How I paid my debt to Italian wine through art

Sarah Heller MW depicts her impressions of wine through art. Her latest project took on a deeper, personal significance

Words by Sarah Heller MW

Though virtually no country has gone unscathed in the COVID-19 pandemic, Italy has been hit harder than most. Grounded here at home in Hong Kong, where the impact has been mercifully modest, it was heartbreaking for me to hear. I owe a great deal of my career to my time in Italy. It was there that I fell in love with wine, while working as a cook in Torino on a semester off from university. As a result, I found myself driven to find some way to pay homage to the country as it endured such a difficult time.

For over two years, I have been developing a project called “Visual Tasting Notes,” drawing on my artistic background (I studied painting at Yale before I became a wine communicator). The idea is to make artworks that reflect my subjective experience of a wine. My plans to create a series commemorating Italian wines were slowly crystallising when I learned that the Italian specialist auction house Gelardini & Romani intended to hold Hong Kong’s first live wine auction not just since restrictions were lifted, but since the start of 2020. It was the perfect opportunity.

We settled on the idea of creating a specially commissioned series of artworks depicting standout wines from the auction house’s chosen “Grand Crus of Italy”, zeroing in on those that would be sold with perfect provenance – lots consigned directly from the wineries. These spanned wines from the likes of Aldo Conterno, Bruno Giacosa and Biondi Santi along with Tuscan royalty Sassicaia and Masseto – essentially the brightest stars in the Italian wine firmament.

My six artworks were produced as limited-edition giclée prints, with one print from each production of 12 included in a lot of the corresponding wine. The auction was held at CIAK restaurant in Central Hong Kong on May 17th. Among the top lots were three magnums of Masseto, from 2006, 2015 and 2016, which sold for HK$49,700 (approx. £5,200); Sassicaia 1985 and 1997 (both en magnum), which fetched HK$39,000 (approx. £4,100); and three bottles of Biondi Santi Tenuta Greppo Brunello Riserva, from 1971, 1985 and 1997, which sold for HK$33,000 (approx. £3,500), all of which included my prints. The remaining prints from each production of 12 will be sold on an ongoing basis with proceeds going to the Italian Red Cross.

We present Sarah’s six artworks below, alongside the wines they depict, and her commentary. For more of Sarah’s art, go to or follow @sarahhellermw on Instagram.

Montevertine, Le Pergole Torte, Toscana IGT 2001

This wine – and image – marks a return to classical form, with a wispy, shimmering texture woven around an elusive framework of aromas: sometimes floral and bright-fruited, next earthy and rich, then medicinal and spicy.

Aldo Conterno, Granbussia, Barolo Riserva 2010

Seductive, heady florals and luscious texture are underpinned by a well-proportioned frame with a deft interweaving of detail and structure.

Bruno Giacosa, Le Rocche del Falletto, Barolo Riserva 2011

The warm vintage is reflected in the density, concentration and depth of this wine, something I tried to reflect in the image; each flavour appears clearly delineated, building in volume and richness to a gloriously triumphant finish.

Tenuta San Guido, Sassicaia, Toscana IGT 1985

Opening with a genteel sweetness and retaining an almost architectural structure, the whole picture only gradually emerges here in the wine’s subtle, self-contained brilliance.

Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, Masseto, Toscana IGT 2006

Baroque and extravagant on the nose, this wine harnesses an almost overwhelming richness and hedonistic wildness; hewn down to concise contours on the palate, all of its power is compressed into a refined close.

Biondi Santi, Tenuta Il Greppo, Brunello Riserva 1971

The vibrancy and richness of fruit in this wine is undergirded by an almost mechanical precision that is nonetheless warm and human, unwinding to reveal layer upon layer of unexpected depth.