Sunday, October 11, 2020

Dino Illuminati: A Remarkable 90 Years in the History of Italian Wine

(photo, courtesy of the Illuminati winery)
This whole cycle of life thing here on earth, it’s a peculiar one. It goes slow, then it speeds up, then it slows down, and then it seems there just isn’t enough time to finish anything. I cringe when a memorable character in Italian wine dies – and with it an outpouring of obituaries. Sometimes they read like a resume, and sometimes they take their cues from the perspective (and biases) of the scribe.

But why wait for someone to die to celebrate their life? Why not beat the drum while their heart is still beating some of that fine red Italian blood?

Which brings us to a figure whose life in Abruzzo has most definitely left its mark for the better. That person is celebrating his 90th birthday, Dino Illuminati.

My first recollection of Dino was when he and his importer and friend Eugenio Spinozzi, landed in Dallas, Texas in 1980, looking for a distributor. Dallas, 40 years ago, was smaller than it is now. They headed downtown and settled in a hotel there. Dino, who for as long as I have known him, loves to eat, was looking for an American steak. And so, off they went to the Cattleman’s restaurant in downtown Dallas. 

It was perfect for this rambunctious pair of adventurous entrepreneurs. All around them, leather booths, trays of martinis streaming across the room, bourbon flowing freely. Big hair, and those larger than life Texas steaks. “I love Texas!” Dino proclaimed to his friend. “I want someday to be a Texan too!” And sure enough, well, let’s not spoil the story this soon.

Dino was born in 1930, which now seems like a time more associated with ancient Egypt or the era of the dinosaurs. His family lived in the area in Italy that comingled two regions, Abruzzo and Marche. In 1930, like much of Italy in the Mezzogiorno (not physically, but sympathetically) people were just beginning to get caught up with the massive changes of the industrialized 20th century. But the agrarian life was dominant. After surviving a war fought in their backyard, and then going to work to rebuild a decimated country and society, a young Dino Illuminati went into farming, following his family. His grandfather, Nico, had been a grape grower since 1890. But Italian wine wasn’t a fast money earner. So, he kept his vineyards intact but branched out into other crops.

Known as the “King of Broccoli,” Dino was relentless in pursuing success. He’d known hunger, and personal loss. Not a melancholy person by nature, Dino was one of the lucky ones - he was, and is, resilient. But to a young man at the beginning of his life, the mountain he and his countrymen (and women) were setting out to climb seemed to ascend to the moon. He put his foot down on the pedal and climbed.

This was really the beginning of an Italian wine renaissance, in which after so many hundreds (and possibly thousands?) of years, Italian wine was heading into a Golden Age. But not without a lot of leg work first.

Dino never wanted to be without two things: food and money. And his business acumen was pointed, focused and relentless. A dog with a bone is hard to argue with, let alone make a deal with. Dino was not going to release that bone. And that initial bone was broccoli. He made a small fortune.

(photo, courtesy of the Illuminati winery)   

And then came the second bone – kiwi fruit. Kiwi, you say? Yes. Think about the time you were in an Italian hotel and it’s breakfast time and the (pre-Covid19) buffet is arrayed with all manner of foodstuffs. Usually one will find kiwi, when the season calls for it. It’s an ubiquitous fruit in Italian life now. But 50 years ago, not so much. Dino planted kiwi and fattened up his bank account even more.

By then Dino was married to the love of his life, Marina, and three children, two boys and a girl, had arrived. But in the back of his mind, the vineyard in Abruzzo was calling, calling. It was relentless. It was his Rosebud.

Something about the time he spent there, in Controguerra (aptly named) must have been sweet. He was close to his grandfather. Dino lost his dad when he was very young. Maybe he was just a little melancholy at times, but Dino got the wine bug. And Abruzzo would never be the same.

(photo, courtesy of the Illuminati winery)

Just to say, right here and right now, Dino didn’t singlehandedly rejuvenate the Abruzzo wine industry. In reality, this was something that was done on a massive scale of single farmers and vineyard owners. It was a patchwork of busy bees, many of them, too many to recount here. But Dino is emblematic of those many folks who pulled together in this large boat called Abruzzo wine. And he had capital and vision.

