food / travel

More Than Vintage: Tracing The Art Of The Wine Label

Looking delicious
Looking delicious
Roberto Fiori

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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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