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Pier Luigi Tolaini

Back to the land.

Water into wine: it’s the oldest trick in the book. But it takes considerable doing. Now meet its newest practitioner, who suits it and does it to a T. That’s T for tenacity, for Tuscany, for trucking, and for Tolaini. He’s a trucking magnate, a would-be racecar driver (would-be is different from a wannabe: he’s actually done it!), a wine lover, and one of the few who is doing something about it.

Half the time he is Louie, the other half he’s Pier Luigi. Half the time he is a proud Winnipegger, braving those legendary Portage and Main winters. The other half of the time, quite literally, he is hiding out under the Tuscan sun, where his grapes are ripening into world-beater wines. Hardly hiding out, either; Pier Luigi, Louie to most who know him, Tolaini is trumpeting the news of his wines from the rooftops. So are the wine gurus.

Too bad we don’t get at them all that much in this country. Tolaini wines are, ostensibly, for sale in the big-market Canadian wine provinces, but in reality, he ships them where the true Parker fanatics are: the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe.

Still, a fair volume of the production reaches this country, and it’s helpful if you are cognizant of the Winnipeg wine scene. This is where Tolaini’s daughter Tina has a specialty private wine shop where the already-legendary Duesanti can be had—in appropriately limited supplies, for a surprisingly disproportional, reasonable price. And legendary the wine is, after an amazing first-time-out 91 points in the Big Press. Is there anyplace else to go after 91? Tolaini says there’s still plenty of room; he will remind you that the Parkerizing stops at 100. I ask him where there is to go after that. “101!” is his snappy retort. So yes, there is still room for more and better and higher, and if anyone can get there, this proud Italian can. And most likely will.

Tolaini’s is the classic immigrant’s tale of achieving success: off to the promised land of milk and honey (and food, glorious food) at an early age. Relatives had preceded him, even his father. The dream was to work hard, save everything, bring it back and buy a little farm, a little car, raise a family, make a good life from the soil. Tolaini took a detour, to the oil sands. Still making a living from the soil, a sort of soil, but not by farming; rather, trucking—running water to the drill sites. First, in someone else’s truck, then in his own. Then another, and one more, and soon, a trucking business. An empire, really; today, Tolaini’s TransX Group of Companies is Canada’s biggest transportation company for food shipping; fresh and frozen, to the tune of five million pounds of beef and pork, chicken and turkey, each week. Which also makes it one of the largest on the continent.

With all that growth and its attendant revenue come some realizations: one, he wouldn’t be going back to Italy anytime soon to buy a plot of land and a subcompact Fiat and grow olives; and two, he’s able to indulge in real fantasies.

Racing cars came first, a brief fling, now not unhappily abandoned. “I was too old, the reflexes were too slow.” And then came—what else? Wine. It’s probably hard-wired into every Italian, the urge to make wine. Everyone does it, achieving a huge range of wine, from back-porch plonk, best drunk cut with mineral water from a lovingly-chipped tumbler while playing bocce, to all those Super Tuscans with the rolling-O names that fetch ludicrous prices in the tony boutiques. Put Louie down in the Super Tuscan column, although there’s not a touch of the tony about him. But he is already making them a little nervous, the Tignanellos, the Ornellaias, the Sassicaias, all those class acts. Not bad for an ex-labourer who doesn’t own a villa in downtown Florence. Yet.

What he does own, where his sun-drenched villa sits, is a magnificent vineyard property and state-of-the-art modern winery in the Tuscan hills. And 91 points for his IVO (initial vintage offering). It’s all “Founded on Passion”, as said the headline on last August’s cover of US Business Review, and there is the man himself smiling with considerable satisfaction, a glass of red wine just barely in the frame.

From Tolaini’s Tenuta Montebello comes his Picconero, soon to be released. From Tenuta San Giovanni comes Duesanti, the stunner; also a slightly more modest, if only just, wine called Al Passo. The first vintage was 2002. It was the 2003 Duesanti that so impressed Robert Parker. “It’s not bad wine,” Louie Tolaini says a touch dismissively, “But it’s not where we want to be.” Will be, 2003 having been the wettest season in five decades. The wine has since been renamed because of a conflict with another winery that had a hold, if unregistered, on the name. It’s being worked out.

They are all red wines, of course. Tuscans rarely drink white, let alone make it. These are traditional Chianti classics—if not classicos, which is geographic nomenclature—a strong presence of the true Tuscan grape, Sangiovese, a little Merlot in the mix (Italians tend to sound the T so it rhymes with hot, not go).

“Back on my father’s farm we made wine—with our feet, like my grandfather and generations before.”

