An Englishman in Chianti...
Having lost his heart to Italy, Sting had resigned himself to the fact that his family was unable to find a suitable home in the country. They had gone on one fruitless exploration after another and there seemed to be no hope. Then Trudie Styler told her husband of a new house up for sale close to the medieval town of Figline Valdarno in Tuscany. To their amazement, Trudie and Sting walked along a cypress-lined avenue right up to the saffron-yellow house of their dreams. They found a home for their family and obtained a farm into the bargain. Its main produce is packed into tens of thousands of bottles each year.
Film producer, actress Trudie Styler and her husband, world-renowned musician Sting, have been producing organic red wine in the Chianti wine region of Tuscany, Italy, since 2007. They are always looking to improve the quality of their wines.
When FINE visited Il Palagio for this exclusive interview, the atmosphere at the estate was expectant. The closing lunch of the Divino Tuscany festival, which celebrates winemaking excellence, good music and dear friends, was to be served under marquees on Trudie and Sting's property. With hundreds of guests about to arrive, the host couple still had time to recall the early days of their wine-producing career and the events leading up to their decision to start growing wine.
The Red House is a two-story building situated near the main villa, with a centuries-old door leading to a cosy downstairs hall.
A heavy table holds diverse wine-related books, music magazines and novels. There is a selection of Il Palagio Chianti wines, as well as honey and olive oil. These are all products from the estate. Not to forget Sting's music, which in its own way is also a "product" of Il Palagio. It appears to permeate the air somehow. This is where FINE met Trudie and Sting.
Learning about wine
At Il Palagio, everything which is intended for sale is grown on site, and ensuring proper harvests requires a lot of hard work combined with a pinch of good luck. Neither of the hosts were originally wine people.
Trudie grew up in rural Worcestershire, while Sting (originally named Gordon Sumner) is originally from the northern metropolis of Newcastle. Neither family particularly favoured wine while they were growing up.
At Trudie's house, traditional British drinks were enjoyed on holidays.
"I think the closest my parents ever got to drinking wine was a glass of sherry at Christmas. I became interested in wines when travelling around southern Europe before the age of twenty. I can't drink red wine because I am allergic to it, but I do enjoy whites and rosés," Trudie says.
Her husband, meanwhile, acquired his drinking customs from the cradle of British male culture: the pub. Wines were not traditional favourites in his hometown.
"Newcastle is an old ale region. When I started touring the world with The Police in the late 1970s, quality wines were always placed in my dressing rooms. Not knowing any-thing about wines, I used to give them to my roadies. Gradually my bass technician Danny Quatrochi grew as a wine expert and collected quite a good wine cellar from the wines I had given him. With his help I started learning about wines in my thirties," Sting recalls.
Spiritual home in Italy
Trudie and Sting ended up as owners of an Italian wine estate mostly by accident. They already had strong personal links to the Mediterranean country, after their daughter Coco was born there in 1990 while Sting was creating his first album of the decade, The Soul Cages. The daughter's arrival and the father's creative effort indelibly rooted the family in the Italian soil.
"It was a happy time which is forever in our memory. A lot of the themes for The Soul Cages came from the life and death of Sting's parents. Meanwhile, the birth of our daughter symbolised the continuation of life and made us feel we had reached our spiritual home," Trudie says.
In Britain they moved to the Lake House estate in Wiltshire in 1992. In their hearts, however, they also hoped to establish a permanent base in Italy.
"We wanted to find a home for our family in this country. Trudie and I had each separately fallen in love at first sight with Italy, but it took us about ten years to find the right place. We went to see several houses, but none of them suited us for one reason or another. I was starting to lose hope and felt I'd had enough of it. Trudie mentioned one more place that had just come up for sale close to Figline Valdarno in the Florence region, though," Sting says.
He protested for a while before agreeing to go once more on the house hunt. He feared it might be pointless. Walking along the cypress-lined avenue, Sting and Trudie were suddenly faced with the yellow main building at Il Palagio. They experienced its irresistible charm and a feeling of life having been lived there.
"We immediately knew we had found our home. We settled on the deal that same day."
According to Trudie, the house had not really been on the market before, so they had no clear preconception of what Il Palagio was actually like.
"Our dream house existed in our minds, but would we be able to find it in real life? Arriving here, we met Estate Manager Paolo Rossi, who was born at Il Palagio. He took us around the estate; we saw the lakes and explored the house with its humanly sized rooms. It felt like home," she says.
The Duke and his wine
The Il Palagio estate is 300 hectares in size. In addition to the villa it has outbuildings for wine production, the vineyards themselves, olive groves, a forested area with lakes and, naturally, a recording studio for Sting. The home has also been used for tour rehearsals with his solo band and The Police, who in 2007 reunited for a couple of years for a world tour. At Il Palagio Trudie can concentrate on her film production work and her duties in the Rainforest Foundation, which the couple founded together, and in UNICEF, for which Trudie has raised millions of dollars as a Goodwill Ambassador.
They became farmers and wine-producers thanks to the traditions of the region and the history of the estate, where wine had been grown for a long time.
"Running a farm was not at the forefront of our minds when we found Il Palagio; it came with the house. I was served wine by the Duke of San Clemente, who sold us the estate, and it was delicious. I swam in the lake, I enjoyed the olive grove and, above all, I loved the house. We recruited the people who were at Il Palagio when we arrived. Paolo and his sister stayed in the house. All this would have been impossible to achieve without them. They knew the history of the place and the necessary local people, so they have been priceless to us," Sting says emphatically.
