We arrived in Barolo, rang the doorbell at Cantina Mascarello and the squat, silver-haired, extremely bad-ass looking nonna who answered the door almost immediately started berating us for not being able to speak Italian. I can’t translate what she said, of course, because I don’t speak Italian, but the nut of her complaint was this: Weren’t you supposed to learn another language in high school? What languages did you learn? Thus: shouldn’t you understand Italian?
I liked her immediately.
She waved us down a corridor, where her daughter Maria Teresa Mascarello, the 42-year old winemaker of Bartolo Mascarello, stood watching with some amusement.
Maria Teresa Mascarello in her wine cellar
My mother is very authentic, she later sighed. A bit too much so, sometimes.
Bartolo Mascarello—named for Maria’s father, who died in 2005—is renowned for its very old-school, very traditional Barolos which a bunch of wine geeks, myself included, adore. (Its Barberas, which may be had at a significantly gentler price point, are nothing to sneeze at, either. I haven’t tasted Mascarello’s Dolcetto or Freisa wines yet, but I wouldn’t bet against ‘em.) How traditional? Until this current vintage, the winery handpasted labels on the 32,000 bottles a year it produces; this year, the winery finally sprung for a machine that will do this grunt work.
Dangerous modern technology sighted at Cantina Mascarello
Maria also refuses to use email, and apparently, refuses to use the Internet at all. But that’s nothing. Her Dad refused to have a telephone, and when a younger Maria finally convinced him to get one, he insisted it be listed under her name, not his.
Laurel and I adore the wine, but we also totally adored Maria, who’s intense and focused and impassioned and a fascinating character: at ease in the modern world of today and blah blah blah, but ferociously bonded to the wine ethos hewed to by her Dad and grandfather. I don’t have as many conversations with someone around my age who is so comfortable throwing around the words “tradition” and “history”—as in, my traditions and my history. The wine world is all high-falutin’ and monied; highly mannered, highly auctionable and wholly globalized. But meeting Maria hammers home that wine is, at heart, an agricultural process, one long run by people whose families have been rooted in certain small towns forever. Barolo’s population is under 1,000. Maria grew up in the house connected to her winery. She still lives there, with her mother. Her Mom—the same bad-ass nonna who gave us grief for the shortcomings of our schooling—was, dear God, Maria’s teacher for three years of elementary school. (Maria claims not to remember those three years particularly well.)
Mascarello produces its wines organically, and has forever, but Maria refuses to make a big deal out of this fact. (Her forebears didn’t either.) I’ve been thinking a lot about biodynamic wine lately—and Laurel and I had a blast visiting Stefano Bellotti (Cascina Degli Ulivi), who’s believed to be the first Italian winemaker to go biodynamic—but Maria made a couple of strong old-school arguments against it. One, biodynamic wine requires a very particular and forgiving environment to produce it: it’s easy in a climate like Sicily’s, she said, but not so much in the hills above her town that produce the nebbiolo grapes Barolo is made from. (The biodynamic purists will argue back that wine grapes don’t have to be grown in places where they’re hard to produce biodynamically. I admire this argument for its purity, but it’s one that would pretty much entirely knock both Piedmont and Burgundy off the wine map.) And that there are limits to a totally chemical-averse lifestyle: “When I have polmonite [pneumonia], I take antibiotico, not homeopatico.”
In any event: her wines completely rule. In a quick tasting after a lengthy interview and a long, lingering look at the private Mascarello cellar, Laurel liked the ’04 Barolo the best. But I was surprised by how enjoyable—how purely pleasurable– the 2005 Barolo is today. And this for a young Barolo from a traditional producer whose wines are invariably tagged “austere”.
We did our best to drag Maria to dinner, but we caught her the night before her winery was to begin harvesting its nebbiolo grapes—the Barolo grape–and for this reason she turned us down. Alas, we didn’t persuade her to part with any of these:
1958 Barolo, back when the winery was called Cantina Mascarello
Magnums of Mascarello's 1990 Barolos. I think I was weeping at this point.
Ah well. Next time, perhaps.