Robbin, it turns out, is much more than just an enthusiast – she is making it her life’s pursuit, having spent years living in Florence while pursuing her Master’s degree in Italian Studies after winning the Premio Famiglia Fede scholarship, and twice winning the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s La Toque Scholarship in Wine Studies.
Robbin is fascinated by the culture of wine, and during her stay in Florence she ran across some peculiar looking portals, or tiny doors built into the sides of so many Florentine Palazzi. Naturally inquisitive, she started researching these architectural oddities that date back hundreds of years, and discovered… well, I’ll let Robbin tell you the story:
The spectacular museums with grand, famous works of art have been an attraction for people from all walks of life, from all corners of the world.
There is still a little-known piece of art that thousands of people walk past and ignore every year, the Wine Doors of Florence.
When I’ve walked through the historical center with new and seasoned visitors alike, I’ve asked a leading question gesturing to one of these wine doors, “Do you know what that is?” The new-to-Italy respond with a simple no, and the seasoned travelers emphatically insist they are old tabernacles where a Madonna or religious relic once lived.
For us wine enthusiasts, these little holes in the wall had a higher calling all their own, the sale of wine to the public.
The noblest families of Florence, having a large house, or palazzo, in the center of Florence would also have agricultural property outside of the city walls or further out in the countryside. These palazzi would store their foodstuffs, including wine and oil, in the basement or cantina.
Much like the modern day, laws governing the sale of wine would change according to politics and taxes. During the period the wine doors were functioning, direct sale of agricultural products to the public was permitted and the transaction happened right on the street, through one of these portals.
Some of the noble families that sold wine through these doors are still some of the great names of wine today: Barone Ricasoli with Castello del Brolio, Conti Capponi with Villa Calcinaia, and Albizi who married into the Frescobaldi family and combined estates.
There are other famous, historical names and palazzi of Florence that participated in this historic sale of wine, although not families currently in the wine trade such as Pazzi, Strozzi, and Viviani.
A walk around Florence intentionally seeking out the wine doors or simply stumbling upon them is an added treat to all of the other amazing reasons to visit Florence. Many of the original wine doors are lost forever, but the city has now put them on protected status. Some have their doors removed and are filled in with cement, some have been repurposed to house a mailbox or bank of door buzzers. They are often times the victim of bad vandalism or creative street art.
Once you know what you are looking for, you’ll see them everywhere and exclaim, “Look! Another wine door!”
— Robbin Gheesling
When she’s not busy researching and studying Italian wine culture, Robbin takes fellow Italian wine lovers on customized, day-long wine tours through her company Vineyard Adventures. She also hosts week-long cooking & wine holidays too.