In the last week of January, Antonio Mastroberardino died at the age of 86. It was the end of an era for many of us, the closing of the door on what is beginning to look like the heroic age of Italian wine’s rebirth.
When Antonio and his brother Walter took over the family winery after World War II, located then as now in the town of Atripalda, in the heart of the historic wine district known by the ancient name of Irpinia, in the province of Avellino, in the region of Campania, in that beautiful, maddening country called Italy, it must have seemed to them that they had inherited nothing but dust.
Two thousand years previously, the area had been Campania Felix, Campania the Blessed – a combined Médoc, Côte d’Or, and Napa Valley for the Roman Empire. What Antonio and Walter had was not even a remnant of that blessing, in a region that had been ravaged first by the Risorgimento and consequent massive emigration, then by the conscriptions of WW I, then by the Great Depression, then by phylloxera (it reached Campania only in the 1930s), and finally by WW II and the subsequent flight of country folk to the factories of the north.
We can only wonder at the courage it must have taken to persist in the wine business in the face of all that – and in particular to persist with what has become Antonio Mastroberardino’s great legacy, the native grapes of Campania. If the red Aglianico and the white Fiano and Greco are now world-famous as Taurasi DOCG, Fiano di Avellino DOCG, and Greco di Tufo DOCG and are now widely replanted all through Campania, it all started here, and it didn’t happen by itself.
I’ve been lucky enough to know Antonio Mastroberardino for 35 years or more, and I’ve watched him work his way quietly – he was a soft-spoken man, gentle and thoughtful – through all sorts of market triumphs, market troubles, family triumphs, and family troubles. The latter included an estrangement from his brother Walter, who in the 1990s parted ways to found the Terredora di Paolo winery and continue the family loyalty to Campanian tradition on his own. There has been loss and pain there too: Last year, Walter’s son Lucio, a very talented winemaker, succumbed to cancer.
I’ve never known what caused the family split, and I’ve never asked: The Mastroberardinos are entitled to their privacy. But I do know that Antonio was very proud when his son Piero, who had been pursuing an academic career, stepped up and started leading the firm. And I know that he was very pleased and happy with the kind of direction Piero provided: When I last saw Antonio – last March, at that fabulous vertical tasting of Taurasi that I blogged about here – he was as relaxed and happy as I have ever seen him, almost serene despite the evidences of the Parkinson’s from which he suffered.
I’m very pleased that I can remember him that way: He earned his serenity. Hail and farewell, Antonio.