"How can a single family have collected so much and in such an important way about the history and culture of wine, its technology and traditions?" British writer Hugh Johnson, author of The History of Wine and a relevant figure in all matters concerning the historical and cultural aspects of wine, was really astonished when he visited this museum located in Briones (La Rioja).
With over 100,000 visitors in 2013, it has become one of the leading tourist destinations in La Rioja. The passion for collecting started by Pedro Vivanco, a heavyweight in the world of Rioja wine, continues with his sons Rafael and Santiago. Rafael, an agronomist who graduated in Enology in Bordeaux, handles the management of the winery and is responsible for the appealing change in the wines brought about by a greater emphasis on growing their own vineyards and planting local varieties. Santiago Vivanco, a Law graduate whose interest in art and history led him to the wine business, is in charge of Vivanco Foundation, which includes the museum and a documentation centre.
Opening Vivanco Museum of Wine in 2004 was a strenuous task. It took seven years to build the facilities and organise the collection, which currently displays around 5,000 pieces. They are the result of a 45-year search across Spain and the rest of the world to acquire all kinds of bits and pieces in old wineries, auctions, private collections...
But the museum's greatest achievement probably lies in its ability to attract all kinds of visitors, including those who are not necessarily wine lovers. In addition to its facilities for the blind and the disabled or the activities offered to children, most visitors manage to find something that draws their attention. Some may be fascinated by the huge and stunning old presses; others may prefer to concentrate on the extensive collection of corkscrews. For the those who wonder what happens exactly during fermentation, there is a revealing video showing the action of yeasts as they transform sugar into alcohol.
The distribution of space helps visitors to go through the museum at their pace, so they can focus on their favourite areas or pieces, whether old objects, audiovisual materials, the aroma room or historical and cultural wine heritage issues. The whole wine production process is explained step by step in different areas, including harvesting, tanks, cooperage and barrels as well as cork and bottle manufacturing. The fact is that wine is a complex, attractive drink. Are there truly so many stories behind a glass of wine?, visitors wonder. The answer is obvious in this context.
"The museum always exceeds expectations," says Santiago Vivanco. "Sometimes I think we shouldn’t have used the word museum, which is so devalued and has static connotations. Hence our efforts to stress the importance of culture. For us, this is not Vivanco's, or Rioja’s or Spain’s museum, but a museum of wine culture."
Thus visitors may find items as varied as a pitcher from Anatolia dated from 3000 BC; the plaque awarded to Alexis Millardet by the French Ministry of Agriculture in recognition of his discovery that grafting vines on American rootstock would alleviate the devastating effects of phylloxera; a Roman glass bottle from II-III AD, or a still life masterpiece by Picasso. Another particularly interesting aspect is that many of the processes related to wine (cork processing or cooperage) are shown in both its artisan and industrial versions.
The museum's latest plan is to offer a new browsing experience: between 3,000 and 4,000 pieces will soon be shown online. However, the Internet is unlikely to replace the feeling experienced by most visitors to dive into the rich, multifaceted and challenging world of wine.