A Slow-Burning Revolution - Page 2

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WINE BANK: Tending the winter-wrapped vineyards in the Piedmontese hill country south of Turin.  (courtesy, Piedmont Tourism)

Housed within the newly refurbished Agenzia di Pollenzo, a neo-Gothic estate dating to 1833, the Università di Science Gastronomiche—the University of Gastronomic Sciences—shares space with a 44-room, four-star hotel, conference facilities, restaurant, and another Slow Food offshoot, the Wine Bank.

This small private university, which opened in 2004, teaches students everything there is to know about wine and gastronomy, with coursework running the gamut from the scientific (botany, microbiology) to the mouthwatering (stages spent studying Sardinia's pasta filata cheese or the Rhône Valley's Châteauneauf-du-Pape wines). Empowered by a teaching staff of viticulturists, chefs, food historians, and journalists, the university's first graduates (the Class of 2006) will doubtless spread forth like a proselytizing army of gastro-evangelicals, except their mission will be to save the world palate from its predilection for the quick appetite fix.

As Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini notes in his introduction to the school's prospectus: "The University regards itself as a centre of exchange, experience, debate, and protection for sustainable agriculture. The world we face is changing too quickly, continually posing new interconnected problems. Here, within these walls, we wish to create a bank of theoretical and practical knowledge in which biodiversity is a fundamental concept."

In the cellar of the Agenzia's Savoy-era quarters, the Wine Bank is one such example of Petrini's quest. Hundreds of crates of some of the world's best wines fill the cool, slightly humid chambers of the cellar, built over the ruins of an ancient Roman tomb and spring.

Each year, a panel of experts invites select producers across Italy to contribute 180 bottles of their best vintages in return for participating in the Wine Bank collective. These are then stashed for three to four years in the cellar, where they can mature in optimal light- and climate-controlled surroundings. It's what our Austrian guide Susan, a graduate student at the university upstairs, calls a "historical memoir of Italian wines."

Except this isn't some dusty mausoleum of relics; eventually you get to drink the wine.

The Wine Bank helps market the older wines after the allotted storage period, offering them at discount rates to members who pay the collective's yearly dues. "It's a win-win solution for both sides," says Susan. "It attracts people to advertise Slow Food and the Wine Bank, and it lets people know the names of small producers who they then may subsequently visit."

The Wine Bank stands as testament to the interconnected logic of the Slow Food premise, reaching beyond the zealous preaching of a snobbish culinary elite. Alarmed by wine producers who rush their wares to market to meet demand, Carlo Petrini has created an outlet for them to tap the full potential of the grape. Sure, you can buy a lesser Barolo—the "King of Italian wines"—that's been cultivated, bottled, and distributed in an accelerated production cycle, but these wines typically need at least four years to attain their famous full-bodied flavor. In creating the cellar, Petrini is trying both to help visitors appreciate wine, as well as wine producers to slow down. And by creating a demand for the real thing, it's a slow-burning revolution that should give the McDonald's of this world pause.

Which brings us full circle, back in the simple surrounds of the homey Osteria del Paluch. Food and wine exist to be savored in sumptuous unity, not in some mutation of feeding time at the trough. And as I ease my stomach into a fifth round of degustation, following a parade of canapés, veal, pasta, risotto, and divine Barolo and Barbaresco reds, I step beyond Slow Food into a happy moment where time stands still.

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