The big interview: Trudie Styler
Film producer Trudie Styler on planting vines in Wiltshire during lockdown, running a successful Tuscan wine estate with her husband Sting, and being offered the chance to buy Château Miraval in Provence.
So much in life comes down to timing. In the mid-eighties, while recording an album at Studio Miraval in Provence, where Pink Floyd put the finishing touches on The Wall in 1979, singer Sting and his wife, film producer Trudie Styler, were asked if they would like to buy the property. It was then owned by French jazz musician Jacques Loussier, who was keen to cash in his chips and move on. With a young family to look after in the UK, the pair turned the offer down.
In 2011, the château was snapped up by Hollywood power couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who have enjoyed huge success with their Miraval rosé, which Styler is a fan of. While Miraval wasn’t meant to be for Sting and Styler, a life in wine was on the cards, only in Italy rather than France.
In the summer of 1990, when Styler was due to give birth to their youngest daughter, Eliot, Sting asked her where in Europe she would most like to have the baby. She chose Italy, and over the course of the summer fell in love with the Italian way of life – of eating seasonal produce, drinking local wine, and coming together around the table in the evening.
“It was an idyllic situation that made me realise I wanted to continue living that lifestyle”, says Styler. It took seven years of searching before the pair struck upon their dream property surrounded by forest and lakes in the Tuscan town of Figline Valdarno in Chianti, known as the ‘barn of Florence’ thanks to its abundance of peach, apricot and cherry trees.
Their patience paid off, and in 1997 they bought the sprawling Il Palagio estate and its land from an ageing Italian duke who had a penchant for playing tricks.
To help seal the deal, the impressively titled Duke Simone Vincenzo Velluti Zati di San Clemente served Styler and Sting a fine red wine over lunch at the estate, which the pair presumed had been made on the grounds.
Impressed by what they’d tried, they agreed to the purchase, only to discover down the line that, rather than Il Palagio’s finest, they had been served a top Bordeaux instead. Built in 1530, the 350-hectare hilltop estate 25km southeast of Florence in the Chianti DOCG, has nurtured vines since its inception, and used to serve as a hunting lodge. Styler, Sting and their six children are only the third family to have owned the property in nearly 500 years. Having settled in and tasted the wine made there, Styler was determined to do a better job.
“The quality of the wine had fallen off a bit by the time we bought the estate. The duke was getting older and his resources were running thin. He used to sell the grapes to the local co-op and give the wine to friends, selling a bit to local restaurants; it wasn’t a business,” she says. A farmer’s daughter, soil and the cycles of nature have always held a fascination for Styler.
“We’re just part of the ecosystem, no more or less important than anything else on the planet, it’s where we’ve gone wrong with the coronavirus – we’re not supposed to be eating exotic animals and living so close together.
“Keeping the soil alive became of paramount importance when we bought an organic smallholding in Wiltshire. When Dad visited, he’d poke around to see if there were enough worms in the soil for it to be any good.”
Keen to farm her Tuscan estate in a similar fashion, in 2001 she enlisted the help of California-based viticulturist Alan York, who replanted the vineyards over the next two years, introducing a strict biodynamic regime at the estate that included banning pesticides, planting by the phases of the moon and burying cow horns filled with manure beneath the vines.
“It might sound ‘woo woo’ but it worked very well. Alan was responsible for some of our best vintages. He was reluctant to take on the project initially, as the vineyards didn’t have great drainage and the soil was parched – it was quite an ordeal getting it up and running,” says Styler.
“We were the new kids on the block and didn’t know anything when we started out. Alan took us by the hand and led us to pastures greener. In the beginning our neighbours looked at us askance for being organic, and thought it would never work.”
Since York’s death in 2014, Il Palagio has relaxed its regime from biodynamic to organic viticulture, to allow for the use of copper sulphate. Having replanted 12 hectares of vines, there are now 32ha under vine at the estate, and ample space for expansion should the pair want to increase their output. The day-to-day management of the vineyards is looked after by Paolo Rossi, who was born at Il Palagio and has worked there his entire life.
Styler and Sting produce seven wines – four reds, a rosé, a Vermentino and a sparkler – from a mixture of estate-grown fruit and locally sourced grapes. The wines range from the £15 When We Dance, a fresh, red-fruited, unoaked Chianti made predominantly from Sangiovese with a touch of Canaiolo and Colorino, to top drop Sister Moon, a rich, concentrated, chocolate and black cherry- laced IGT made from 45% Sangiovese, 45% Merlot and 10% Cabernet.
