of Piedmont’s Langhe, started in 1970 to commission Italian artists such as Claudio Bonichi (Barbaresco 1971), Mino Maccari (Barolo 1971) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (Nebbiolo d’Alba 1974) the creation of its labels. In 1997 the original label designed for Vietti Barolo Riserva Villero 1990 by Janet Fish, an American artist, was later acquired by MoMA, Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it is still exhibited. Other American artists such as Robert Cuttingham, Wayne Thiebaud and Jerry Uelsmann signed the labels of Vietti’s Barolos.

In the Italian tradition, Vietti has also been fascinated by the classic promotional artistic posters and has put themselves to the test with mass imagery, the irony of Neo-Dadaism and the elegance of figurative silhouettes through its exclusive “Vendemmia Poster Collection” produced with the cooperation of a noted artist from Alba, Bruno Sacchetto.

In 2007 Pier Paolo Monti’s wine estate, also located in the heart of the Langhe in Piedmont, entrusted Norwegian photographer Tom Sandberg the creation of its labels. The shocking “Censored” Monti Barolo 2003 label is now on permanent display at the National Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, Norway.

Every year since 2006 Ornellaia wine estate in Tuscany has commissioned an internationally famous contemporary artist the creation of artworks through a series of labels describing the particular characteristics of new released vintages of its famous big drinking reds. Ornellaia’s Vendemmia d’Artista project includes labels created by Italian and International artist for limited edition of bottles, each individually numbered and signed by the artists. Collectors around the world coveted these bottles and at a 2016 Sotheby’s auction, Ornellaia’s labels designed by the internationally renowned artist Shirin Neshat sold at 312,000 USD.

On the occasion of its 25th anniversary, Ornellaia enlisted the Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto to design the label for its 2010 vintage. His gold and ivory silkscreened logo La Celebrazione (The Celebration) was and still is an attention-getter and even more impressive is the special limited edition set he created, auctioned later both in New York and London. Other artists who worked for Ornellaia are Luigi Ontani, Ghada Amer, Rebecca Horn and William Kentridge.

Always in Tuscany, in the heart of Chianti, the Nittardi estate famously owned by Michelangelo Buonarroti in the 16th Century, was bought in 1981 by a German art gallery owner, Peter Femfert, who from the very first vintage year decided to commission artists such as Horst Janssen, Giuliano Ghelli, Mimmo Paladino, Günther Grass, Dario Fo and Karl Otto Götz the creation of his Chianti Classico's labels and relative bottle paper wrapping. John Lennon's Yoko Ono was also an artist who contributed an artwork by designing the Imagine label of its Casanuova di Nittardi, Chianti Classico 2005.

Not far away, in the Florentine hills, the Ruffino winery turned to an art studio to create the label of its Chianti Superiore 2012 and the result was very innovative: Clet Abraham, exponent of street art, devised on the label a woman's face emerging from the glass.

There are also wineries which decided to commission all their labels to the same artist thus projecting a unique sophisticated style. Sicilian wine estate Donnafugata characterized each of its bottles - from Anthìlia to Vigna di Gabri, from Sherazade to Lumera etc. - with the artistic images painted by Stefano Vitale of sinuous and elusive female figures that convey the poetry of their land and the love for their people.

It would take many more pages to mention all Italian wine estates involved with art. It is worthy, however, to mention Giorgio Morandi's Le Bagnanti, which since 2005 stood out on the Sangiovese labels of Umberto Cesari winery, on the Emilian hills of Castel San Pietro Terme. Cesari established in 2011 the MyOwnMAsterpiece competition together with the Fine Arts Academies of Bologna and Ravenna, with the purpose of involving young artists in the creation of wine labels.

Furthermore, it must also be acknowledged the Negrar winery in Verona, Veneto, which mainly produces Amarone di Valpolicella and engaged the famous cartoonist Milo Manara to design all the labels of its Collezione d’Autore.

Finally, there is the unique case of Cormòns vineyards in Friuli Venezia Giulia, which house around 700 type of vines from all over the world. Its bottles have become a symbol of peace advocacy (Vino della Pace) because its wine is produced by blending different world grapes and its labels are designed every year by internationally renowned artists such as Enrico Baj and Arnaldo Pomodoro, Giacomo Manzù, Mimmo Rotella and Fernando Botero, who designed a rare 1977 Brunello di Montalcino bottle.

Conceivably, author's labels attracted and attract collectors. In 1991 an Associazione Italiana Collezionisti Etichette Vini was founded in Bardolino, Veneto. This Italian wine labels collectors' club has since supported the International Museum of Wine Labels in Ancona and the permanent wine labels exhibit of WIMu, the Interactive Wine Museum in Barolo, Piedmont.

Wine and art have always been in a special relationship. Today all wineries work with painters, sculptors, designers, cartoonists and photographers in order to characterize and personalize their bottles and wine labels. Art drives sales, so a label on a wine bottle must be creative enough to captivate customers’ curiosity, awakening their expectations for a unique sensory experience.

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