He signed up wine consultant Giorgio Marone, who studied under Tachis, to come to Abruzzo and advise him. Dino saw Abruzzo wine not necessarily as a regional curiosity. His produce business had him dealing with many countries outside of Italy, and so it was only natural that he considered grapes, as well as broccoli or kiwi, to have a larger appeal to the world. And that colored his perception of what his wine should be. It flirted with an international appeal long before Robert Parker made it popular. And it propelled his winery at a faster pace. And if any of you know Dino, you know he never, ever, stands still. Ever.

Illuminati wine end-cap at Simon David in Dallas in 1985

I was there to see it, from 1982 and on. I brought it in, I believed in it, and I spent much of my early career being part of a team, making sure the people of Texas fell for Dino’s wine.

The main wine was the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. The base wine was fruity and dry and not overly oaked (not oaked at all). The alcohol was in check, as were the tannins. It was a perfect gateway wine from Blue Nun to Napa Cab. And it was affordable to young people starting out, and the elderly on a fixed budget. It was lively and fun, and felt like you were in Italy when you popped a bottle or two.

There was also a white, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. It was dry and crisp and light, and just wonderful for those Texas summers that last six months, when temperatures hover from 85-105 F. I fell in love with Trebbiano, long before the cultists and amphoristi glommed onto the grape. It just went so well with our life style here in the Southwest.

There was a rosé, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, and it was long before rosé was the phenomenon it is now. Back then, maybe there was some Tavel from France and maybe some odd rosé (usually a little sweeter) from California, Paul Masson or Almaden, you know. But the Cerasuolo was an epiphany for me. It gave me the ability to enjoy a red wine, comfortably, in the dead heat of summer. It was cool, it was dry, it was spicy, and it was almost red. Still one of my favorite wines on the planet.

And the riserva, the Invecchiato, that was a whole ‘nother story. It kicked butt. It was deep and rich and hearty and long lived (I still have bottles of the ’74,’77,’85, ’90,’91,’93, ’06 and ’07 in my wine closet). It was a constant project of Dino’s, to refine and improve the wine. Marone was instrumental in making the wine “a staple in the stable and for the table.” We simply called it Zanna.

Guy Stout and Dino at the winery, 1984

Dino and his family and colleagues went on to make many more wines and win most major awards in Italian wine competitions. But one of his most prized attainments was when then Governor Bush made Dino an honorary Texan. “Now I’m a Texan, just like you and Guy Stout,” he’d brag. For a poor, hungry little boy from a war-torn region, he has lived “larger than life,” just like the Texans he first saw in Dallas.

The gift Dino gave to me was that he helped me to love a part of Italy that I cannot live without. I can forgo the cities if need be, I can avoid many places in Italy if I am forced to do so, because of Covid, or just the remaining time I have on earth. But if I can never see his intermingled regions, Abruzzo and Marche, especially San Benedetto del Tronto, well, I can think of one less reason for why I want to linger on this earth. It was there I learned how blindingly well Cerasuolo goes with a well-made plate of Arrabbiata. How perfect a bottle of Trebbiano matches with olive ascolane, with mezze maniche allo scoglio, with wonderful grilled langosto, anything from the sea, let’s just go with that. And the Montepulciano, whether the entry level (Riparosso) or the Riserva (Zanna), anything meat, grilled, lamb, pork, you name it, if it had four legs and Dino and his buddies could get their hands on it, it would eventually land on the grill and go with those wines. 

Dino, myself and his winemaker Spinelli - 1988

How many nights we spent in Abruzzo, in the open space outside the older dining room on the second floor, in the summer, or inside in the later winter, or in the rebuilt Luperia family dining room, which hosted us so many days and nights, and what grand memories! And all with Dino and his family and friends, with plates of pasta and salad and meat and fish and wine and hours and hours of pleasure on earth, the likes I will not see for some time.

And when I do, I hope it will be to have another meal with Dino and his family and his memorable wines, to stay close to the flame from that candle that has warmed us all for so many years.

Auguri, Dino, Buon Compleanno and Bravo! Happy 90th birthday! Cent'anni e uno.


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