Shortly before we were due at Borgo San Felice, near Siena, they called to ask how they should stock our villa. We arrived to an 18 inch basket filled with homemade bread, local fruit, jams, coffee and fresh wild rosemary from the grounds. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship with the five star, Relais Chateau hotel. This is not your Mother’s Italian countryside — or even Diane Lane’s fixer upper “Under the Tuscan Sun.” Luxury has come to Tuscany. Borgo San Felice’s General Manager, Danilo Guerrini is one of the people who brought it. And one week later, we hated to leave it.
“Ten years ago, the luxury market didn’t exist here,” Guerrini told us. “The Tuscan countryside was quite undiscovered.” San Felice is still one of the few full service, high end wine resorts: a 17th Century stone village converted into a sprawling hotel surrounded by vineyards.
The Allianz SpA group lured Guerrini from another five star hotel three years ago to oversee the upgrade to the winery they inherited in the 70s, as part of a larger acquisition. They created the hotel in 1992.
“When I arrived, it was rustic, tired,” Guerrini told us. “Today’s it’s totally another property.” We met Architect Ana Victoria G. Lobo from Archflorence, who talked of spending 11 hour days overseeing the addition of of more guest rooms, to bring the total to 60. “We also invested in staff training,” Guerrini said. “Every season before we open, we have two weeks together. Training never stops.”
It shows. Trouble parking? Someone ran out to do it for us. Like your coffee hot and your wine hearty? At the restaurant, they remembered. Need a restaurant on the road? A call to San Felice, and they made a reservation. In fact, we discovered, at San Felice, you really don’t need to know anything other than their phone number.
“The dream I have is for staff and guests to be a big, relaxed family,” Guerrini continued. “You are away from your home, but this is your house. Today, social network takes away the human touch. Here you enjoy it. We are at your disposal, 24 hours a day. We never stop, ever. Even when you leave, you can call, and we will recommend places in Milan.” He spoke with true affection about running into San Felice guests in TriBeCa and dining with others in Australia.
And so, most return. They come in the fall for harvest, in the summer for the pool and spa. Helena Litvak and I came for its spring opening and watched the clientele get chicer and chicer as the week progressed. One night 90 well heeled Allianz officers took over the dining room for a private event. Two nights later, Mexican pop star Paulina Rubio walked in with children and nannies. Lead Guitarist The Edge of U2 — David Howell Evans or “DH” as Danilo now calls him — took over the place, for the band and friends, for his daughter’s wedding. Tony Blair vacationed at a friend’s villa nearby. Who were all these gorgeous Italians and Europeans sauntering around the grounds? “Heads of companies,” Guerrini told us.
But, it was an American cannibal who really put San Felice wine on the map. After Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs” claimed, “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti,” their Grigio Chianti was spotted on his table. “It was the best marketing in our history,” said Guerrini. Their wines also pair beautifully with the Michelin starred takes on Tuscan fare that Executive Chef Juan Camilo Quintero serves in their two restaurants, sourced from organic gardens on the grounds. Pianist Gregorio Calderano made each evening more special with his cabaret-styled keyboard tinkling. His mellifluous interpretations of “My Way,” “New York, New York,” “Misty” and, of course, “Volare” were straight out of a Woody Allen sepia-toned tome.
Guerrini, too, is straight out of central casting. The tall, dapper Tuscan sets a standard of taste — starting with his perfectly tailored Italian suits leavened with a country vest — as he moves around the property “16 hours a day.”
He pays homage to the beauty around him by utilizing an ecosystem to protect the environment: the heating is clean and the wine is produced on solar energy.Their organic gardens service the restaurant. He also gives back to the community by employing special needs locals in the garden. Nearby, there is a petting zoo.
“I believe in the Tuscany of the post card,” he told us. “From the amazing countryside to the tradition of art and history the Medici family set in Florence, to the good government practices Siena instituted in the 13th and 14th Centuries: what you see around you is a magic place.”
On our way to and from Tuscany, we flew to Rome and stayed at the Hotel Atlante Star, located between the Vatican and the Castel Sant’Angelo. This Four Star hotel was walking distance from everywhere. My modern grey and white room was pristine and their service, like an Italian lover, responsive. They called cars for me, and provided discounted transportation to the airport — even on Easter morning as pilgrims flocked to the Vatican blocks away. Their top floor and rooftop garden are the settings for upscale restaurants with panoramic views of Rome. There, we happily started each day with a complimentary breakfast overlooking St Peter’s Cathedral. Also pleasing us, was the price tag. This high end, well known hotel, is surprisingly reasonable.