Sting is of my All Time Heroes. Back in the day I was blown away by the bold and idiosyncratic composition style that is typical of all his songs, and exemplified in Roxanne and Message in a bottle. And I still am. I see Sting as one of the biggest musical revolutionaries of his time.
But, aside from a world famous rock musician, my hero is also a winemaker.
At roughly the same point in time, unbeknownst to each other, Sting in Tuscany and myself in Bordeaux, we meandered along a similarly circuitous path of wine-making discovery. We both became infatuated with the heart- and soul-warming red stuff.
Then, blindly in love, bought a half-ruined chateau, only to find out that the running of a wine domaine takes greedy bites both out of your night’s sleep and your life savings.
By his side is the love of his life, Trudie Styler; an actress and film and theatre producer (of among others two of my favourite films: Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). Her father was the manager of a large agricultural company in the south of England, so Trudie knows the ropes.
At their winery ‘Il Palagio’ in Tuscany they produce a Chianti Classico of such quality that the American magazine Wine Spectator (with a readership of three million) dedicated their cover story to it.
|After a long trek across the Tuscan countryside we spot a palatial residence shimmering at the top of a hill. Is this Il Palagio?|
|We enquire with a passing farmer. He shakes his head.
‘No, that is The Villa. The guest-house so to speak. Il Palagio is much bigger. Follow the road till you get to the chapel and then go up the hill.’
|Do we take a left or a right up the hill?
Hoping for guidance from the Higher Powers we light a candle and place it in front of the picture frame in the chapel (surprisingly the frame does not contain a devotional image of Sting but just a regular Virgin Mary).
|Luckily she turns out to be equally effective: the sun instantly illuminates a row of winemaking machines to point us in the right direction.|
|In order to obtain some more concrete directions I send my hero a text.
‘What?!’ Sting barks in my ear a moment later. ‘You are there ALREADY? I’m in the studio! We’re recording! But don’t worry, I’ll sort something out. You go on ahead to the guest house in The Villa!’
|The beauty of the Villa hotel and its view make us gasp for breath…|
|… and our host did indeed ‘sort something out’. The bridal suite, a cooler with exclusive bubbles and a ‘Message in a bottle’.|
|After a modest repast we head over to Il Palagio.
But the long tables in the courtyard where Sting organizes private concerts with his friends Madonna, Bob Geldof and Bruce Springsteen are deserted. A lonely blackbird whistles a tune in which we’re sure we recognize the start of Every little thing she does.
Neither are there any thumping drum beats or screeching guitars to be heard from the ‘Attic Studio’, located above the wine cellar and supposedly covered in platinum records. Peaceful Tuscan silence reigns over the courtyard.
|We pause for a moment to take stock and decide on our next move, when palace cat Merina jumps on the table.
‘You here for Sting?’ she miaows.
‘Yes, do you know where he is?’
‘I sure do’, she answers. ‘Follow me.’
|The light-footed animal darts around the corner.|
|We follow her down the stairs to a walled garden, past a picturesque crumbling wall, under an overgrown pergola.|
But when we round the next corner, our guide has miraculously vanished. When she doesn’t respond to our repeated calls, we recline in one of Sting’s favourite hidden thinking spots.
Behind a hedge of olive trees an army of six gardeners, headed by a British landscape architect, is busy keeping Sting’s English gardens in permanent party condition.
|In the distance a hint of Tuscan ochre reverberates among the green. Could that be the Palagio where my hero awaits us?|
The pond! It suddenly strikes us. The pond of the ‘love photo’!
But aside from twelve thousand lustily croaking frogs, the swimming pond where Sting does his laps in the morning is entirely deserted.
At Trudie’s secret meditation spot we again call on the Higher Powers. This time without any noticeable effect.
|After a quick tête-à-tête with Sting’s horse Marengo we are met by Palagio manager Paulo Rossi, who has been notified of our arrival.
‘Sting is in his studio’ he explains patiently, ‘his New York studio that is. And your appointment is another two months away.’
|As he leads us to the exit, Paolo allows us to pick a stone from the ‘Hadrian Wall’, built by Sting himself.
‘Sting likes building English country walls in his free time,’ he explains. ‘It’s like a hobby.’
