Sunday, February 19, 2023

Dino Illuminati – Once in a Lifetime

A little boy, nine years old, raised by his grandfather after losing his mother at a young age, is walking along the Tronto river, picking up reeds and brushing them against the other reeds, bushes, the stream, anything. It’s a normal day in June of 1940. Except it isn’t. It’s the day Italy enters into World War II, allied with Germany. For the young boy, Dino Illuminati, it would be another in a series of transformative events in his life, one which would see Italy changing like it had never changed in all of its history. And little did he know that he would be a history maker in his own right.

Dino grew into a young man and became a produce merchant. He was known for his broccoli, dubbed the “King of broccoli” when he was in the zenith of that stage of his life. He was one of the first in his region to plant kiwi. And his region, which straddled Marche and Abruzzo, took to kiwi as did all of Italy. Dino did well.

But he didn’t always fare so well. He knew hunger. And loneliness. And tragedy. But he was resilient. And just a little bit stubborn. Dino wanted more than to be the king of broccoli or a kiwi pioneer.

So, he took to his roots – grapevines.

His grandfather who raised him, Nico, had been a grape grower since 1890. At that time, growing grapes in Italy was common enough. But the rest of the world hardly knew. This country, once dubbed Oenotria in the time of the Greek ascendancy, abounded with vines. Wine was, and is, essential to the Italians. And to Dino it was a plausible pivot.

But Dino had this burning drive inside. Maybe it was the hunger he never got over as a child. Maybe it was the love he didn’t have enough of from his mother. Whatever it was, it forged within him this larger-than-life ambition to change the world he lived in, if not to dominate it. And he would do it with the local grape, Montepulciano, and the wine to come from those grapes, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo

I’m telling you this story because although there are many men and women who came up in the Italian wine world after World War II, there was only one Dino. He had this vision to make Montepulciano into a great wine, on par with Chianti and Barbera, and then Brunello and Barolo. Dino set his sights high.

Dino, myself and his winemaker Spinelli - 1988

I remember those early wines, from the 1970’s. I still have some of them in my wine closet. They were rustic, full of fruit and spice and richness. And then as Dino progressed in his wine career, the wines started taking on a little more polish. He hired Giorgio Marrone to help consult with his winemaker, Spinelli. Marrone was an acolyte of Tachis, and in the 1980’s Tachis was the wizard of wine. Marrone was next-gen. Wines were getting better all across Italy. Italy was surpassing Algeria and Spain in wine production. And Italy was aiming towards the quality that France was famous for. It was a battle that raged for a generation, until Italy met and sometimes exceeded all expectations. Nowadays, Italian wine stands with any of the great wines of the world. Not so, when Dino started out.

We Italians had to apologize for our wines by making them less expensive. And maybe even a little bit easier to drink than the French. But once people got hooked, the Italians shifted, little by little, to make deeper, richer, longer-lived wines. But it didn’t happen overnight.

The Maestro of Montepulciano with his students - 1984

Knowing Italy as I do now, it was a miracle that this happened and that those of us fortunate enough to be alive in this era witnessed history. History which no one had witnessed in 8,000 years of wine culture. It was a quantum leap, a progress that was on par with the invention of the automobile, the airplane, the discovery of electricity, nuclear power. And while Italian wine didn’t change the world quite like the car, the plane, electricity and nuclear energy has, it benefitted from those developments and took Italian wine to a new level, a pinnacle. And it was souls like Dino Illuminati who had the vision, and yes, the stubbornness and determination, to climb that mountain.

Dino lived a long 92 years before he passed away last week. And it was a great life. He had a loving wife. His children loved him, even though he was not always an easy person to have as a father. And his collaborators, in the vineyards, in the winery, in the importations side and at the end-user point, all were part of his dream and his legion. We were his happy warriors, making history, albeit in our micro-universe - Abruzzo wine from Italy on Earth.

I could write more about Dino. He had an insatiable appetite. To dine with Dino was to eat like an emperor. And if you were lucky enough to score and invitation to his little dining room at the winery, you would drink like one too.

I came up in the time when Dino’s star was rising. And I rode the tail of that star in my career. After all, we were making history, were we not?

Rest well, dear friend. Italy was so lucky to have you as one of her sons. And the rest of us in the world of wine were indeed fortunate when our paths crossed. You were one of a kind – They broke the mold when you were made. And we're so damn lucky and grateful.

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