Wine miracles by the bucket (inside Paola di Mauro's kitchen)

In Italy, it's often said, wine has always been a food, not necessarily something you drink. The gastronomy itself is very regional, much of it as old as the hills, and probably even more of it as stylish or innovative as anything the Italians do. That’s the miracle of the Italian wine and food culture: its propensity to renew itself in delicious, and inspiring, ways.

The last time I was in Italy, which was always miracle enough for me (an over-grown eager-beaver from Hawai`i), I did what you do when you visit: walk in wonder through ageless towns perched atop impossibly steep, craggy hills, awash in colors seemingly more golden, deeper brown, or a more Sistine-blue than anywhere else in the world; the natural light from above bouncing off shimmering lakes lying like giant mirrors under the sky.

I think the most beautiful lake of all may have been the one called Albano, in the township of Marino located just a few minutes outside of Rome. Pontiffs of the past must have also been duly impressed because they built a summer home on the bluffs of Marino, famously called an Italian “Châteauneuf-du-Pape,”

This area around Lake Albano is also a posh neighborhood, complete with a history befitting its address along the old Appian Way, amidst a wealth of moneyed and not-so-moneyed-anymore marquis and, nowadays, even a fabulous underground wine restaurant. I dropped in (literally) to that eatery, called Antico Ristorante Pagnanelli; and if you like sipping incredible (and reasonably priced) wines to acoustic guitars and violas in deep, cool, vaulted cellars and tunnels beneath the Nuova Appia, you'll have a good time. I wouldn't be surprised if the pope, who still lives next door, has his own private underground entrance.

Antico Ristorante Pagnanelli

Practically across the street from the pope's palazzo and the Pagnanelli's restaurant is another miracle: the home of Paola di Mauro, one of the greatest cooks in Italy. I said cook, not "chef," since Paola's kitchen looks like anyone else's home kitchen; no high-tech designer-name equipment or cold steel countertops, just pots, pans, bottles, wooden boxes, utensils and cutlery strewn about in cramped quarters. Then again, there is a little difference, because how many other home cooks have a little vineyard, a grove of olive as well as fruit trees, and a working winery just outside her kitchen door? But you have to forgive her for this since this is Marino; a very old neighborhood that dates back to the days of fun and games at the Colloseum. Groves, vineyards, and meandering tunnels simply come with the scenery.

I learned that in the mid-sixties Paola bought her property from another lady who was originally from Bordeaux in France. So French grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon are still to be found in Paola's vineyard, alongside native Italian varieties like Trebbiano and Malvasia di Lazio. It just made sense for Paola to continue to make wine from her backyard – at first, both reds and whites, mostly for her own amusement, and then for family and friends.

And wouldn't you know: The wines of Colle Picchioni, the name of Paola's estate, became something of a cult wine lover's favorite. Gambero Rosso, Italy's equivalent to the Wine Spectator in the U.S., gave Paola's red wine (made from Merlot and the two Cabernets) its highest rank (a symbol of three "glasses"). The internationally known wine writer named Robert Parker has been most generous with his own 90-plus ratings. And as little as they produce – less than 1,200 cases, a mere drop in a bucket in Italy's ocean of wine – Colle Picchioni began to find its way into some of the toniest restaurants in the world, in places as far off as Tokyo, Berlin, Beverly Hills, New York, and (to Paola’s amusement) Disney World.

But the miracle is not that Paola's wines have forged a little bit of a fame of their own, nor the fact that she is actually better known – at least to the Italian food gastronomes who speak of her as reverently as Alice Waters does of Lulu Peyraud – for her cooking. It is a miracle that she and her son Armando still actually produce wines in the fashion that they, rather than the critics, prefer. And this is wine that is meant to go with the food Paola cooks in her kitchen.

Let me be a witness. The first wine Armando poured for me – at the kitchen table while Paola was pan frying with pungent rosemary and olive oil – was a two year old Colle Picchioni Marino Bianco Donna Paola: a soft, dry, fluid white wine, rather light and almost oily on the palate. What it wasn't was something big, thick, oaky, fruity or awesome – none of the flag words for the most highly rated wines of today. It is, in fact, an old fashioned wine; small in stature and rather plain, or square; almost boring by the standards of contemporary, internationalized wine.

While we sipped and talked about their friends in Santa Monica, California (Valentino’s Piero Selvaggio is one of Paola’s admirers), Paola brought over her white bean soup – made from a different bean, a little more fava-like, from the better known white beans of Tuscany – over which Armando drizzled olive oil and dried chile flakes, and then stirred in a tiny dollop of blood red paste made from tomatoes, bell peppers and olive oil. The taste was smooth, soothing, yet tingly and robust; each sensation intensified by the round, easy, mildly oily texture of the Colle Picchioni white. Call it revelation, or a food and wine epiphany. It's what happens when seemingly simple things add up to something unexpected, like the hiss of an ocean wave (or in this case, unassuming wine) knocking you completely prostrate, while on the proverbial road to Damascus.

Then Paola finished what she was cooking in the pan, bringing a ceramic pot to the table containing her "Roman lamb." Nothing cute about the name, since she lives in Rome and this is lamb; but lamb, she explains, in the way she has cooked forever: bony morsels with chicken livers and other odd ends, rosemary, dried anchovy, white vinegar, pepper, and generous doses of the all-pervasive olive oil (for a reasonable facsimile, please re this recipe for abbachio alla Romana)

"Now we will show you why in Rome we drink white wine with everything," says Armando, "even with red meat." And indeed, what was plain as the Italian hills was how easily the oil and herbs in the lamb pulled together with the soft, oozing quality of the white wine. "The dish is not a difficult one," added Paola, "but neither is the wine. Great wine and food is not always complicated."

That reminded me a conversation I had with the Italian winemaking genius, Riccardo Cotarella, just a few days before at his home, over dinner, in Umbria. "Drinking wine is a pleasure,” he had told me, “and so you should always judge a wine by how much pleasure you feel when you drink it."

Via di Colle Picchioni

The rare wines of Colle Picchioni may fulfill this elemental advice, but you needn't look far to find other wines that achieve the same thing: Italy's Frascati and Soave Classico, Sicily’s Nero d’Avola, wines made from Verdejo, Tempranillo or Garnacha grapes from Spain, light and fizzy Torrontés from Argentina, Picpoul or Cahors from South-West France, Lembergers from Washington and Austria, Oregon’s disrespected Syrahs, California’s underestimated Petite Sirah and near-forgotten Charbono, the under-appreciated Rieslings and even more forgotten Kerners, Gewürztraminers and Scheurebes of Germany… these and zillions of other wines that are bound to impress you more by their unconscious ease on the table than by any numerical ratings found in the wine magazines.

Have you already gotten this memo? I apologize for incessantly harping on it, since I just can’t help thinking: The miracle of wine is that it is not at all a pot of gold shimmering in the hills. Astronomically priced +95-point wines are that way mainly because they’ve become objects of attention to collectors who are really nothing more than syllogomaniacs (obsessive-compulsive hoarders) with money to burn and a habit of believing everything they read or are told.

No, that shimmering object of a wine lovers' desire is something as easy to find as your next good meal, at home or at the next stop along the road. As long as there’s decent, food worthy bottle of wine to go with it!


  1. Randy,
    Great post. Kevin and I will be going to Europe in January, after Australia, and were trying to decide between Spain, France and Italy. I think I'm leaning toward Italy after reading this.

    I love the way you describe these wines as "old fashioned". My favorite wines are simple, balanced and somewhat delicate in flavor. I do hope these types of wines get more attention.



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