Valentino Monticello:
Wine, opera and art entwined
© Robert Helms

This article was written by Robert Helms, an American investment banker now living in London, England. Robert started collecting and consuming fine wines about 30 years ago and has accumulated a cellar of about 1,000 different fine wines. Living in what can be argued is the center of the wine trade, Robert tastes extensively. With so much fine wine being made round the world, it is hard to single out particular regions. In recent years, Robert has been most impressed with wines coming out of Burgundy, the Rhone (both north and south), Italy (both north and south) and Southern France. Robert has been a periodic contributor to various online communities and contributes articles about European tastings to WineLoversPage.com.
Valentino Monticello
Valentino Monticello
Goethe, when asked which of wine, women or song he could most easily do without, replied without hesitation, "Song."

"And if you had to choose between women and wine?"

"That would depend on the vintage."

Valentino Monticello also has three passions - wine, opera and art - and these passions have been intertwined throughout his life. Born into a family of restauranteur-hoteliers near Vicenza some 70 years ago, he was schooled in viticulture and the production of grappa. Later, he moved to London where he spent the bulk of his working life as a sommelier, finishing his career as the head sommelier at Harry's Bar, one of the finer Italian restaurants in town.

Like many people who are fascinated by wine, Valentino began collecting labels, and more labels. He first covered the wall of an old people's home. Then the novel thought occurred to him to use wine labels to make collages somewhat in the manner of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a very eccentric Milanese artist of the late 16th century. He told me, "All of my pictures are composed of shapes carefully cut from wine labels; the vases, the flowers, even the lines are all cut from different labels. In the vase pictures, if you look carefully at each of the petals, you will see that it is a lady." From vases and portraits, he graduated to opera in 1985. From there, it was an easy step to produce collages that tied in his great love of opera with his love of wine.

Over the years, Valentino has combed the libretti of some 2,000 operas to find scenes with some allusion or connection to wine. Once he found a reference to wine, he would illustrate the scene with a collage. But Valentino felt it was not sufficient just to illustrate the scene, it was more satisfying to tie each scene in with a particular wine producing region. Verdi's Falstaff illustrates England; Verdi's Otello, Cyprus; Rossini's Guillaume Tell, Switzerland; Wagner's Tannhäuser, Germany, and so on. Major wine-making regions are honoured by separate works: Gounod's Faust represents the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Bordeaux is honoured by Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore; Burgundy by Rossini's Il Viaggio a Reims. Needless to say, each of the collages is largely made with wine labels from the country or region in question. The only major wine producing country not represented is New Zealand; it seems that no one has ever written an opera about New Zealand.

Detail from a collage
Here's a detail from one of his works, showing how the collage incorporates wine labels. For links to a gallery of larger images, see below.
The collages are quite large, measuring generally 2 to 3 feet by 3 to 3 1/2 feet. Each collage took several months to complete and incorporates hundreds of labels. There is no drawing; every line and every detail is cut from labels. Valentino explains the evolution of his technique. "Because I never had a formal training I have worked in many styles and mediums. John Ward (the Royal Academician portraitist) is a great friend and I have learnt much from him. But for many years I couldn't afford paints or canvas so I would paint across any old painting I found - I suppose it's recycling. Then I began to use the wine labels. There are so many people who are much better at drawing and painting than me, so this has become my specialty."

Originally, Valentino donated his collages to favourite charities or gave them to friends. But gradually, his works have become collectors' items. In 1989, one of his works was selected for the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London. Later that year, seven works were exhibited at Christie's of London in connection with the Wine Trader Art Society. A one-man show in 1992 sold out some 40 works within hours. Despite the demand for his works, Valentino kept almost all of the collages in the opera series with a view towards the eventual publication of a book. With the help of an old friend, Luciano Citeroni, a lavish book, "Valentino Monticello, Opera & Wine, Wine in Opera" was produced in 2002. In addition to reproductions of each of the collages, the text summarises the opera and the reference to wine in the opera. With the book now published, Valentino thinks it is time to find new homes for some of his works, preferably with like-minded souls who appreciate all three of his loves.

I asked him about his taste in wine. He said that wine had changed so much since his youth. "Italian wines were all bad then! Now Italy makes some excellent wines. And Australia. And Napa. And many, many other countries. But France is still the best; Champagne is unique and Yquem is still the Rolls-Royce of wines."

I asked him which of the three - wine, opera or art - he most loved. "My wife would say opera" he said, "But, as for me ..." And then he smiled and shrugged.

Valentino Monticello Gallery
Click each small image below to view a larger copy.

La Boheme
La Boheme
South American bar
South American bar
Viaggio a Reims
Viaggio a Reims
Prince Igor
Prince Igor
Fliegende Hollander
Fliegende Hollander

Further information:

Valentino's book Opera & Wine is available from http://www.amazon.co.uk For other enquiries with regard to availability of Valentino's pictures please contact Mark Goucher 00 44 1925 650931 or contact WineLoversPage.com and they will pass on your details.

March 2004

Back to Reports from Our Readers