Thanks to her wonderful books, Frances Mayes has made the Tuscany region of Italy as familiar to some readers as their own backyards. Now, with the introduction of her hand-selected Tuscan Sun wines, she brings the flavors and culture of Italy to life.
In an exclusive interview, we asked Ms. Mayes about her entry into the wine business, the wines she chose, and the role wine plays in her books.
“My passion for growing, cooking, and eating food led me directly to wine. In Italy, wine is food,” Mayes told zoomdune.com. “We have old grapes on our property [in Italy] and initially we tried to make our own wine. It was awful! So we teamed up with special vintners who really know the art of winemaking. The project started about two years ago over dinner with Curious Cork Importer Danny Keefe, who also has a house in Cortona where we live.
“We found partners who would make wines that we specifically required—honest, up front, drink-me-now wines that are made to go with food and celebration. Winemakers everywhere, if they are in it for love, share a gusto for the good life. This is nowhere better exemplified that in Paolo Castelli, who makes our sangiovese Tondo Tondo. If you go to Cortona, dine at his Trattoria Dardano and you’ll experience a big Tuscan welcome. His family-run trattoria is just the best.”
The four wines, three reds and a white, bearing the Frances Mayes’s Tuscan Sun label each embody concepts derived from the Tuscan lifestyle.
Pensiero (“A little gift”), a 100% Pinot Grigio, refers to the Tuscan custom of always bringing along a little gift, a basket of figs, a ripe melon – or a bottle of wine – when visiting. This sun-kissed vintage, Frances writes, is “what the angels sip as they fly over Italy.”
Permesso (“May I come in?”), 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, immortalizes words always asked before entering a Tuscan home. At Bramasole, her home in Italy, Mayes says the door is always open, and a glass of wine is waiting for the unexpected guest.
Auguri (“My best to you”) is a blend of 80% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 10% Merlot. This is the toast used by Tuscans when they raise their glasses, the Italian equivalent of “Cheers!” used on special occasions. “On weekdays, we clink our glasses, say ‘cin-cin’ and pass the pasta around the table,” Mayes shares on the wine’s label.
Tondo Tondo (“Just perfect”) is made of 100% Sangiovese grapes. It epitomizes the feeling of well-being brought on by a Tuscan feast and the appreciation of the simple joys of life.
Since buying a house in Tuscany over 20 years ago, Frances Mayes has sought to share with the world the Italian philosophy of life she found there, a credo that emphasizes living fully and savoring each moment. Her breakthrough bestseller Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, originally published in 1996, was made into a hit movie starring Diane Lane in 2003.
We asked Ms. Mayes what role wine played in the writing of the book – and the making of the movie.
“At that point in my writing, we were just clearing the land and discovering that we had grapes,” Mayes said. “Of course, we immediately began to notice the wine experience, which back then was simple. In trattorias, they asked ‘Nero o bianco?’ Black or white. Most people chose the rustic ‘black’—the red, and diluted it a bit with water. Now the wine world has become enormously sophisticated. There are a few wine moments in the film, but what I think of first is the olive picking scene where Diane Lane slides down the hill.”
Mayes said that many of the locations in the book were used as locations for the film. “My actual house wasn’t used, but I found one for the crew that resembled my Bramasole,” she said. “The film was made in Cortona and is full of local people and places.”
Since the publication of her first book of Tuscan memoirs, Mayes has written several other books about her time in Italy, including Bella Tuscany and Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life; the illustrated books In Tuscany and Bringing Tuscany Home with husband Edward Mayes; and The Tuscan Sun Cookbook (also with Edward Mayes) as well as a travel memoir, A Year in the World; Shrines: Images of Italian Worship and Italy: Where to Go When; plus several volumes of poetry, her first love.
Recently, however, she has turned her talented pen toward another destination, the American South. Mayes and her husband now divide their time between homes in Cortona and Hillsborough, NC.
The move from the Piedmont region of Italy to North Carolina’s Piedmont isn’t as unlikely as it seems. Mayes grew up in Frederick, Georgia, but her family has deep roots in North Carolina, where her father’s family was involved in the early industrialization of the region. Mayes’s great-grandfather, John Henry Mayes, founded the Mayessays Mill, known for its “enlightened work environment,” in the village then called Mayesworth. Today called Cramerton, the village in east Gaston County is still centered on the Mayes Manufacturing buildings.
John Henry’s 1902 mansion still stands in Charlotte at 435 E. Morehead Street, occupied by the law office of Wyatt & Blake. Now on the National Historic Register, the elegant old Shingle style building is surrounded by freeways and tall buildings. Mayes describes it as “the only petunia in the onion patch.”
When Mayes moved back to the South after many years in California and Italy, she discovered an old cache of dusty scrapbooks, journals and her still-locked childhood diary. These inspired her most recent book, Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir, in which Mayes turns her poetic skill with words to describing her childhood in Georgia and her early travels as a young woman throughout Virginia, New Orleans and Florida.
The new book, published this year, was named the Southern Independent Booksellers Association Spring 2014 Okra Pick. Mayes thinks it, like Under the Tuscan Sun, would make a good movie, but says that so far no producers are interested. “The report is that the Deep South is a mystery.”
It’s a mystery that Mayes expertly evokes. Reading her words, you can almost smell the wisteria and mildew, feel the heat and oppressive humidity, taste the sweet tea, dilute with melted ice, sipped on the porch in the days before air-conditioning banished us all inside.
That’s the heart of Frances Mayes’s skill and talent – the ability to transport you to another place with a few words. Now, she’s doing the same thing with her line of wines, full of hospitality and sun-kissed beauty and simple pleasures.
Take a sip and you’re in Tuscany.
Frances Mayes will meet her fans and sign bottles of her wine at Charlotte’s Harris Teeter Morrocroft at 6701 Morrison Blvd on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014 from 3 to 6 p.m.
The wines on the Tuscan Sun label were developed in partnership with Curious Cork Imports, based in Denver, Colorado, and are distributed in North Carolina by Fine Wine Trading Company, based in Charlotte. Tuscan Sun wines are available at Harris Teeter stores, the D’Vine Wine Cafe, A Southern Season, the Wooden Vine, the Salisbury Wine Shop and other select restaurants and retail outlets throughout the state.