Visiting Tuscany’s Top 50 Winemakers… and Sting

Divino Tuscany is one more on a long list of delicious, wine-soaked reasons to visit Florence

I have high expectations for all my trips. For certain trips I have really elevated expectations and when these are exceeded, as was the case with the recent Divino Tuscany, it truly is one of the most

rewarding aspects of travel. 2011 is the inaugural year for this event and it is certain to be an annual staple on the global calendar of wine events going forward.

James Suckling, prominent wine industry figure, conceived of the event. The dream was to convene the “top 50 Tuscan winemakers” (as rated by James over a 30 year period) in Florence and prevail upon them to pour not only their current vintages, but also wines from their cellars that were considered among the very finest of the last two decades. They did not disappoint and the wines were, for the most part, poured in large format bottles — Magnums, Jeroboams, even the odd Imperial — and paired with sumptuous Tuscan cuisine.

All of this was set against the backdrop of the Four Seasons Hotel in Florence. It is called a hotel, but it’s more like a compound with 16 acres of manicured gardens in the heart of the city that, on every level, over-delivers. It is an oasis away from the tourist claustrophobia sometimes associated with the city. Remarkably, the serenity of the gardens is not even impacted by the drone of robotic lawnmowers. Lamborghini shaped automatic lawnmowers glide silently across patches of lawn, obediently turning around at the verges to continually mow the lawn. I mean, who can’t love a hotel with miniature robotic lawnmowers?

I can distill the reasons for my exceeded expectations down to two things. First, the winemakers. They were all on hand to pour their own wines. They were engaging, animated, and as keen to talk as they were to listen. A great deal of thought was put into the way the tastings were structured. Rather than the winemaker standoffishly pouring wines to an overcapacity crowd form behind a rectangular table, they languished next to a bar height circular table and poured wines while engaging no more than a couple of people at a time in conversation. Sort of like meeting a friend for a drink at a bar, if your friend made Ornellaia, Sassicaia, or Frescobaldi.

Secondly, Sting. The event culminated in a traditional Tuscan pig roast hosted by the singer and his wife Trudi at their home, just 45 minutes outside of Florence. It was the highlight of my trip. In the intimate company of a global superstar, you are never quite sure what to expect, would it be awkward, staged? Au contraire.

To start, there is the setting. The villa Il Palagio (pictured) is an appropriately scaled beautifully restored Tuscan Villa (no mega mansion here). The surrounding gardens are the real draw. A mix of lavender and roses interspersed by statues, fountains, and wild honeysuckle growing among gnarled old olive trees. And the hosts? At one point I was nursing a glass of rose and listening to the (quite excellent) Cuban band Tiempo Libre playing in the garden when I glanced to my right to see Sting leaning against a pine tree, barefoot in a pair of drawstring linen pants and sipping on a glass of red wine. His wife could scarcely have been more gracious. It was just about then that I was considering asking if the guest bedroom was available...