Food

This $146 Bottle Of Wine Comes From An Italian Prison Island

by Veronica Meewes

October 24, 2016

As I ascend the steep pathways of Gorgona, a small island in the Tuscan archipelago, I can’t help but turn around every few minutes to admire the glittering cerulean water, contrasted perfectly against terra-cotta rooftops. But this is no Mediterranean vacation. In fact, quite the contrary, I am here to visit the last existing prison island in Italy.

Gorgona, All Photographs by Veronica Meewes

Though no lengthy prison sentence is ideal, the 70 Italian prisoners that call Gorgona home can at least consider themselves relatively fortunate. While serving their time on the 2.2-square-kilometer island, a penal colony since 1869, they learn to farm, landscape, cook, raise livestock, bake bread, maintain almost three hectares of vineyards, and produce cheese, honey, and olive oil.

“They are free here, and they live in the open air,” says Santina Savoca, the director of the Livorno prison system, which consists of Gorgona and one other prison in Livorno, a port city on the western coast of Tuscany. “They are occupied all day long. We offer courses, too, but work is a different activity because you can prove yourself and realize you can satisfy yourself by producing something.”

When Savoca first began working with Gorgona, she focused her efforts on the island’s agriculture and livestock. She reached out to multiple Italian companies, seeking collaborators to help improve the prison’s work programs, but only 700-year-old Tuscan vineyard Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi responded.

Lamberto Frescobaldi, the winery’s president, visited the prison with his chief winemaker Nicolo d’Afflitto and found that Gorgona’s wine production was in dire need of help. Though the prison had been producing wine for 20 years, the prison winemaker had no prior experience—he was a devout Muslim who was unable to taste the wine for quality control as it developed.

Frescobaldi returned from the island touched by the prisoners he’d met and inspired to help Gorgona in the best way he knew how. He supplied the prison with new equipment and brought in experienced winemaker Federico Falossi to train the inmates on vineyard management. Much of the improvement came simply from streamlining the winemaking process and focusing on the quality of the Vermentino and Ansonica varieties grown in such a unique terroir.

“We collect the grapes, we press and we just do one rack of fermentation—that’s it,” says d’Afflitto. “And we are just very attentive to the vineyards. I don’t do anything very sophisticated. Simple winemaking gives us good results.”

In 2012, Frescobaldi began leasing one hectare of land from the prison for about $14,000, and last year, it planted nearly two hectares of new vineyards. The money is used not only for vineyard maintenance but to make necessary improvements in areas such as water management and electrical flow. The company also advised the prison in the control of livestock breeding and helped it select the animals that produced the most milk for cheese making.

“The island has really changed from the beginning and started to have life once again,” says Frescobaldi. “The aim is to give the people here a reason to exist because there is a lot of negative thinking among the inmates. The aim is that, when they are free once again, the inmates don’t end up back in prison again. Knowing a job is the weapon we can give them to have redemption in the society.”

And Frescobaldi has proven that this weapon is indeed a powerful one. While Italy’s prison population maintains a recidivism rate of 85 percent, only 20 percent of Gorgona’s population returns to prison for repeat offenses. The majority joins the workforce, thanks to the valuable skills learned on the island.

The inmates are educated on organic vineyard management from the start to the finish of the growing season: tilling the sandy soil in the winter; protecting the grapes from ocean winds by pruning and training the vines through the summer; and harvesting in the fall. Once the grapes are harvested, they are pressed in the cellar, matured in stainless steel tanks, and transferred to French oak barrels used to transport them to the mainland for bottling.

Each year there is a rotation to give everybody a chance to work in the vineyard because, as physically hard as the work is, it’s the most coveted job on the island. After all, who on earth would opt for a monotonous indoor job under flickering fluorescent lighting when they could be laboring in the sunshine while looking out across the tranquil expanse of ocean?

I think about my experience as a volunteer in a Texas state jail, a time marked by such unforgiving florescent lights and a lingering antiseptic smell that never quite led me to believe the place was any cleaner than it was correctional. Behind bars, change often presented itself as a brand new pair of state-issued canvas shoes or the irritated ink of a new tattoo. But I’ll never forget the time the palest and skinniest inmate, whose bloodshot eyes and forearm swastikas spoke volumes, showed up sun-kissed and smiling.

This guy, who barely spoke or made eye contact previously, was now the prison poster child for vitamin D—ecstatic to talk about his new job as a gardener. Each week, he returned a little more tanned and his eyes lit up when talking about the garden’s progress. Unfortunately, I learned that none of the vegetables were actually used in the kitchen, but were instead taken home by the guards. But payoff for him came in the form of sunshine and the satisfaction of physical labor with purpose.

