Road Foodie

Some people drive simply to arrive.

A Gentle American Dreamer

Posted By on December 28, 2009

Here is a very happy man; his name is Cosimo Pizzuli.

Here is a very happy man; his name is Cosimo Pizzuli.

(Part One.)
It’s worth noting, as we wend our way toward a new decade (new decade? What the Hell happened? You have a glass of wine and a few olives and all of a sudden it’s been ten years since the millennium!), that there are many versions of the American Dream.

Often, the rags-to-riches model is the only American Dream we acknowledge and, certainly, life is easier when you have a few bucks in your pocket. It’s clear that people with money (PWM, in future) often live longer, because they can afford good preventative medical care and tend to eat a more balanced diet. But having money—whether you were born into it, married it, or earned a great deal of it—doesn’t necessarily equal happiness (eavesdrop on a few treadmill conversations at a gym in Calabasas, if you need proof that PWM are no happier than the average unemployed Jo-beth). And, it doesn’t mean that the pinnacle of aspiration for every American is a house with ninety ‘leven bedrooms, a wrapping room, and a six-car garage.

Vines on the edge, at the Pizulli estate

Vines on the edge, at the Pizulli estate.

Sometimes prosperity results in the fulfillment of another kind of dream, one that is about an organic creative process, dirty fingernails, and the joy of giving birth to something far more profound than a really large bill from Needless Markup. In the Pacific Palisades, one of La-La Land’s most affluent suburbs (and this is—take it from a native who missed out on the last five years of excess—saying a lot), you can meander down a lane lined with big houses, and discover a gate to a very different kind of heaven-on-earth, one with no home-gym, no his-n-hers walk-in closets, no 12-acre designer kitchen with multiple sinks and dishwashers.

Here, interior architect Cosimo Pizzuli and his wife Christine have created a simple little farm that wouldn’t be out of place on a hillside in Chianti. For a native New Yorker of Italian ancestry who is more than a little bit in touch—or perhaps, in love—with his Italian roots, it is a paradise of uncommon luster. In his design practice, Cosimo concentrates on the postwar Italian aesthetic, which combines beauty with economy, and his home is the natural expression of those values—the antithesis of the Italianate McMansions that festoon many of the adjoining hills. To walk the small, lovingly created vineyard and vegetable beds with Cosimo, to sip the fruits of his labor by the outdoor stone fireplace with a hunk of pungent cheese and a plateful of Christine’s ethereal fried squash blossoms, is to see what a new American Dreamer can accomplish when his taste runs more to hand-mashing grapes than to having multiple Mercedes. It is impossibly Thomas Jefferson-esque, here, a world out of time, in a time that fairly cries out for escape. Was not Jefferson—he who considered the introduction of the wine vine to America of more importance than erasing of the national debt—the original American Dreamer?

Christina, when not directing operating room services at UCLA Medical Center, is a talented and fearless cook. (As RF readers know, I just LOVE a fearless fryer.)

Christina, when she's not directing operating room services at UCLA Medical Center, is a talented and fearless cook. (As RF readers know, I just LOVE a fearless fryer.)

Ten years ago, when Cosimo and Christine bought the one and a half-acre property nestled unobtrusively atop a canyon that leads down to the glittering Pacific, there was only a small, clapboard house, a non-functioning swimming pool, and some very steep hillsides of the type normally associated, at least in this part of the world, with fire and mudslides. Now, after the Pizzulli’s two children have mostly grown and are soon to fly away, the small clapboard house remains, mostly unchanged. (Except for the huge, conversation-stopping family portrait that dominates the tiny living room; this is a riotous, vibrant, and colorful oil, full of insider-only allegory, that was painted by an Italian artist friend. In it, oddly, Cosimo looks rather like Thomas Jefferson.)

Oh, but around the house, what wonders have been wrought! Those steep hillsides have been painstakingly terraced, and planted with vines and, depending on the season, tomatoes, fava beans, and/or arugola. The swimming pool has been renovated with admirable restraint, and now sparkles amid the scrub oak that is the natural and native landscape for my beloved home state of California. Across the driveway from the house stands a generous, open-air wine-making shed equipped with an electric crusher (“I started with a manual crusher,” says Cosimo “but it was seriously hard work. After a few harvests I decided to treat myself.”) Besides the grapes from his own property, Cosimo also makes wine from grapes he buys from one particular, old-world-style Italian emigrant farmer in the nascent Central Coast wine region, an area around Paso Robles that is home to some the most cool-ass cowboys of today’s wine world.

An Italian-esque Monticello, hidden in the Palisades.

An Italian-esque Monticello, hidden in the Palisades.

Cosimo is committed to Italian grape varietals. “I opened up some bottles for you to taste,” he says, when we drop in for a sunny Sunday afternoon visit in late November. “Here’s a Dolcetto,” he says, giggling like a schoolboy at the sheer joy of it all. (Later, when I tasted this amazingly rich and nuanced wine, I giggled for joy as well.) The wine produced from the Palisades grapes tends to a rather “refreshing” style, because the 30-foot rows face mostly east, and thus don’t get enough sun to register much higher than 19 or 20 brix, resulting in only 9 or 10% alcohol. “It’s like a very light rose,” he says, slightly apologetic, like a Hollywood executive whose Porsche has not been waxed this week. But the wines he’s really proud of come from the Central Coast grapes, and we are blown away by the fruity depth and unobtrusive but powerful backbone of these dark and leggy wines. These wines stand firmly in the same league with some of California’s most talented garagistes—Cosimo’s tentative pride is way justified.

Cosimo makes his wines the old-fashioned way—without benefit of chemicals during the vinification process, or sulfites to act as preservatives. In this way he can express the terroir of the land and the fruit itself, but the approach is dangerous—not for the faint of heart: “Knock wood—I haven’t made any vinegar yet,” he says, and relates the story of an Italian white wine he was recently “allowed to purchase” from an uppity wine merchant in New York’s Union Square. “It is 25 years old and still alive, still moving, still an unbelievable wine.” Cosimo derives great happiness from his wine-making, but he is deadly serious about the process. When the 2008 Dolcetto registered a very high brix, of 28, he was afraid the intense heat of fermentation might kill the natural yeasts (“They’re not the strongest little fellows”). So he asked his winemaker to recommend a commercial yeast. One teaspoon, dissolved in a quart of water and poured over the juice, did the trick. The fermentation finished safely, the yeast was racked out, and a year and half later we’re savoring the luscious result.

What began as a passionate hobby has now produced wines that are truly estimable and in demand, wines to trade with other winemaking friends and even, on occasion and for a lucky few, to buy. Inevitably, there now comes the need for a safe place to store a great many great bottles. Cosimo looked into the cost of digging a wine cave into the side of the hill that embraces the property, and found the numbers unappealing. A friend suggested he buy an old steel refrigerated shipping container.

(End of Part One)


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