When many of his peers in southern Italy were abandoning family farms and vineyards, Roberto Ceraudo went the other direction.
The son of a grain merchant, Ceraudo grew up in the Calabrian countryside and dreamed of having his own land. In 1973, he borrowed money to buy an abandoned 100-acre estate in Strongoli, in the hills above the Ionian coast, just south of the Cirò wine appellation.
Ceraudo then set to work—planting vineyards in the chalky clay soils, reclaiming centuries-old olive groves, renovating a 400-year-old farmhouse and excavating a lake fed by well water.
"When everyone was going to the beach in summer, I was here working," says Ceraudo from the seat of his tractor. He is stopped on a ridge with idyllic views of his now 250-acre estate, which spills toward a dark blue sea. A jaunty smile crosses his tanned face, framed by flowing silver hair and a raffish goatee.
Today, at 68, Ceraudo works with his three children. He is a local legend, renowned for his wines, olive oil and a gastronomic restaurant—now run by daughter Caterina, 29, one of Italy's most celebrated young chefs.
"When Robert does something, he does it at a very high level," says Cirò winemaker Francesco Maria De Franco, part of the new wave of Calabrian vintners who look to Ceraudo as a visionary, both for quality and as one of southern Italy's first advocates of organic agriculture.
Ceraudo converted to organic farming in 1987, after what he calls a near-death experience: As he was treating vines with a pesticide against vine moth, a hose on the power sprayer he was towing behind his tractor broke loose and doused him with the chemical.
Though he kept working, that evening Ceraudo fell ill. He was admitted to a hospital, where he received a blood transfusion and was treated for 10 days.
"I was nearly in a coma, and for days I was more dead than alive," Ceraudo remembers.
Back on his farm, Ceraudo swore off using all chemicals and dove into an organic approach.
At the time, he had been selling grapes to a local cooperative. But he soon decided that, with all the work he put into his vineyards, he ought to make his own wines.
With the 1990 vintage, Ceraudo bottled his first three wines. Petraro is a barrel-aged red blend of two local varieties, tannic Gaglioppo and Greco Nero, with Cabernet Sauvignon. (The 2010 vintage, $45, scored 90 points.) Also from local varieties are Petella, a white blend of aromatic Greco Bianco and Mantonico, and Grayasusi, a deep-colored Gaglioppo rosé.
Today Ceraudo produces nine wines, all under the Val di Neto appellation, totaling about 7,500 cases. Some of the additions to his portfolio follow the international style, like his barrel-aged Chardonnay Imyr (2014, 87 points, $38). Others reflect local flavors. With the 2007 vintage, Ceraudo became the first in the region to bottle a dry white made solely from the local Pecorello variety—the soft, supple Grisara (2014, 84 points, $35).
"We are always in movement," says Caterina, who studied enology in Tuscany and became so fascinated with food pairings that she trained to become a chef. In 2013, she took over the family restaurant, Dattilo, where her inventive cuisine, which highlights Calabria's varied larder, is accompanied by a 300-label wine list. Earlier this year, the Michelin Guide to Italy recognized Caterina as the country's top female chef for 2017.
Caterina and her two older siblings—brother Giuseppe, an agronomist, and sister Susy, who studied business management—all taste the estate wines and plot their direction together with their father. With the 2017 vintage, the Ceraudos plan to update their wines by moving to larger barrels and cement tanks for aging and by phasing out the use of Cabernet.
Meanwhile, Roberto Ceraudo is still hard at work. He has ever more projects in mind for his farm oasis, like tripling the number of B&B guest rooms from the current six and creating a health spa.
His vision, he says, is the same as it's always been. "The idea is to improve everything here—working with nature."