"Should we have a cabernet sauvignon or a dolcetto with dinner," mused Aaron Millman to visiting daughter Sidney, who was busy trussing a chicken that had been stuffed with sprigs of garden-grown rosemary. Only minutes before, father and daughter had tried a new bottle of montepulciano and, after noisily swishing the wine in their mouths and feeling its warmth on their tongues, had found it sorely wanting.
Aaron Millman, once owner and manager of Mayflower Liquors on DeSales Street and for 20 years before that a top wine salesman with the Kronheim Company, has been pondering over things like this for decades.
Nowadays such questions are asked, and answered, primarily in the spacious kitchen of a 19th century Tuscan casa colonoca. Sometimes, like today -- a special day because it is Aaron's 70th birthday -- the scene moves outdoors. A well-appointed table has been set up on the farmhouse's flagstone patio where rolling vineyards and 17th century hilltop Italian villas provide a more than suitable backdrop for a man whose life has been taken up with wine.
Is has been seven years since the day that, almost overnight, Aaron Millman and his interior decorator wife, Helen, decided to retire. They had long been toying with the idea of early retirement because, says Aaron, "too many of my friends waited too long and ended up in the cemetery instead." Suddenly, things started happening.
On a wine-buying trip to Tuscany, a casual inquiry about a house-to-rent produced a small refurbished, furnished home on winemaker Marcello Olivieri's 200-acre estate about 10 kilometers south of Florence. Back in Washington, Sidney, who two years earlier had bought out her father's Mayflower partner, decided she was ready to go it alone.
The Millmans packed up lock, stock and barrel, said goodby to Sidney and their Chicago-based daughter, Esther, and moved to La Romola. Here, among the vineyards of the cannagliolo, san giovese, malvasia and trebbiano grapes that go into chianti classico, the Millmans appear to belong to that happy few who are living out their retirement exactly as they always dreamed.
"We wanted to live in the country, on the fringe of a smallish city," says Aaron, a slender man with glasses and graying hair who looks years younger. Only 20 minutes from downtown Florence, the Olovieri casa colonica, a former sharecropper's home that dates back to the 1840s, appeared to fit the bill.
The house is situated about a quarter of a mile from the empty, 40-room palazzo. It has a dining room -- once a kitchen -- that boasts an enormous 19th century hearth flanked by baskets of acorns, walnuts, pine cones and dried flowers. There is a credenza stacked with as yet untasted wines -- some chianti, some barolo and lungarotti rubesco and torre di giano riserva -- and a long, highly-burnished chestnut dining table where, on a recent Saturday afternoon, Aaron sat munching freshly-picked almonds as he shined the family's shoes.
A long, spacious living room that was originally a stable runs the length of the house. Its huge, glass windows providing ample light for work on the embroidered linen napkins Sidney is making under the direction of Francesca, a Sardinian sharecropper from the next farm down the road who comes in to help five mornings a week. The room is flanked by a porch with a portico and a magnificent view of the vinyards and the Tuscan woods where, in this season, the heather is blooming and rippened chestnuts and figs fall to the ground.
Upstairs are two separate apartments, each with its own modern marble-tiled bath, and each resplendent with freshly-cut flowers from Helen's carefully-tended garden. Across the patio, a small building that was once a fienile, or hayloft, has been transformed into an exquisite guest house.
But the sensory and emotional center of this house, and of the happy marriage that is now in its 47th year, is clearly the large, brick-floored modern kitchen to which the Millman's have added the food processor and electric mixer Helen refuses to do without.
Mornings, the Millmans and their frequent guests breakfast at a large marble-topped table, on fresh-squeezed grape juice, hand-picked figs and grapes, toasted homemade pita bread and a variety of Helen's wonderful preserves. A painted Florentine wooden bench stands against a wall on which lavender, dill, purple onions, garlic and small branch tomatoes for sugo, or sauce, have been lovingly hung.
Helen, a calm woman whose pleasant face is topped by a cap of white, close-cropped hair, is a very good cook, and her two crowded pantries show she has not been idle. Jars of peach, strawberry and cherry preserves; strawberry jam, currant jelly, canned wax beans, kosher dill and bread and butter pickles line the shelves of one. In another, homemade tomato sauce, beans, bread crumbs, rye flour, wheat germ, sultanas, olive oil and vinegar stand ready for use.
Much of the produce used by the Millmans comes from the vegetable garden worked by the Partis, a family that works on the estate and lives in a small home near the Millman's. Even corn-on-the-cob in the freezer was grown in the orto, from seeds Helen brought back from one of their yearly visits to the United States.
Set aside, still steaming in one of the pantries, are two trays of schiacciata di uva, a local pastry made with whole, crushed grapes and walnuts that Francesca has just taken out of the oven.
This is only the most recent product of what could be called Helen Millman's personal cultural exchange program. After two years of study at the Florence University for Foreigners, she speaks Italian well and has formed close bonds with both Francesca and Maria Parti. "Basically," says Helen, "This is the biggest sharing experience I've ever been involved in." The women exchange recipes, other information and gifts. "Francesca and Maria rarely come without bringing something. It could be wild fennel, mountain mushrooms, wild flowers or herbs, but their hands -- and their hearts -- are never empty."
The Millmans came to Italy because they wanted to live in the country, because they love art and music, and because of their interest in good food, "but," says Aaron, "we also came here because of my interest in wine." That interest goes back a long way, to the war years when Helen was managing Rex Liquors on Wisconsin Avenue, and bringing home new wines to taste. Let further in this direction by a French friend involved in wine importing, Aaron soon became Washington's only wholesale wine salesman. ("And back then they didn't need more than one," he laughs). Relying on his contacts among Washington grocers, formed when he and Helen had run a small DGS grocery in Southeast, he began pushing imported wines.
"The problem back then," explains Aaron, "was that the only wines the grocers knew were sweet port, sherry, muscatel and Manischewitz." His solution was to spend Sunday's preparing handwritten labels that explained to buyers at what temperatures and with what foods each wine ought to be served. Next came the job with Kronheim. In 1968, Aaron bought a partnership in Mayflower, a small store which he believed had enormous potential. "I wanted to make it into the leading wine store in Washington," he says. He was happy and gratified when, out of the blue, his daughter Sidney -- then a nonworking housewife -- decided to buy into the store.
Today, Sidney is finding happiness and success in running Mayflower Liquors herself. But her father's expertise remains invaluable. "I have this wonderful buyer over here," she explains. And, in fact, a major activity for Aaron and Helen is traveling around Italy -- to Piedmont, Friuli, Umbria and around Tuscany -- to buy fine Italian wines for Mayflower Liquors and for the Massachusetts-based Silenus Company.
But buying -- although particularly important while Sidney is visiting -- is not Aaron's only wine-related activity, he is also the only foreigner ever to have been invited to become a member of the 10-man tasting committee of the cosortium for chianti classico wines. He attends official tasting sessions every Monday morning. The appointment was an honor for Aaron, who nevertheless considers himself a salesman rather than a wine expert. "For me the most important single characteristic of wine is its palatability;" he says. "I don't care what they say about a wine. If it doesn't taste good, I won't buy it."
"There's a whole life out here that we have become part of," says Helen, while preparing a bowl of tangy panzanella (bread salad) for lunch. "We are now part of a farm family, and we love it. It may be that I'll always be known as L'americana (the American woman), but I feel that we belong, that we have put down roots."