“It’s very rare to find a jail like Gorgona—it’s hard to explain,” says Luigi, an inmate who was transferred to Gorgona to serve out the last four years of a lengthy sentence. He is retraining vines to protect the vineyards from the island winds, but pauses to cross his tan arms and survey his work meditatively. “Here, I am in the vineyards. Here you are free.”

After working in the vineyards for four months, he was selected to be the cellar master for the next vintage. He looks forward to continuing his newfound career after his release and even hopes to own his own vineyard one day.

“We want them to work as much as they can—specifically, very qualified work—to become an expert in their job so that they can find a job in the free society,” says Savoca. “Getting to freedom can be almost a tragic moment for (convicts) because they do not know what to do when they are free.”

Not only does the viticulture program give the inmates the necessary knowledge and experience to be hired when they’re released, but they are treated as employees of Frescobaldi while serving time on the island. With that status comes a compensation of approximately $1,100 to $1,300 per month, which helps many of them support their families from behind bars.

“I am very thankful for the project because I can tell my children their father is working, not just a prisoner,” says an inmate named Khatoui, whose wife and two children live in Naples. “Gorgona gives you the possibility to change as a person. The direction and the trust. And this is important to have the trust of other people. We have to think at the end of the jail period that we have a future in front of us and we can use this work for our future … We have to demonstrate that we are useful to Italy and to the world.”

Gorgona products

Each summer, Frescobaldi invites a group of sommeliers, distributors, and journalists—myself included—to the island to celebrate the release of the latest vintage. In 2015, the prison vineyard yielded just 4,000 bottles—retailing at $146 a bottle—which were then distributed across the globe. (Only a handful of U.S. restaurants and one retail shop, Eataly at the World Trade Center, carry the wine). With almost two more hectares of new plants, Falossi estimates they will be able to double production by 2019.

Heavy rainfall and mild temperatures in the winter; a warm summer cooled by a consistent winds; and limited rainfall during harvest allowed 2015’s Vermentino and Ansonica grapes to beautifully ripen. The resulting vintage is a pale-golden, medium-bodied wine with pear and honeysuckle on the nose; a green apple and pineapple palate balanced by a lingering citrus finish; a kiss of oak; and a salinity that smacks of the sea breeze. While oenophiles who uncork a bottle at home will be transported immediately to Gorgona, I had the privilege of enjoying this wine on the island where it was cultivated, alongside food also produced here.

The inmates, who are dressed in crisp white polo shirts and black aprons, have prepared a feast of focaccia, arancini, fried eggplant, pizza, and olive-studded farro salad. They serve us thick slices of island-made pecorino and scoops of delicate fresh ricotta, topped with a generous drizzle of olive oil they also produce. And once they are through serving and cleaning up, they’ll get to sit down to the very same meal—and even savor a very rare, celebratory taste of the new release.

“After four years of collaboration with Frescobaldi, we would like to repeat this experience with the other productions, like the olive trees and the vegetables growing on the island,” says Savoca. “We use what we produce and the quantity is not enough to export but we are trying to find partners like Frescobaldi for these other areas.”

Gorgona bottle

Last year, Frescobaldi signed a 15-year winemaking agreement with Gorgona and plans are in the works to establish a similar educational winemaking project on the penal island of Pianosa, which the Livorno prison system is reviving for the first time since the prison shut down in 1998.

In the United States, more prisons are establishing edible gardens thanks to organizations that provide horticultural education and workforce training, such as the Insight Garden Program at San Quentin State Prison and the GreenHouse program at Rikers Island. Though the National Institute of Justice reports that 67.8 percent of U.S. prisoners are re-arrested within three years, less than 10 percent of the participants in these programs have been re-arrested.

While no large-scale viticulture programs currently exist in the United States, Barra of Mendocino began hiring convicted felons to help with the harvest three years ago. The inmates are transported to the vineyard, where they work in teams and are paid by the weight of the grapes, earning up to $300 for a full day during the peak of the harvest.

“We often face labor-shortage issues during harvest time, so it allows us to have a consistent group of people we can depend on,” says vineyard owner Martha Barra. “The inmates that qualify for the program are able to make some money and we’re able to get our grapes picked.”

Following their release, four of the six inmates on Barra’s grape crew have maintained full-time employment and stayed out of jail.

“We have had the pleasure of being able to extend job opportunities to some of the former prisoners and they have been wonderful, dedicated employees,” Barra says. “You would sure think other vineyards would try to institute a similar program as it’s definitely a win-win for everyone.”

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