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Barolo Pentito

Barolo Pentito

A development in Barolo suggests there are limits to World Heritage protection.

“Outstanding for its harmony” is how UNESCO describes the Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont: Langhe–Roero and Monferrato, awarded World Heritage status last year. It’s “undoubtedly one of the most harmonious and most consistent with the ideal of a ‘scenic’ rural and vineyard landscape,” states the listing.   

But discord is disrupting that harmony.

The ruckus is over a new winery at the foot of Cannubi, one of Barolo’s most historic cru. Described as “Pop architecture” by its creator, it echoes the spirit of Andy Warhol and Claus Oldenberg: Offices and tasting room take the shape of two giant wooden wine boxes, stamped with shipping graphics and emblazoned with the words L’Astemia Pentita (“the penitent teetotaler”) in billboard-size lettering. Hidden underground is the 4,000m2production facility.

No sooner did the scaffolding come down this spring than detractors howled in protest:

“A punch in the eye,” wrote a Corriera della Sera reader.

“The most prestigious hill in Barolo scarred by a cantina that has nothing to do with the landscape,” penned

“The writing is huge. It seems so commercial,” said a wine exporter.

“At this point, Barolo is destined to become the Via Montenapoleane of wine and lose definitively its agricultural soul,” pronounced Barolo winemaker Maria Teresa Marscarello, referring to Milan’s luxe shopping street.

Many were asking, How could this happen in a World Heritage site? Isn’t that supposed to prevent development that’s out of character?



The project

In fact, UNESCO entered the picture well after the winery was approved by Barolo’s building commission.

The project originated in 2007, when local industrialist Sandra Vezza, CEO of Italgelatine, bought five hectares from an elderly brother and sister. (The property wasn’t then considered part of Cannubi; in 2013, the vineyard denomination doubled in size following a legal battle by the Marchesi di Barolo winery to include the entire hillside.) Vezza’s purchase came with two old farm buildings with no aesthetic value.

Vezza tapped her friend Gianni Arnaudo—noted architect, University of Turin professor, and Pop designer—to build something from scratch. He’d done Italgelatine’s headquarters and had serious wine creds, having authored Le Case del Vino (Wine Houses) and designed Terre di Vino, the green-roofed, low-profile, highly praised winery across the street.

Vezza wanted something unprecedented. Rejecting Arnaudo’s initial sketches, she pushed him to “give the best of himself,” she told Il Giornale.

In 2011, the duo came to the mayor’s office with the wine-box idea. For Arnaudo, it was a commentary on the commercial side of the business, both positive (Barolo’s shipments worldwide) and ironic (prioritizing the marketing package over content). Defending himself later in La Stampa, he remarked, “I could have designed the usual fake rustic with old bricks or that neoclassical rural-outlet style, and perhaps no one would have said anything.”

The project was approved after “a long and exhaustive process,” says then-mayor Walter Mazzocchi, adding, “The Vezza/Arnaudo proposal constituted a change from the banal conviction that, to safeguard the environment, it’s sufficient to utilize construction elements from the past. In the name of this tendency, there have been some irremediable mistakes. We were in favor of avoiding yet another ‘false antique.’ ”

There’s been one significant change from the submitted plans, however. Originally the façade read simply “Tenuta Sandra Vezza.” The proprietor changed that to “L’Astemia Pentita,” referencing her own about-face. It’s provocative, Mazzocchi concedes. But it’s her right: “Every business owner has the freedom to choose the names and signs with which they present themselves to the public,” he says.



Who’s in charge?

Even if the timing had been different, UNESCO wouldn’t have ridden to the rescue. “UNESCO has nothing to do with building permits and doesn’t comment whatsoever on buildings on UNESCO sites,” states Roberto Cerrato, director of the Association for the Heritage of the Vineyard Landscape of Langhe-Roero & Monferrato. “That is the direct responsibility of the townships.”

So, what does UNESCO do?

Its World Heritage Committee can act as watchdog, bully pulpit, and ally in the courts. It can provide financial assistance through its World Heritage Fund. It can dangle a carrot when considering sites for inscription. As for the stick, its powers are limited.

The only unilateral action it can take is “delisting” a site. This has happened just twice: for the construction of a bridge bisecting the Dresden Elbe Valley, and for unfettered poaching in the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary.

The committee has two less drastic options: Its “Danger List” flags at-risk sites. Now numbering 48, they include one vineyard area: Battir in southern Jerusalem, whose Biblical-era terraces are facing “irreversible damage” from the pending construction of an Israeli wall. “Warnings” go to sites failing in their guardianship. UNESCO has recently issued warnings to Pompeii, citing unchecked vandalism and structural damage; Prague, saying planned high-rises will alter the historic skyline and must be downscaled; and England’s Jurassic Coast, questioning 194 proposed wind turbines.

In general, the red flags tend to be large construction projects that will have major visual or environmental impact: bridges, dams, power plants, skyscrapers. The World Heritage Centre also names “armed conflict and war, earthquakes and other natural disasters, pollution, poaching, uncontrolled urbanization, and unchecked tourist development” as its biggest problems. Next to these, a Pop cantina seems the proverbial tempest in a teapot.

Still, L’Astemia Pentita raises niggling questions: Can protection and development coexist? Does World Heritage status negate the possibility of radical, perhaps controversial, design?

Mazzocchi says he’s convinced that what he authorized honors the spirit of UNESCO, which recognized Piedmont as a living territory “both antique and modern, in continual modification,” he says.

But Cerrato imagines authorizing a project like L’Astemia Pentita today would be more “delicate.” In fact, Barolo’s current mayor, Renata Bianca, says all the townships are working with the Region of Piedmont in developing new protocols.

Meanwhile, Cerrato’s governing association is working to unite Piedmont’s wine museums, enoteche, historic cellars, and cultural centers into one coherent network: “Over 70 locations will be on the website, coordinating cultural activities.”

That will be useful to the tourists who flock here in ever-increasing numbers—an influx the World Heritage imprimatur will only abet. L’Astemia Pentita aside, it seems the days of Barolo’s quiet agricultural past are over.

Published in the September 2015 issue of World of Fine Wine magazine (UK).

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