It is the ideal prosciutto wine, I am thinking. So sit me down on someone’s terrace on a balmy summer night, when the fava beans are ripe and ready and there’s prosciutto from the salumeria just down the road, paper thin, nicely marbled edges over the side of the plate; the pecorino is crumbly, there’s a pitcher of extra virgin olive oil, the Tuscan bread still warm from the oven, and all I need is a corkscrew and a glass, a full bottle of Duesanti, to get several steps closer to heaven.

The facilitating engine for all this passion is Tolaini’s company TransX and its various components, headquartered in Winnipeg. From here he fields close to 2,000 employees around the continent, with 1,000 trucks and 25,000 trailers carrying the familiar logo, speeding across the Prairies. Terminals in every major Canadian city, Vancouver to Montreal, plus Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee. He does it with excellent people. He seeks them out and brings them in. This is one of his well-known quotes: “It takes time to find the best people because the best people are already working.” Tolaini tends to find them.

He also does it with astute selection of hardware, machinery and equipment. The trucks are replaced every three years and there are strict maintenance schedules in place for all of the gear. There is satellite communications gear on every unit, for 24/7 trackability. It’s what gets him his 99 per cent on-time performance.

All this goes back a few decades now; Tolaini was in his early twenties when he began driving himself. Less than a year later, he bought his first truck. It was hardly state of the art.

Speaking of prosciutto and bread and wine, Tolaini recalls his early years in Lucca, his Italian birthplace, by remembering that “the former was a luxury, the wine was for the rich and the Tuscan bread wasn’t always plentiful”. His father emigrated to rural Manitoba to work for the railroad, made a little money and went back home to care for his parents on a couple of hectares of farmland with a little livestock. Wine was a matter of necessity, so it was homemade. “With the feet, of course!” Young Pier Luigi had often heard his father ruminating on the land of wheat and “lots and lots of food”. At 19 he made up his own mind; and a little later, off he went. It was the early 1960s. The same railroad took him to Manitoba, that four-day journey many of us have made and none can forget. “I learned just how vast this country really is.”

West of Winnipeg he saw the huge wheat fields. Here he got a job building houses, then washing cars, then working in his uncle’s restaurant. He made it further north and west, to Saskatchewan, to the oil fields, and onto a drilling rig as a labourer. A fellow worker sold him a beater truck and he began hauling water into the fields, seven days a week, making some money, until he’d assembled $25,000 and bought a little trucking business to haul livestock to the big city of Winnipeg. “Five trucks, seven employees, one office”—and a visionary Royal Banker. Tolaini is quick and ready to acknowledge the support of this Canadian financial institution in his conversation. He attributes success to the same thing most immigrants will, and do: hard work. Determination and tenacity. Money comes later; if you have and do the former, it will always follow. Another famous Tolaini quote: “You don’t need money [to be a success] … the banks are full of it!” The trick is to make them give it to you.

For two years, Tolaini searched Italy for the one thing that doesn’t exist: the perfect location. To find the ideal vineyard, that’s the first step. He ended up buying a lot more land than he’d intended, and paying top lira for it. Word got around the neighbourhood that the crazy Canuck was paying serious bucks for land. He remembers, “The neighbours came over and wanted to sell me their land, any land.” Which meant no boutique winery operation. The money was spent, the deeds were signed, and “I’m in it, for real. With both feet. Sometimes I think I’m in it up to my neck!”

Not far from Siena, near Castelnuovo Berardenga are his tenutas, (farm estates): San Giovanni and Montebello. Work began here in 1999, offices, cellars, staff quarters; 110 hectares, more than half of it beautiful south-sloping vineyard land; 30 full-time employees, a winemaker, a viticulturist, consultants, an office manager. New equipment, half a million plants and half a million bottles. When the accountant drew a line underneath it all, $30 million plus was in those Tuscan hills! “I’m getting deeper and deeper into grape juice,” he will joke.

Tolaini is growing the good varietals, of course, starting with Sangiovese, has to be. Then all the classic Bordeaux varietals: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, meaning he can and will and does make the real Super Tuscan wines, wines that are outside the official DOCG classification of the Italian ranking system. The ones that are stunning the world with their amazing quality and no less amazing price tags. The ones that are almost exclusively found at the Winnipeg store called Banville & Jones—and yes, they can ship.

Winemaking, fine winemaking, is classic handicraft. “The goal is to produce a wine that’s in the top five in Italy over the next decade.” Louie Tolaini wouldn’t have it, or do it, any other way. The secret? “No different than anything else: get people who know what they’re doing and manage them well. Let them do it. And for God’s sake don’t be afraid to hire people who are smarter than you. I always try to do that.” Look how it’s paid off.