We risk an attempt at humour: ‘I guess he did those two top layers after a wine tasting session?’
‘Oh you are a winemaker yourself?!’ Paolo exclaims in surprise as we pass the vineyard. ‘Why didn’t you say so before!’
He starts a long and detailed account of all the many improvements that Trudie and Sting have made to the land and the wine over the years.
‘Il Palagio consists of 364 hectares, but only 17 hectares are suitable for wine production.
Sting bought the site in 1997 and in 2002 we completely replanted a number of the vineyards. A mammoth job. And furthermore, everything we do here is 100 percent organic, so that makes it even harder to achieve the high quality that Sting and Trudie are after.’
|Sting’s wine cellar has been completely revamped. All the medieval winemaking crap has been sent to the charity shop and has been replaced by brand-spanking-new stainless steel cuves, but he still retains an envy-inducing battery of top quality French oak Barriques.|
Paolo tells us that he has been born and raised at Il Palagio.
And he now manages the grounds and vineyards for Sting, while his sister Bina (also born and raised there) is in charge of the domestic staff and the kitchens.
He generously invites us to come in for a ‘Bichierre di vino’ in Sting’s living room.
Sting’s rosé, made from lovingly pressed Sangiovese grapes the skins of which are allowed to remain a mere hour and a half with the juice, is the lightest rosé we have ever seen. In fact it has hardly got any colour at all, but it smells and tastes of delicious dewy fresh wild strawberries.
An interesting aside is that people in Italy don’t slurp. They are entirely unfamiliar with this tasting technique and when we offer a spontaneous live demo, it leads to nothing but roaring laughter among the staff.
When things quiet down, Paolo tells us that professional wine tasters in Italy use a different method. Minutes later a specially summoned opera singer demonstrates the art of Italian wine gurgling.
|In the mean time Sting’s private chefs are busy preparing lunch. As it turns out an invitation to ‘have a cup of wine’ in Sting’s household is code for: a three-and-a-half hour long feast of a never-ending stream of treasures of his land.|
|A fully equipped butchers counter is on display in the kitchen, as are the ubiquitous Italian ‘pinoli’, pine nuts. Meanwhile in Sting’s private dining room the 12-feet long table is being decked out.|
|Wine folk share a common language, no matter where they are from. This considerably speeds up the process of getting acquainted and soon we are intimate enough with Bina that she allows us to slice the Prosciutto; a responsibility that normally requires at least a marriage.|
Homegrown crispy fresh veggies from the garden, homegrown golden olive oil from the orchard, homegrown sausages from the resident pigs, homegrown honey from the resident bees and homegrown wine from the resident vineyard. Rarely has a more delightful meal passed our greedily smacking lips as on this day in this kitchen. We are dead and in heaven, is the thought that keeps flitting through our minds.
When we Dance, a Chianti DOCG of Sangiovese- and two other indigenous grape varieties, is vinified without any oak maturation, so the light red wine dances playfully across our tongues.
Sister Moon is the love child of a coupling between Sangiovese and Merlot grapes with just a hint of Cabernet.
After their love making session in stainless steel cuves, this ruby Italian belle is allowed to rest in the cellar beneath Sting’s studio. Every now and then the swinging sound vibrations from the studio upstairs ripple her red juices in the gloomy darkness of the oak barrels.
When this wine, after a maturation process of a year and a half, is released from her barrel she can hum along to all Sting’s greatest hits.
|The scrumptious Italian spread has made us reckless and we ask Bina is we might take a look in Sting’s private wine cellar. You can just imagine the sultry summer nights that this ancient wine tasters table has witnessed, long candle lit evenings with great food, great wine and great live music.
My curiosity is piqued when I spot Sting’s personal wine rack, what kinds of wine will my hero favour…? But unfortunately the wine rack is protected by a repellent portrait of the what-on-earth-do-I-do-with-this-I’ll-just-put-it-in-the-basement-variety, so I will never know…
|A thousand miles later, back at our own chateau, a text message pings.
My hero will be back at Il Palagio in August to host a private courtyard-concert for staff, friends and neighbours. We’ll be there! To be continued…* Well maybe not technically, but pretty close…