“I am in love with this area,” gushes Roberto Bruno, walking along the top of his flagship vineyard, called Quattro Venti, in Campania’s tiny Greco di Tufo appellation.
The vineyard dramatically slopes down from the hilltop in all directions, with a mix of soil layers that include sedimentary stones from an ancient lake, volcanic pumice and tuff, and veins of natural sulfur. But Roberto’s comment refers to all of this wildly varied appellation. “There is nothing else I know that is this complex.”
Roberto, 55, and his sister, Teresa, 44, are my kind of wine people. They’ve not only built their Petilia estate from scratch in their hometown of Altavilla Irpinia (pop. 4,000), but they are also grower-producers rooted in their local soils—so much so that they wouldn’t dream of making wine anywhere else.
Nestled in the Irpinia mountains, about 30 miles inland from Naples, the Greco di Tufo appellation encompasses eight towns above the Sabato River Valley, with the vineyards starting at about 1,000 feet above sea level. The wine is made from Southern Italy’s robustly tannic Greco grape, which—when grown at the higher altitudes in this area’s dry, mineral-rich soils—produces one of Southern Italy’s most complex whites. (Think minerals and herbs.)
“There is other Greco from a lot of places—like Puglia and Australia,” says Teresa. “But Greco di Tufo isn’t just the grapes. It’s the soils, the hills, the mountains, the climate. It’s many things together. “
The charismatic Brunos, with their frizzy manes of shoulder-length hair and ripped jeans, look like they could be a duo of Italian folk singers. Rather, they represent a new generation of university-educated contadini (farmers) who come from families that have lived off the land for generations.
Teresa, who practically belts out her words when she speaks in a tuneful Neapolitan accent, is the more fiery sibling.
In April, she made regional news headlines when local growers and producers narrowly elected her as president of the sprawling Irpinia wine consortium, which oversees appellations that include red Taurasi and white Fiano di Avellino, along with Greco di Tufo. To win, she and her slate of candidates had to edge out an older, more experienced group supported by the area’s leading historic producer, Mastroberardino.
“It was a little revolution,” says Teresa, slicing the air slowly with her open hand. “Irpinia doesn’t need to be represented by big wineries; it needs to be represented by its land.”
Antonio Capaldo, of the modern-style and innovative Feudi di San Gregorio, hailed the vote as a passing of leadership to a new generation. “Teresa is a wonderful representative of Irpinia,” he says. “The current generation of emerging producers is a great lifeblood for our region … They deserve the front line now.”
Adding to Teresa’s local credibility is the project she launched with Capaldo earlier in the COVID pandemic to help small family growers survive a wine sales slump. In that vintage, with winery tanks still full of unsold wine, there were few buyers for the Greco di Tufo harvest.
Teresa approached Capaldo with a plan to help buy up grapes from small growers, vinify them and sell the resulting wines as markets re-opened. Capaldo told her that, if she could find winery space, he would buy the crop. Teresa found a winery in bankruptcy and petitioned a court to rent it. The project produced the equivalent of about 30,000 cases—half of which was sold as Greco di Tufo at market price and the rest as declassified white wine.
Though the project has lost money, both Capaldo and the Brunos saw it as necessary investment.
“It was a way to help the growers,” says Teresa. “Without contadini, what would the wineries do? Nothing! Wineries will have value only if people continue to cultivate the land.”
The Brunos grew up here: Their father was a local lumberjack and their mother kept her family nearly self-sufficient with food by cultivating the family plot and raising hens.
Roberto, who worked as a farm hand starting in grade school, bought his first tiny Greco di Tufo plot at age 18 and began selling grapes and experimenting with winemaking.
“I learned with time that, in that vineyard, the soil had too much heavy clay to make an interesting wine,” he says. “Greco di Tufo is a wine with structure and acidity. If you put it just anywhere, it doesn’t come out complex; it makes something ordinary.”
Bruno studied physics at university while continuing to grow grapes, but wine won out. He quit school to study both winemaking and geology on his own. He used the proceeds from selling grapes to buy and plant more land, including more than 10 acres of Quattro Vento—a former apple orchard that he says produced particularly complex fruit.
Teresa, meanwhile, earned her teacher certification, but she never worked as a teacher. Instead, she followed her brother into the vineyards. In 1999, the two launched Petilia (named for an ancient Greek site in Altavilla) after Teresa convinced her father to give her the money he had saved for her eventual wedding (about $28,000) so they could equip a winery below the family home.
“For me it wasn’t important to spend money on a big wedding. It was more important to invest in a dream,” says Teresa, who worked side by side with her brother that year, producing about 1,000 cases of Greco di Tufo.
Over time, Petilia’s production has grown tenfold. The Brunos now have more than 60 acres in Irpinia—about half of it Greco di Tufo and the rest dedicated to the red-wine variety Aglianico (for Taurasi and other wines) and the white varieties Falanghina, Coda di Volpe and Fiano.
While Roberto principally serves as winemaker and agronomist, Teresa now commands administration and sales, helps out in the winery and vineyards and manages harvest crews.
Over nearly two decades, Roberto has almost single-handedly constructed a two-story winery and aging cellars, on a bluff among the vineyards of Altavilla, using stones from the vineyards, reclaimed wood beams and other local materials.
The hard work is paying off. This year, their U.S. presence is growing from what has been a small base of imports in New York and New Jersey to their first nationwide distribution, through restaurateur/vintner Joe Bastianich’s Dark Star Imports.
There is a lot to love about Petilia, not the least of which is the Brunos’ spirit of experimentation.
In 2019, for example, Roberto produced a no-sulfites-added, unfiltered, “semi-orange” skin-contact white called Sentinelle Greco from a section of the Quattro Venti vineyard. Just released, it’s rich and honeyed and fresh and herbal all at the same time—at least it was when I tasted it before its transatlantic journey. At the other end of the extraction spectrum, he has also made white wine from deep-red, thick-skinned Aglianico—but that’s another story.
Every year I invent something,” Roberto says. “It’s not always good, but if you don’t have the courage to follow your path, you’ll never discover anything.”