Casa Raia
Casa Raia

On a promontory beneath the famed
medieval town of Montalcion, in Tuscany,
sits Casa Raia estate, a small organic
winery looking every bit the ideal Tuscan post card. Driving by a tourist,
you’d imagine that inside the rose- and wisteria-festooned, 15th
century farmhouse dwells the latest generation of a Tuscan family that’s dwelt
there for the past 500 years. You’d sigh from warranted but futile jealousy,
and drive on, completely ignorant of the reality inside…

For inside (pardon the drama), is a
brave cadre of Canadians (and one
Frenchman) who, having meticulously stalked the European lifestyle for decades,
finally took the plunge and pounced on their dream: moving to Tuscany and making wine.

And guess what? It wasn’t easy.

Monnoyer Family
Monnoyer Family, from the left: Noah,
Kalyna, Gaia, Eliah, Pierre Jean.

Elana Safronsky: In a nutshell, how
did you make this happen?
Pierre Jean and I met traveling in
China, and being from two different continents, neither of us had any concrete
plans. Eventually, after a couple of wrong turns on a long and windy road, we
knew our relationship was meant to be more serious and we ended up in
Montalcino together, tending to the vineyards and olive groves.

E.S.: Did you have a personal
connection to the land?
K.M.: Although it may seem random, that a Frenchman
and a Canadian would wind up in Tuscany making wine, it was not by accident. My
relationship with Montalcino began in childhood because my mother has been
completely enamored with the place, since the first time she visited in
the 1970s. My father immigrated to Canada from
Italy, however he was not from this particular region. It was a childhood
friend of his who introduced Montalcino to him and my mother.

 View from Casa Raia
from Casa Raia

E.S.: How did you find the land/house?
We had admired this land for many
years from a neighboring house, where we spent our summers.  I remember
spending my days wandering through the olive groves looking for a shady place
to hang out…It was Eden.

The property was part of Biondi Santi,
the family of winemakers who created the Brunello di Montalcino from sangiovese
grapes, on the actual terraces beneath Casa Raia. We found the for-sale listing in a
newspaper, written in German. A friend brought it to our attention.

The Podere Scarnacuoia, now Casa Raia,
was purchased by my mother in 1997 and completed her life long dream of living
in Tuscany.

Casa Raia before restoration
Raia before restoration

Was there a lot of red tape obtaining it?
First we had to make sure that none of the other neighboring farmers
wanted to buy it and have them sign a waver. Then it was pretty straight
forward until we began restoration… For that you need nerves of steel, and just
remembering it gives me anxiety. The house itself was fully restored by 2002.
It took 5 years and the maintenance is constant.

E.S.: How are you able to run a business in Europe?
K.M.: Pierre-Jean is a European citizen, which
makes it possible for him to run a business in any European country.  Of
course, he had to learn Italian as he went, because there was no time to sit
down and study. There was lots of work to be done on the land. But French
and Italian are relatively similar.

Gaia, the K-9 part of team Casa Raia
the K-9 part of team Casa Raia.

What’s your typical day like during the warmer months?
In the summer we rise before the sun to avoid the hot hours of
the day, and go into the vineyard to manage the perfect development of each
grape. We cut the female branches of vegetation under the grapes and later
harvest only the grapes necessary to make a superior wine. There are many different stages of
pruning that begin in January and end in July. Then there are also the organic
treatments to administer in prevention of fungal diseases, common to the area.

What do you do in the winter?
Outside, when the sun is out, we prune the olive trees and
vineyards (Jan – march), changing poles and wire, replanting, etc. Inside, when it’s raining, we are
taking care of the aging wine in the cellar, bottling, labeling, packaging,

E.S.: What type of wine do you make?
K.M.: Brunello di Montalcino DOCG: 4 year aging in
oak; Rosso di Montalcino DOC: 2 Year aging in oak; and Bevilo, a IGT/
Supertuscan: 2 year aging in oak.

What was your first yield like?
We were lucky to start off with such an excellent year as 2006.
Mother Nature was truly on our side, which made work in the vineyard
straightforward.  2007 was equally good,
if not better!

Kalyna and Pierre Jean conducting daily business.
Visitors taking in the picturesque scenery.

E.S.: What sets your wine apart?
K.M.: The terroir is amazing!  Because it is a natural wine, you can rest
assured that what they’re drinking is simply the product of a good terroir and
hard work in the vineyard, with little alteration in the cantina.

E.S.: How ‘organic’ is organic?
K.M.: We use only organic treatments and even
herbal concoctions such as Willow, Stinging Nettle and Yarrow to help the vines
resist disease. We are part of an
association, called Vinnatur,
and are trying to even get rid of the minerals copper and sulfur we currently
use to treat the plants. To fertilize the soil we seed the vineyard with
nitrogen fixing plants.

Also, in the cellar we don’t use any
additives, other than sulfites (by law), at a lower dosage than required for
organic certification.

Pierre Jean nosing wine in Casa Raia's cantina
Pierre Jean nosing wine in Casa Raia’s

E.S.: What has the reception been like so far?
K.M.: We are very pleased with the response we have
gotten so far. Our first success was in
Montalcino when a local wine connoisseur tasted the wine in a blind tasting, as
he does every year when selects wines for his wine shop. We were thrilled when
he told us that we scored top marks and then put in an order! There have also been compliments from
three different Masters of Wine, who all encouraged us to continue ‘the fine

E.S.: Any plans to expand?
Yes, this year we will plant a little
more, however we are planning to stay small, to be able to carefully manage our
vineyards. As for the olive grove, we
will certainly increase production soon. We use 80 ltr of extra virgin olive oil per year just for our own

E.S.: Is now a good time to buy
property, considering Europe seems to be getting more affordable?
K.M: European goods are more affordable but Tuscan
property value remains high.

E.S.: What’s life like in Italy for
you? HONESTLY? Any complaints? Do you miss home? Do you even think of Canada as
home anymore?
K.M.: We love living in Italy, though it did take
some getting used to. We love the rich
textures of Tuscany, the imperfect stone walls, weathered bricks, faded wood
and of course the hills in all different seasons, turning from bright green in
the cold months, red with poppies in the spring and golden in the parched

We love the Italian way of living,
which includes eating well and spending quality time with family and
friends. I especially love the emphasis
on food. People eat seasonal produce, many grow their own and conserve it for
the winter.

One thing I sometimes miss however is
the anonymity of living in a big city. In these small towns everyone knows your business and you can’t do your
grocery shopping without stopping to chat with everybody and their mother! But
I couldn’t ever imagine moving back. Our
life is now tied to our land.

E.S.: Do you cook any Canadian food
there? Any Canadian food you miss? What do you gorge on when you visit back?
K.M.: We love to share a little Canadian culture
with our friends, who are also an international bunch. We have a hamburger cook off in the summer
and celebrate Thanksgiving in the fall! Oh and we eat maple syrup and oatmeal
every morning. The kids are crazy about
it…in fact I am considering importing a few hundred litters.

E.S.: What kind of advice would you
give someone wanting to embark on your journey?
K.M.: The same advice a french winemaker once gave
us, “It is easy to make wine, you just have to do it.” Though it’s far from the truth, it sure
convinced us!