He did not seem like a revolutionary when I met Antonio Mastroberardino nearly 30 years ago. He carried himself with almost a regal bearing. Quiet-spoken, he matter-of-factly explained why he chose to focus his family's vineyards and wines on grapes hardly anyone on this side of the Atlantic knew: Fiano, Greco and, especially, Aglianico.
His son Carlo, who was with him on a tour of the U.S., really did look like a firebrand, intense, vigorous, single-mindedly pushing the notion that his region's historic grape varieties could and should stand on their own. It's difficult to underestimate the importance of that approach.
Today, Italy is a fantastic panoroma of individualistic wines made from grape varieties specific to their regions. Wines labeled with grapes such as Falanghina from Campania, Ribolla Gialla from Friuli, Arneis from Piemonte and Vermentino from Sardinia, Negroamaro from Puglia and Teroldogo from Alto Adige, punctuate wine lists, even in non-Italian restaurants. An even longer list of varieties make regional wines such as Etna from Sicily that are suddenly in vogue. Few paid attention to these wines then. Heck, few of them were made well, no doubt a reason why we didn't see much of them.
Antonio Mastroberardino, who died Jan. 28 at the age of 86, was the first to achieve success in the U.S. with grape varieties such as these. And he did it in the 1980s, when the Italian wines getting the most attention involved so-called "international" varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon. Think Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Tignanello and Solaia. Cabernet was finding its way into Chianti. There was nothing wrong with these wines, but it was not always easy to discern what made them specifically Italian.
Mastroberardino did some vine archaeology to resurrect the varieties he chose. He had to replant vineyards scorched by World War II and neglected by economic hard times. He could have taken the easy way and just replanted with the same varieties as those around him. Aglianico was already widely planted, usually blended with other varieties, but he believed that it could make a fine wine on its own if managed with an eye toward quality instead of quantity. Taurasi, and later Radici, were the results, proving that the grape could stand on its own.
But for white grapes he chose to enlist the help of university academics to resurrect varieties such as Greco, Fiano and Falanghina, which date to Roman times. I can't count the number of bottles I've consumed happily over the years from his winery, and from those who followed these ideas.
Everyone who appreciates wines such as these, or such currently fashionable Italian wines as Etna Bianco or Lagrein, should raise a glass to Antonio Mastroberardino. It might have been a lot less interesting without him.