One of my favourite days in Tuscany was spent touring the Tolaini Winery and Vineyards. I had visited wineries throughout Canada before but have never had an experience like I did at Tolaini.
Pier Luigi Tolaini grew up in Tuscany but left home and moved to Canada when he was 18. His plan was to work his way out of the lower class before one day returning to Tuscany to make great wine. And that is exactly what he did. Luigi took on a variety of jobs once in Canada but found success in Manitoba where he purchased a semi-truck which he grew into a multi-million dollar transportation company. In the early 2000's, with his children grown, Tolaini began splitting his time between his Canadian company and his adolescent dream of making exceptional Tuscan wine.
The company my dad works for does business with Tolaini's shipping company and when my dad mentioned to a co-worker that we were headed to Tuscany he was put in touch with Luigi. We were invited to visit him at his Chianti region winery for lunch and we happily obliged.
Unsure what to expect - maybe a short tour and lunch at a small in-house restaurant of sorts - we pulled into the parking lot greeted by a Canadian flag flying proudly beside it's Italian counterpart. The building was very different from commercial wineries in Canada - no welcoming main entrance including a shop and tasting bar, but rather a staircase leading to a windowless wooden door with a doorbell. We rang the bell and waited until a man who introduced himself as Diego greeted us. He was relatively young, - maybe early 30's - quite tanned - presumably from long hours working under the Tuscan sun - and seemed taken aback by our arrival. He asked if we were the Canadians here for the tour as he welcomed us inside and though we said yes he still had a look suggesting that something didn't add up. My dad mentioned that he knew Luigi and the puzzle seemed to click in Diego's mind. I guess a separate group of Canadians had a tour scheduled for later in the day, and apparently we were to meet Luigi at his home rather than the winery. Diego got on the phone to confirm and directed us back down the road to Luigi's family home.
Luigi met us at the gate and brought us into his gorgeously renovated historic home nestled between fields of grape vines and olive trees. We were introduced to his housekeeper, Carmela, who was busy preparing lunch and then sat down in the backyard for a glass of wine. We got to know each other, chatting like long lost relatives, as he told us his story of emigrating from Italy and building his career in Canada. It was clear that he had worked very hard throughout his life to get to where he is now, never cutting corners or taking the easy way out. As the conversation turned to wine the evidence remained the same.
We slid into one of his vehicles - just a slight step up from our rented smart car - and made our way back to the winery for a tour. Luigi showed us the entire process, starting with the soil and vine growth. Comparing Tolaini vines to others in the region you wouldn't be wrong to think that they look smaller and have less vegetation. This is because of two important steps taken in growing the grapes. First, they prune the vines throughout the season, keeping only a percentage of the fruit on the branch. Second, they monitor the hydration in the leaves to avoid overwatering and instead keep the plants in a near stressed state. Both of these things are done so that the vine is forced to put the majority of its energy into its berries, rather than growing an excess of leaves and spreading it's nutrients amongst an over-abundance of fruit.
All of the pruning and harvesting is done by hand to make sure only the best berries make it into a barrel for fermentation. Luigi saw the stress being put on his workers as they bent over or crouched beside vines so his solution was to invent a tractor to aid them in the process. The tractors he built fit perfectly between the rows and have a low, side-facing seat for workers to sit on as they harvest. They can move up and down the rows with controls manoeuvred by the worker's knees so their hands are free for picking. The tractors also pull a trailer of baskets for housing the harvested fruit. Luigi expected this invention to be a big seller throughout the region - and potentially internationally as well - but it turned out other owners didn't care to invest in their employees well-being the way he did. Though this tractor increases productivity by 30-40 percent on top of being exponentially better for the employee's body, Luigi found it astonishingly difficult for fellow winemakers to see the benefits. I suppose it is easier and cheaper to cycle through more employees than to put money into new machinery. Luigi, however, clearly cares for the people who work for him, which was even more evident as he stopped to chat with various workers as we toured the vineyards during harvest.
Next comes the sorting, de-stemming, cooling, and soaking of the grapes. Again, Luigi's team cuts no corners in these tasks, using people in place of machines to sort and de-stem the berries. After initial fermentation, Tolaini takes extra care using manual and gravitational processes to remove skins and seeds without adding unwanted bitterness. It was intriguing to see how much science and hard work goes into creating award winning wine and it definitely explains why not every bottle is a $9 Apothic Red.
The wines then complete fermentation in barrels for 16-18 months before being bottled. These bottles age for another 12+ months and are subsequently tested, labelled, and distributed. All this aging time means that the grapes being harvested during our visit may not reach store shelves until the year 2020. Obviously they would need a massive storage cellar for all of this wine, which was yet another fascinating part of our visit. Tolaini has enough space to house 270,000 litres of wine in barrels alongside pallet after pallet of bottles. I guess when you've got that much wine in your basement it made it easy for Luigi to not let us leave without a case of our own.
After our tour we made our way back to the house for lunch where we were joined by Luigi's wife Shelley. She had just returned from taking his daughter to the airport for her flight home to Winnipeg where she runs a store selling - you guessed it - wine. We sat on the back patio for lunch and Diego, the General Manager we had met earlier in the day and seen throughout the tour, joined us as well. The 4 course meal was easily the best we had in Italy. Carmela served us vine-ripened tomatoes in Tolaini olive oil, mouth watering bocconcini, an array of charcuterie meats, fresh made pasta bolognese, home raised chicken (she literally butchered it the day before), and decadent teramisui for dessert. There was also prosecco throughout and grappa to finish things off because why not? I doubt we could have found a more delicious, authentic, and out-of-our-price-range Italian meal anywhere in the country. As our bellies settled, however, the clouds built overhead and the winds picked up for a mid-afternoon rain storm. We expressed our gratitude for the hospitality we had just received and kissed our new friends goodbye. If this is the life of every Italian winemaker, I thought as fat raindrops fell on our windshield, I want in.