The prodigal daughter explains how being a chef helped her winemaking and how wild-boar ragú can save Tuscany's vineyards.
Diana Lenzi
Credit: © Andrea Wyner

You were a chef before becoming a winemaker--what led you to that career?

My mother. She taught me everything I know, much more than culinary school. She's American--she arrived in Italy when she was 19. When she married her first husband, who was Florentine, her mother-in-law helped her learn about Florentine and Tuscan cuisine because she wanted her son to be happy, of course! My mother still cooks very traditional things, like pork liver wrapped in pig's intestines with pancetta. She fixes that for my dad because he loves liver. But anyway, I think I started making risotto for my mom when I was nine. She'd start it, then go off to entertain the guests, and I would stand at the stove, adding broth and stirring.

What's the craziest experience you had in a kitchen?

I was the only woman working in a Michelin-starred kitchen in Rome, at Acquolina back in 2007. I was in the middle of doing about 120 molten chocolate cakes when one of my friends came up and handed me a starfish--tiny, an inch wide--just for fun. I thought I had put it in my pocket, but when he came back a little later and asked me where it was, it was gone. We both looked at all those cakes and realized it had to be in one of them. I guess it ended up getting eaten--at least no one ever complained!

And yet you left to make wine at your family estate, Petroio. Why?

The winery was part of my life. I knew I'd end up here one day. Also, my dad couldn't keep taking care of it; his real career is as a neurologist, and he's quite famous. It was impossible to do both. So I came back to Tuscany.

What did being a chef teach you about making wine?

I cook and produce wine in exactly the same way. I start with the ingredient, which has to be the absolute best I can find. If I do a tomato sauce from my own garden, with nothing else but olive oil and basil I've grown, I'll knock people out of their chairs. If I use a so-so industrial tomato, I can do the most intricate, complicated tomato-gelatin dish there is, and they'll forget it before they're even done eating. Wine is the same. I have beautiful, healthy grapes here--those are my ingredients. And I know my wine works when it reminds the person who takes a sip specifically of the grape from that vintage.

What's your favorite food to pair with Chianti?

People often ask me why I like to match Chianti Classico with tomatoes, and I tell them it's because the two are a very traditional combination in Tuscany. I love to make panzanella, a peasant's dish; it's a summer salad with ripe tomatoes and stale bread. I add some very nice, crunchy croutons seasoned in olive oil, basil and garlic, which gives some richness. That would work fine with my Poggio al Mandorlo wine.

Restaurant kitchens and wineries can be male dominated. How much of a problem has machismo been for you in your career?

Italy's a very male-oriented society. Not as bad as it used to be, but women have had to fight for every single improvement by doing a good job and getting recognition for it. Here in Tuscany, for instance, an estate would be passed on to the daughter only if there was no other choice. That's changing; plus, there are more and more women going into viticulture and enology. At Petroio, my right-and left-arm is Ilaria Marcomini, who's been here since 2001. When I arrived she picked the books I studied and taught me chemistry. Out in the vineyards she'd show me what a specific sort of discoloration on a grape leaf might mean.

A lot of people are saying that Chianti Classico is on an upswing.

Absolutely! I have to phrase this in a way that won't get me hanged by my neighbors, but I do feel that Chianti Classico did everything in its power to butcher its reputation back in the '80s and '90s. You never knew what you were going to get in the glass--the wine could be modern or classic, round or tannic, diluted or powerful, you name it. The identity was gone. Now the best estates have gone back to what the land wants them to do. It's an incredible return to our origins and a very exciting time for Chianti.

I've heard that wild boar have become a big problem in Chianti.

Everywhere in Tuscany! We're being invaded by wildlife. The deer are especially annoying in the spring, when we're getting our first sprouts--they love to wander over and eat this beautiful, fresh, soft salad right off my vines. And the cinghiale--the wild boar--completely rip things up; they are very reckless and fierce. We lost a fifth of our crop to them this year. On the other hand, they taste great.

Maybe that's the solution to the boar problem: Eat them.

Exactly. My proposal is that the town of Siena create a wild-boar ragú--"Il Sugo di Siena." We can put it in beautiful jars and market it around the world. It's certainly a better idea than the one some genius came up with recently: bringing in wolves to get rid of the boars. Now we have wolves and boars.