Last week, I focused on Campania, one of the many Italian wine regions with a storied history, born of ancient times, and yet mired in the vagaries and tribulations of economic eras.
The denizens of this region have a long history of unabashed glory and abject poverty. First came the glory days of the area’s dominance in the 15th century to its decline in the 19th century. This decline devastated the economy of the Campanian outlying farmlands, contributing to the mass exodus of millions to the fabled “streets paved with gold in America” in the late 19th and early 20th century, as they fled economic and political tumult.
I am certain this history is shared by many readers with a European lineage (and many other countries) who emigrated to the United States, leaving behind a legacy of poverty, political suppression and cultural enmity.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Many of my Italian-born relatives are deceased, leaving me with a dwindling memory of their personal history, most notably in the “old country.”
I grew up with this saga of my ancestors, from 15th century prominence as architects in the courts of barons in the north of Italy to 20th century poverty and political turbulence in a village in the Apennine Mountains, east of Naples.
I am certain many readers share this loss of cultural heritage. Has your research through Ancestry.com and/or 23andMe.com still left you bereft of a personal attachment to the land and family life of your ancestors?
A few months ago, an opportunity arose that promised to reconnect me to the land and history of my family’s heritage. And, true to the theme of this column, it has a wine connection.
First, the backdrop.
Wines from Campania, and in particular, from the subregion of Irpinia, have been in and out of favor for centuries. The grapes in this region were first planted and enjoyed by the ancient Greeks and Romans. From the height of their popularity in ancient times, these grapes eventually fell from favor and into oblivion outside of the region. I’m pleased to report that a few thousand years later these wines are on the map again.
My paternal grandfather, before he immigrated to the United States, worked for a time as a horticulturist in his hometown, Buonalbergo, in the province of Benevento, 40 miles east of Naples. Family lore informed me for years that he was responsible for grafting Aglianico vines in vineyards throughout the surrounding hills.
I have sampled several superb red wines produced from the Aglianico grape produced in this precise area. Perhaps this is why I fell in love with these wines at first sip – they’re in my family tree (grapevine).
Tying it all together in real time: Recently, I was offered the opportunity to walk in my grandfather’s footsteps in similar vineyards in the area in which he toiled.
A centuries-old winery has been laboring under the impact of the youngest generation’s decision to abandon the difficult tradition of sustaining a livelihood in the agricultural lands of Irpinia. Siblings have left to pursue careers in law and architecture, leaving only one behind to carry on the burden of the family heritage. Enter a group of enterprising American investors. With the necessary capital resources, this group is investing in modernizing the winery and initiating a marketing program to export the wines to the United States.
Being offered the opportunity to be a (small) part of this venture, I eagerly jumped in.
My family history has now come full circle. From ancestors in the ancient cultural circles of the north to those toiling in the agrarian hills of the poverty-stricken south, a first generation Italian-American is now a financial investor in this tradition-rich region.
And yes, I plan to walk the vineyards and get dirt under my fingernails, perpetuating my heritage. Stay tuned for my report this summer on the celebration of the opening of the modernized winery.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.