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Diliberto LI winery owners revel in leading wine tour to southern Italy

A tractor plows soil in a vineyard in

A tractor plows soil in a vineyard in Campania, Italy. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo/age fotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

They say you can never go home again, but many who’ve taken Salvatore Diliberto’s trips to the Campania region of southern Italy have a different message: “Sal, glad you went home again. And took us with you.”

Diliberto, who lives with his wife, Maryann, on their eponymous winery in Jamesport, on the North Fork, ran the first of his wine tours in 2015. There were 10 guests, who stayed at a former wine estate in the town of Dugenta, where his mother was born. Every day, he escorted the group to attractions in the area — stunning historic sights such as Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Greek ruins at Paestum.

“When I started to research the idea of running trips to Italy, I went first to Turin, where I had a cousin, and worked my way south,” said Diliberto, whose family, like so many others from southern Italy, emigrated to the East Coast, settling in Queens about 1920. But all he saw in Rome were conga lines of tourists behind colored umbrellas, snaking past the Coliseum. He kept going, ending up in familiar territory.

“This is where you go to experience Italy,” Diliberto said. That’s what hit him upon arrival in Benevento, the province that includes a capital city of the same name as well as Dugenta, now with about 3,000 inhabitants, about 30 miles north of Naples. “This is where my tours will begin.”

And end. Each of the five daily excursions during the seven-night trips, then and now, are hosted by Sal and Maryann and include lunch at a winery, with the evening meal taken back at the hotel.

STEPPING BACK IN TIME

Over the years the number of tour participants has risen to 20-25, but the itineraries, including for this year’s trip departing Kennedy Airport on Sept. 15, have remained the same. While also striking a chord: “At the hotel, we were in walking distance of the school where Sal’s mother went as a girl,” says Robert Domozych, a dentist from Blue Point, who signed up for a tour with his wife, Stacy, a retired medical technologist, their two daughters, each daughter’s boyfriend, and the two boyfriends’ families (think: double graduation present). “The entire experience felt personal. The age-old scenes of rural life were like stepping back in time to a world that disappeared long ago,” he added.

Returning each night to the same hotel — Tenuta del Gheppio, a rustic, restored estate that had been a farmhouse — was key for many participants, such as Karen and Clyde Armstrong, of Stamford, Connecticut, who work in banking and transportation, respectively. “The staff made us feel like family. Everybody was on a first-name basis. They cooked our breakfasts and dinners each day,” said Clyde Armstrong. Many of the 17 rooms at the hotel look out over vineyards, orchards, or fields of farm animals wondering about.

“After dinner, our entire group would gather up the open bottles of wine and take them up to the roof deck to look at the stars,” said Karen Armstrong, cautioning not to pay too much attention to the Scottish origins of her husband’s surname. “Both of my parents are from Beneveto,“ she said.

Franklin Perrell, an art historian and former curator of the Nassau County Museum of Art, loved the day trips. “The ruins were incredible,” he said. Each day included a long, leisurely stop for lunch at a winery in the region. For Emily Franchina, a lawyer and Franklin’s wife, “the food was the best part of the trip.”

The couple, from Huntington Bay, cited flights of wine and cheese in the cellar of a 150-year-old winery that’s still in the same family. They raved about rubbing elbows with aristocrats who presided at mealtime at vineyards just over the stone walls from “sumptuous Medieval and Baroque villages, still owned by the family.” They both called up enough images of homemade pasta, fresh fish, and local vegetables to make anyone too sleepy to finish their day without a nap.

“Sal knows everybody,” said Franklin “We were treated like royalty.”

The only thing better than lunch at a winery might be transporting cases of its wines — and sometimes fresh mozzarella — back to the hotel to be paired with regional specialties cooked by chefs of the hotel, which is still a working vineyard and a favorite venue for weddings. Yes, you can “do a Lucy,” as Franchina put it, stomping grapes as in a famous episode of the old “I Love Lucy” show. “Very squashy.”

THE DILIBERTO STORY         

Diliberto said the idea of running trips to Italy popped up because “we had so many relatives over there we were constantly running back and forth. ‘Why not turn that into an organized tour?’ I thought.”

The idea also jibed with Diliberto Winery itself, which Sal, still a practicing attorney, and MaryAnn, who worked as an educational administrator, nurtured on a 2-acre plot they purchased about 28 years ago on Manor Lane in Jamesport. Sal had been making wine since the 1980s, though, at their former home in Queens, “with grapes I purchased from the Brooklyn Terminal Market and later on the North Fork,” he said.

By 1999, they had converted an old barn on the property into living space, bought an adjacent 2 acres, and planted grapes. The first Diliberto vintage was in 2001. The small tasting room, dubbed Ristorante Benevento, serves a Pizza Salvatore — a Margharita by any other name, fired on the terrace in sight of the vineyards and sprinkled with fresh basil.

Tromp l’eoil murals re-create a village in Benevento, so real you want to get up from the table and stroll down one of the streets. Or pop into the De Lucia barber shop or Palmieri tailors — “stores” that evoke grandparents’ names, leaving no doubt that, for the Dilibertos, home is where the family heart still beats.

As with the vineyard itself, the tours have been a “learning experience,” he said. “You can’t go everywhere; the bus has to get down the driveway. As much as you’d love to eat outdoors, the weather will sometimes destroy your plans.” You always have to adjust, he said, adding “the first year, returning from Salerno to Dugenta on the longest leg of the tour, the air conditioning went out on the bus. That never happened again.”

After this fall’s tour, Diliberto is tweaking a few things for 2020, adding a visit to a bufala mozzarella farm and maybe a day spent at a cooking school. That should be fine with Emily Franchina, who admitted: “I just happen to love Italian culture and food. Especially the food.” So much so she took photos of almost every dish they ate while on the trip. “Don’t let my former husband’s last name fool you,” she warned. “My origins are German and Polish.” Fresh burrata, anyone?

Diliberto Wine Tours

The Sept. 15-21 trip costs $2,999 per person, based on double occupancy, and includes all meals, wine, tours, and transportation. For 2020, there will be tours in the spring, summer, and fall, at $3,199.

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