Thursday, October 27, 2011

Garantito IGP: A Talk with Norman Bain

This time, I take the stand:

My first visits to wineries (many years ago) were in the course of preparing travel articles, and it only took me a couple of stops to realize how little I knew. So I went to the now long-gone Libreria Marzocco and bought the Italian translation of Rosemary George's Chianti and the Wines of Tuscany, which covers the various appellations thoroughly and also has quite a bit about the individual winemakers.

One of the people she referred to often was Norman Bain, the Scott who owned Le Masse Di San Leolino, not far from Panzano, and while ease of communication was likely one of the reasons she talked to him, his philosophy was likely another. Simply put, he wanted nothing to do with the Supertuscans that were all the rage then, and firmly believed a winery in Chianti should make Chianti.

This was, for the time, a revolutionary stance, and one that Rosemary certainly appreciated. And that I remembered when I began writing for Events, a magazine for Tuscany's English-speaking community. When Natalie (the editor) asked me to do an interview, I drove out to Panzano to talk to Norman, who graciously received me and plied me with wine while we talked in his office, a beautiful, airy room with large windows that had once been (if I remember right) a pig sty. Turns out, his love of wine began long before Le Masse:

Shortly after the war he was brought the wrong bottle of wine at a restaurant, and sent it back. The sommelier brought another bottle, wrapped in a cloth, and it was not what he had ordered either. When this happened a third time, Mr. Bain summoned the maitre: The dinner was free, and his love of wine was born. After managing Shell Italia, and eventually "selling the company because we couldn't make any profits with the prices being controlled by government," he bought Le Masse di San Leolino in 1972. "Saw the place at dusk on a Saturday" he recalls, "and drove down to Forte dei Marmi to make the down-payment the next morning." He admits to having had second thoughts when he saw the place in the light of day, but rolled up his sleeves and got to work; it's marvelous now.

What led you to Tuscany?

"The region's history - it's the land of the Renaissance, and its attractions on the culture side - a combination of things. I especially liked what it had to offer in the way of the culture, though I hate to use that word because it's very much bastardized."

Culture in what sense?

"A whole range of things - Florence for one thing, and what's available to you... Siena, in a different way. Sometimes I almost think Siena is rather more attractive as a city, mainly because of the traffic problems in Florence. But you've got art, you've got architecture, you've got sculpture, you've got philosophy, and you've got the big people of the Renaissance. "And going on about architecture, looking as I have at many many case coloniche before I decided to buy this place, the feel that Tuscans have for it is just staggering...

Why did you decide to take up wine making?

"I think I told you the story of the restaurant - People always ask that question. Sometimes I start thinking "Why the hell et cetera et cetera? I cannot think of any other reason whatsoever. I suppose I love the country and - well - this country. The country per se I'm very fond of - I'm not a city man."

Has wine making turned out to be what you expected?

"In many ways yes. I would say there are two main, well, complaints if I may use the expression. One is the extraordinary amount of bureaucracy that has crept in in the last years. Frankly had I known when I put the new vineyard in - I bought this property in 72 and put in a new vineyard in 73, and had I known then what the situation would be today I would have put in about 20 rows of grapes for me and for my friends and (claps hands). Because it is frustrating - very frustrating."

The positives?

"Ah well. Firstly, just working in the country. I'm a country boy at heart. And secondly the fascination with the whole process of making wine - and olive oil for that matter. It is, to use that horribly overused word, challenging, and I need that to keep me on my toes. I don't like the easy life very much. Or not yet - as I get older... "There are so many things to learn, because it's a very delicate process to make a really good wine. You have to be dedicated, and give it passione, as they say. Oh, I mean about being out in the open air, all the things about living in the country, working in the country - they're all part of the package, to answer your question. The wine-making itself is great fun. "

"And I've got all a man living in the country should have - waking up with skylarks and nightingales singing away. The roe deer have been a bit of a problem - they've become terribly tame, they're actually domesticated. They're beautiful creatures. I'll never forget one evening , well not quite dusk - I normally walk about enjoying the twilight though it's very short in these parts - I'd just gone out, and there were two females nibbling away at a couple of dwarf cypresses. They saw me before I walked over - and then - just walked very quietly away."

If you had to start over, what would you change?

"Well one fundamental thing, I think -- I said about 20 rows - I'd make an even smaller vineyard, just to make wine for myself and my family. That would be fundamental. I can't think of anything else, because the bureaucracy is there, and you can't change that."

What advice for someone who wanted to make wine? "I'd tell them to think about it very carefully indeed, and to make sure they have the financial assets to do a proper job. Quite expensive nowadays. Very many questions to be answered if you're thinking of going into the wine business - you're not thinking of...?"

Not right now, but there's no telling what the future could hold.

"That's very true, very true. I never thought I'd be making wine."

A couple more questions: How does Tuscany differ from Scotland?

"Depends very much on what you're talking about - culture, scenery, food, people, not to forget history."

The People?

"How would I put it? Tuscany is a bit like Scotland, in that there are many regions. A Lucchese differs form a Florentine or a Sienese, just as Highlanders differ from Lowlanders or those of the big cities. There are very strong regional differences."

What do you miss most about Scotland, or do you?

"Very much so, despite the fact that I left it in 1949 to begin my travels. One thing I don't miss is the climate; the main things I do miss are the scenery and the hospitality of the Highlands from which I came.

He hesitated. "I've been very fortunate."


I interviewed Norman in the early 1990s, and though we did speak occasionally then we lost track of each other. When I decided to reprint the interview I tried to look him up, and discovered that he passed away a few years ago. Le Masse di San Leolino went to a niece, who sold it to a Dutch family. Nobody was home when I drove by, but it's still beautiful.

Published Simultaneously by IGP, I Giovani Promettenti.

We Are:
Carlo Macchi
Kyle Phillips
Luciano Pignataro
Roberto Giuliani
Stefano Tesi

No comments: