Sting: ‘I make good wine as revenge’
As English singer and songwriter Sting presented the wines from his Tuscan estate in London this week, he admitted that they were first produced to get even with a member of the Italian aristocracy.
Sting and his wife Trudie Styler came to Italian restaurant Franco’s in Jermyn Street on Monday 10 April to promote the full range of wines from Il Palagio – the couple’s Chianti-based property.
When Sting was asked by the drinks business whether he had bought the property with winemaking in mind, he said that it was the house that first attracted him, but it was a glass of wine during price negotiations that prompted him to buy the estate, which he did in 1999.
However, having bought Il Palagio, which includes a hilltop villa, along with 350 hectares of farmland, vineyards and forest, he found out that the wine he had been served during the deal-making by the previous owner, Duke Simone Vincenzo Velluti Zati di San Clemente, was not from the estate, but Bordeaux.
“We were looking for a house in Italy, and we found this nice comfortable property that was rundown, as were the vineyards,” he began.
Continuing he recorded, “The duke who sold it to us gave us some red wine on the day we were negotiating [to buy the property], and we thought it was lovely.”
Not only did this experience prompt Sting to purchase Il Palagio, but also to retain the entire team of farmers that had been running the estate, hoping to continue to make wine of such quality.
A couple of years later, once Sting had restored the house, he threw a party, and asked the team running the farm to provide wine for the event from the estate.
Styler, his wife, then recalled that some guests were so unimpressed by the nature of the wine that they were spotted emptying their glasses into flower pots, and the couple were informed that not only had the grapes grown on the estate been sent to the local cooperative, but that the red wine Sting had so enjoyed on the day he purchased Il Palagio was in fact a cru classé claret.
“The wine was not nearly as good as the wine I had been given by the duke, but then I was told that the duke had not given me wine from the estate, but French wine,” said Sting, adding, “So I was provoked to make good wine as revenge.”
Consequently, having enlisted the help of US biodynamic winemaking and viticulture consultant Alan York, Sting set about replanting the vineyards from 2001 to 2003, before producing a range-topping Super Tuscan blend called Sister Moon – a name inspired both by the eponymous song by Sting, but also the biodynamic practices used to make the wine.
Having released the wine to critical-acclaim, Sting then said, “Our revenge was to send a case of Sister Moon, along with a Wine Spectator review, to the duke – and he died shortly later.”
Today, Sting and Styler are producing a range of six wines, including a white and rosé, using a mixture of some locally-sourced grapes and estate-grown fruit from 13 hectares of vineyards, with prices ranging from £15 to almost £40 for the Sister Moon.
Sting, who said that his first taste of wine was “Mateus rosé with spaghetti Bolognese out of a tin”, takes great satisfaction from sharing Il Palagio’s vinous produce with friends, family, and wine experts.
Speaking of the latter group, he told db, “I love the feeling I get when I see someone taste our wine, and you can tell they are thinking, ‘not another celebrity wine’, and then they find it’s good.”
But he also admitted to taking pleasure in the social aspect of wine drinking, “I enjoy our wine, it’s what I drink, and we want to share it,” he said, later commenting, “Wine is a great communicator… story-telling and wine-drinking and song-writing are pretty closely linked.”
Although Alan York is no longer the consultant viticulturist and winemaker at Il Palagio, Sting says that York’s “ethos for the wine” has remained.
As a result, the entire property – which also supports bees and pigs, and produces olives, fruit and vegetables – is run according to organic-farming principles, and the red, white and rosé are made to capture the essence of this particular Tuscan terroir, which is just 25km southeast of Florence in the Chianti DOCG (although just outside the boundary for Chianti Classico).
“Alan said that you can only produce wine that can be made here, that you can do something unique here, and that really rang a bell with me, because in music, although everyone can make music, to make something with a signature, a fingerprint, something you can recognise instantly, whether or not you like it, that is a quest, and that is the quest here – although we are not there yet,” said Sting.
Not there yet? questioned db. “We want to create something classic and unforgettable, and I’m not sure how many generations it will take, but it’s something I think about… like music, good wine tells a story, it has a narrative,” responded Sting.
Styler added, “I do think our wines are very honest; the soil is really clean, we don’t use any pesticides, and we really care – everyone is really passionate about what we are doing… intensive farming is so prolific now, but we want to be tasting nature, that particular place.”
It’s also the cultural and social aspects to enjoying wine that strike a cord for both Styler and Sting.
“When we drink wine we come together, we are in communion with each other, and that is an ancient ritual, but when we were growing up [in the UK] there wasn’t a culture of wine drinking, you might have had a sherry – and Sting’s first wine was Mateus rosé, mine was Blue Nun; we didn’t know about wines,” recalled Styler, before observing, “We are starting to evolve into a culture in England that is enjoying wines, and that is an expression of the fact that we want to be round the table more.”
Although Sting said that he came “from a beer-drinking culture, I came late to drinking wine”, today it is just wine that he drinks, expressing a particular fondness for Brunello di Montalcino – that is, when he can’t drink the range from Il Palagio.
“I like to have a glass of wine when I come off stage, after three hours of frenzy it brings me back down to earth, it takes me back to the soil,” he said, highlighting the balancing influence of the drink.
Neither Sting nor Styler are involved in making Il Palagio’s wines, although Sting said that his winemaker, Paolo Caciorgna, always invites him to the final blending.
“I envy people with an educated palate, and while I know what I like, I don’t have a refined palate,” he admitted.
Continuing he said, “The best acoustics in the whole estate are in the wine cellar, so I go there to play the guitar and sing – which may of course make the wine worse; that’s my only involvement [in the winemaking process].”
And what about the economics of making wine? Sting jokes, “The wine doesn’t actually pay the rent.
“We went to a restaurant in Las Vegas that was offering Sister Moon, and I realised that I couldn’t afford it,” he recalled, before commenting, “We are at the wrong end of this business.”
Although Sting and Styler spend the majority of the year in New York City, and usually all of August at Il Palagio, the couple’s main residence is in Wiltshire, south west England.
Would the pair consider planting vines there, and launch a fizz to join the increasing number of English sparkling wines coming on to the market, particularly from this part of the country?
Sting commented, “I did discuss this with Trudy, but it was a very brief conversation…”
He then stated, “She thinks we’ve got our hands full with Il Palagio.”
It’s certainly been a major project for the couple – the property, including the vineyards, have required a huge amount of restoration work. However, just before Sting slipped out of the restaurant to prepare for his live concert at the Hammersmith Apollo that evening, he said, “The locals tell us that we’ve brought the place back to life – it was dying.”
Concluding, he stated with pride, “We feel we’ve invested in the future.”
And the tangible, exportable aspect of that investment for those who can’t visit Il Palagio is, of course, the wines made on the estate – even if they were first produced in an act of vengeance.
Indeed, considering Il Palagio is now the source of a small range of high-quality, modestly-priced wines, we should be grateful that the duke duped one of the most famous men in music.
After all, without such deception, the property’s grapes would probably still be blended into basic wine at the nearby cooperative – and we wouldn’t be able to add Sting’s name to the short list of celebrity wine producers.