Priced at just under £40, the wine is named after a Sting track, and pays homage to the importance of the moon in biodynamic viticulture. Before the duke died, Sting took great pleasure in sending him a case of Sister Moon, along with a glowing Wine Spectator review.
Interview continues on the next page…
Given their owners, the wines could carry far higher price tags, but both Styler and Sting wanted to create an accessible range for a wide audience. “We always wanted to make honest, affordable wines that can be enjoyed by a lot of people at all sorts of occasions,” says Styler, who is working on a label rebrand that will make more of the estate’s 500-year heritage, which dates back to the Renaissance.
The wines are on sale in 25 markets, with annual production at 10,000 bottles a year, a number Styler says could be doubled should they wish to. Helping to secure listings throughout the world has been Swiss-born, Ireland-based Ralf Hogger, who recently moved on from Il Palagio to look after exports at actor John Malkovich’s Provence estate, Les Quelle de La Coste in Vaucluse.
One of the newest wines in the Il Palagio portfolio, Beppe, is a pale pink, peach-scented rosé made from Sangiovese named after a long-standing vineyard worker who recently retired after 59 years of service. The pink has been an instant hit with visiting friends, who have taken to opening the rosé so early on in the day that Styler has renamed it ‘Bepfast’.
“We don’t make a lot of it and haven’t got it over to the States yet – it’s exclusively for the Italian market at the moment – but we’re working on increasing production as it’s so popular,” she says. “It’s a wine for any time of day. People love the barely-there pink. I think that style of rosé will continue to be popular because fresh wines are flourishing at the moment.”
The US is a key market for the wines, as is the UK, where Sting and Styler recently struck a new distribution deal with Italian restaurant Villa di Geggiano in Chiswick, which has long championed the estate’s wines, honeys and olive oil.
Il Palagio produces around 6,000 litres of organic extra-virgin olive oil and a number of honeys each year, including acacia, heather, cherry blossom and chestnut, which Styler says tastes delicious spooned onto salty Pecorino. Introducing hives to the estate was part of York’s plan to enhance biodiversity and create a well- balanced ecosystem for the vines.
Despite her success in the film world, Styler remains refreshingly down to earth, admitting that both she and Sting came to wine later in life. Her introduction was via Blue Nun, while Sting’s first encounter with wine was a bottle of Mateus rosé, which he drank with tinned spaghetti.
Their palates have since become more accustomed to some of the world’s finest wines, with Styler name- checking Sassicaia, Château Margaux and Domaine Leflaive Montrachet as among her favourites.
“I had the pleasure of sitting next to the late Anne-Claude Leflaive at a Prince’s Trust dinner where Jamie Oliver was doing the cooking. I told her we were burgeoning winemakers and asked for advice. She said: ‘If you don’t have the soil you have nothing, just keep going back to the soil.’ I was always very mindful of that,” says Styler, who has learnt the hard way that nature is a great leveller when it comes to winemaking.
“Every growing season is so different as we’re at the mercy of the elements. In 2014 we didn’t bottle any wine as we had a huge amount of rain. It doesn’t matter how well run your estate is, there is always a risk of ending up with no wine at all, but sometimes you can create a great tasting wine in spite of all the challenges. I’m so fascinated by the alchemy of wine – it’s magic in a bottle,” Styler enthuses.
While based between Wiltshire and New York, both Styler and Sting like to get involved in their grapes’ progress, from bud to bottle, and always take part in the grape and olive harvests, and the blending sessions with Il Palagio’s consultant winemakers, San Gimignano native Paolo Caciorgna, and American Daniel O’Donnell, better known for heading up the winemaking team at Turkish venture Kayra.
“Winters at the estate are lovely – you get intense blue skies and can sit outside with a blanket and a glass of wine happy as a skylark. I’m still very involved in the film industry, but I can see a time when I will want to stay longer in Italy,” says Styler.
Her husband, meanwhile, has discovered that the best acoustics at the estate are in the cellar, and can often be found there, guitar in hand, singing among the barrels. His ultimate goal is to make wines that have their own signature and are instantly recognisable, much like his music.
“We want to create something classic and unforgettable with its own fingerprint. I’m not sure how many generations it will take. Like music, good wine tells a story,” he told the drinks business in 2017. At the moment the pair are busy planting summer vegetables at their home in Wiltshire, where they are enjoying the peace and tranquillity of life in lockdown in the countryside.
If they end up staying there, Styler may consider planting vines at the property with a view to making English wine. “We’ve come to a day of reckoning where we’re being forced to acknowledge that we’ve really screwed up the planet and need carbon emissions to be restricted in a serious way. With Britain on lockdown the air is cleaner and is buzzing with wildlife and vegetation, like nature has been given a reprieve.”