In 51 BC Julius Caesar was conquering Gaul, before inventing Champagne.
And in 1984 AD Antonio Mastroberardino was conquering Yosemite National Park with his wines made according to Pliny the Elder.
Being with and working with Antonio is like being immersed in Champagne: always slightly hallucinatory and always delicious. I never knew from which direction he would pop out with another gem of knowledge, like how he devised, on our flight from the Heublein Rare Wine Auction in Atlanta to San Francisco in 1984, a non-tormenting method to remove the natural tannic color imparted to Greco di Tufo wine because of the grape’s natural inclination to mutate in skin color. He wrote fast on his pad; I was mesmerized. I was glad the method he was devising from electronics was “non-tormenting”.
Bubbly Mastroberardino is to be with. Where else could I inhale so much of the “gas of life” except from him and from Champagne? One day I fully expect to see Antonio floating like an Ionesco character, strolling in the air some meters over his vineyards; especially those vineyards like “Villa dei Misteri”, which he and Pliny Senior have created, with the Superintendent of Archaeology at Pompeii, on the outskirts of Pompeii. The ancient varieties in the vineyard, Piedirosso and Sciacinoso, were selected after finding pips in the volcanic ash of this about-to-be-harvested in 79 AD vineyard; their DNA proved these to be the varieties used then.
(Here you see, thanks to a photo from Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia, a photo of a wine-bar in Pompeii as it may have looked before service on that morning in August, 79 AD, prior to Vesuvius’s eruption.)
Arriving in San Francisco that day in 1984, Mastroberardino and I caught another flight to Yosemite to meet with James Suckling, then newly elevated to the Wine Spectator staff because of his writing ability and his erudition about wine. After a day of tasting with the Ahwahnee Hotel wine-servers many Mastroberardino wines, during which the questions posed underlined the general wine knowledge Stew Good had imparted to his staff, we were (Philip di Belardino, myself, James Suckling and Antonio Mastroberardino) sitting on the banks of the Merced River, a vinous picnic spread before us. Antonio gazed at the wonders of Half Dome and Bridalveil falls. By 1984 Antonio was well-known in Italy and in his native Campania for standing alone to turn back the tide to planting modern grape varieties after the horrors of two world wars. In his vineyards he insisted on planting his heritage, the ancient indigenous varieties of the Romans and those historically imported by the Greeks and Phoenicians, like Greco and Taurasi, Irpinia and the great Fiano. “Modern man’s task is to take what he should from the past; I value the ancient vines….Tomorrow’s scholars will be interested in tasting these wines. …Why did we come to Yosemite? It is to compare ourselves to the ancient past.”
Today, twenty-nine years later it is very true that the world is interested in tasting his wines. At Pompeii he has reconstituted two vineyards destroyed just prior to harvest in August, 79 A.D. Using his friend, ancient historian of wine, Pliny Secondus, Antonio and other friends in the Italian antiquities and archaeological departments, can point with pride at these thriving Pompeian vineyards, “Villa dei Misteri” and “79 A.D.” To taste such must be like tasting the “gas of life”, the gas that makes Champagne.
For me, one day, when I do have the opportunity to taste these wines of the great Antonio Mastroberardino, I think I will join him in an Ionesco-like moment. Holding hands we will float over his vineyards, buoyed on the gas of life. Ah, Champagne.
So I proclaim that today is the day for us all to go out there and find a bottle of Mastroberardino wine: Falanghina is a particularly intriguing white wine; or perhaps you will find a bottle of his great red wine, Taurasi; if you are truly lucky you may chance upon his Fiano di Avellino, one of the greatest white wines in the world. Campania is on the road to Champagne.
Yes, Caesar, we are approaching! Nunc bibendum est.
Madeleine de Jean, 22 November, 2013,
The Night Julius Caesar Invented Champagne.