The family moved into the house in 1997. After living there for a couple of years, Sting asked his estate manager why the wine served by the duke had been better than that which was being produced by the estate. It turned out that the duke's wine had been French. Soon afterwards, Trudie and Sting began to plan how to improve the quality of the estate's wines.
"It was all thanks to Trudie's energy. She suggested delving more closely into wine production and investing in it. We would also need to consult winemaking experts. We thought perhaps eventually we might be able to send the duke some of our wine as thanks," Sting laughs. And so they did.
Old and new
The estate did not give up all of its old wine customs, however. Sting and Trudie wanted to keep some of the old style but combine it with new ideas. Growing the wine organically was one of these ideas.
Trudie explains that taking on organic farming practices forms a part of a larger process related to biodynamic agriculture.
"We do our best to produce our wines as naturally as possible. We are not yet officially registered as an organic producer, but we are continuously working on creating a better wine. My father has been a role model for me in farming. You have to start by cleaning the land, and continue doing that all the time. When the soil is healthy it makes everything else possible," Trudie says.
The owners of Il Palagio say that they are constantly learning more about wine production from real professionals in the field. They admit having been on the receiving end of some doubts and criticism for only making it in the business due to their celebrity.
"I see where they are coming from, but the truth is that we are doing this together with genuine experts. The bottom line is the taste and quality of the wine," Trudie says.
One of their advisors is the internationally renowned organic winemaker Alan York, who is especially known for his contributions to the Californian producer Benziger. Il Palagio's oenologist is Paolo Caciorgna.
"This year, crops have been affected by the weather. It rained a lot in the spring. Still, we believe that we can create better and better quality every year. The soil is in much better shape now then when we started this new production phase a few years ago," he says.
Sting feels that organic wine production is a good choice of direction, because Il Palagio is not able to compete with non-organically farmed products coming from the world's biggest wine districts. Their production volumes and marketing machines are too large.
"We decided to make a wine that is non-generic, and typical only of us. We wanted people to be able to enjoy characteristic Il Palagio wine. I don't think our wines taste the same as other producers' wines. We can only compete in the wine world by having products with their own fingerprint," Sting explains.
In Sting's view, most non-organic wines are quite homogeneous, with very similar tastes and characters. He compares wines to music.
"Anyone can compose a song. For a star to be born you need originality, for your song or performance to be instantly recognisable – your voice, your sound, your rendering should be completely unique. We want to create a star in the wine world which is not mass-produced but completely unique."
"Sometimes a song may be written in a minute, but there is a lot of work that has gone into it beforehand. Speaking of creativity, I like to quote golfer Arnold Palmer, who said ‘The more I practice, the luckier I get'."
Three red wines
Most of the grapes grown at Il Palagio are of the Sangiovese variety, but there are also Canaiolo, Colorino, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes here. All in all, Il Palagio will produce around 30,000 bottles in 2012, consisting of three different wines: Sister Moon (10,000 bottles), When We Dance (5,000 bottles) and Casino delle vie (13,000-15,000 bottles). The first two are named after songs by Sting.
The couple has a clear distribution of duties when it comes to winemaking.
"I drink it and appreciate it," Sting hastens to say with a smile. Before him is a glass of When We Dance.
"I work on diverse production principles, methods and all the stages of operation at l Palagio. I discuss things with Paolo and the others and I want to be a part of the team.
I like that," Trudie says.
At the estate, Trudie and Sting came to realise that building an irrigation system is one of the most challenging things, requiring both expertise and money. Watering plays an important role together with the other ways to look after the soil.
According to Estate Manager Paolo Rossi, vines yield for around 25 years.
"They have to be watered correctly from the very start. Otherwise their production as a whole may be compromised," he says.
Progress through collaboration
Il Palagio works together with other wineries in Tuscany in order to keep abreast of the times and trends in wine production. None of these wineries are experts on each detail of the process, so working together they can achieve better results. Comparing experiences and sharing new ideas is important for all.
Some of Sting and Trudie's Italian musician friends are also in wine.
"Andrea Bocelli and Zucchero at least are in the business. Of course we compare our wines, and naturally ours is the best," Sting quips, accompanied by amused laughter from Trudie.
In future, work will be done at Il Palagio to investigate growth opportunities and recognise some of the challenges in the sector. Il Palagio wines can currently be bought in the United States, China and many European countries: Italy, as well as the UK, Belgium, Luxembourg and Poland, among others. Negotiations concerning new markets are under way.
"My band was recently invited for dinner in Poland. The host served all of our wines with a fine meal. Also in Las Vegas we were served Sister Moon at 250 dollars a bottle.
I asked if the sommelier could bring us something cheaper," Sting chuckles.
FINE tells Sting and Trudie that the hotel close to their estate is also sold out of Il Palagio wines. Trudie seizes the opportunity with a smile, asking Paolo to call them and ask if they need more wine.
As his all-time favourite wine, Sting cites Pétrus.
"I have always liked it. Trudie has bought it for my birthdays and it is delicious. I have also received some wine training at a cellar at Châteauneuf-du-Pape. If I order wine at a restaurant, I usually go for Brunello."
One of Trudie's favourite white wines played an important role on the couple's big day.
"At our wedding in 1992 we served Antinori's Cervario, which was delightful."
Lunchtime approaches at Il Palagio. After a photography session Sting and Trudie step out with style and ease to greet their friends and guests. The estate has been producing excellent wines and wonderful music, and will continue to do so in the years to come. That's not a bad combination.
Sting's wine and other Palagio products are available through www.palagioproducts.com
(c) Fine magazine by Petri Nevalainen
Photography: Pekka Nuikki & Jaime Travezan