Prisoner Rehabilitation Italian Style—through Wine-Making

By LAURA FRASER

The northernmost island in the Tuscan Archipelago, Gorgona was a medieval monastery until the buildings were appropriated in 1869, for use as an agricultural penal colony. The Torre Nuova was built as a watchtower by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in the 17th century. photo by Laura Fraser

In 2012, Maria Grazia Giampiccolo sent an email to the directors of over 100 Italian wineries asking for help producing wine on the smallest island off Tuscany, Italy, where a hectare of grape vines were languishing. Both the island and the request were unusual: Giampiccolo is the director of the penitentiary on Gorgona, a pristine Mediterranean island mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which has been a prison since 1869, and today houses some 100 inmates. All are in the final stretch of long prison sentences, and were moved the island only after years of good behavior.

Giampiccolo had sent the email after tasting wine that an inmate–who, not surprisingly for an Italian, was experienced in winemaking–had made from vines planted on the island in several decades earlier. “It was awful,” she recalls. “We needed experts.”

One of the people who received the email was the Marchese Lamberto Frescobaldi, the scion of one of Tuscany’s most prominent noble dynasties. Originally silk and wool traders, and then bankers—the Frescobaldi family lent money to English kings Edward I and II to fund the Crusades, investing the returns in land. They settled in Florence in the 12th century, constructing the first bridge across the Arno, the Santa Trinita. “It was a toll bridge, so you could pay or swim, it was up to you,” says Lamberto, a tall, impeccably-dressed, sharp-nosed Italian who looks every centimeter the aristocrat.

The family became patrons of the Basilica of Santo Spirito, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, in 1481. Lamberto and his wife, Eleonora, still live in the ancestral palace on Piazza Santo Spirito in Florence, where they can watch mass from a secret window that connects the home to the church. Lamberto is now the 30th-generation of the Florentine family to produce Tuscan wine since 1308; they’ve traded wine for paintings with Michelangelo, supplied wine to several popes, Donatello, and King Henry VIII, and now produce 11 million bottles a year from six Tuscan estates.

 The “Cala dello Scalo”, an inlet surrounded by cliffs, is the only landing place on Gorgona, and the site of the only beach. photo by Laura Fraser

Lamberto’s father Vittorio expanded the family’s winemaking, shifting it from one of many small agricultural concerns to the focus of their business, and planting hundreds of hectares of vineyards. Meanwhile, Lamberto studied science and management at the University of California at Davis, a top viticultural program. “I loved the vineyards, the agricultural aspect, even more than I loved wine,” he says, which, considering his passion for the beverage, is saying a lot. He became focused on renovating vineyards, producing higher-quality wine at a time when others were still more interested in quantity. In the 1990s, the family partnered with Mondavi, the giant California winemaker, to pioneer “Super Tuscan” wines. “We were able to get to the spirit of the soil,” Lamberto says. As Lamberto’s wife, Eleonora puts it, “So many noble families produce things, but don’t get beyond Florence. Vittorio turned us into a global company.”

So there was little reason for Lamberto Frescobaldi to take any interest in an email from the director of a prison island that produced one hectare of grapes, and very poor wine. “The obvious response to an email like that is ‘No—next,’” he says. “I don’t know why, but it piqued my imagination.” He talked it over with his wife Eleonora, who says she was concerned not only about safety (“It was a prison!”), but also about investing in such a small venture. “Everyone in the family thought he was crazy.”

Lamberto pushed back. “We have a good life, we’re happy, we have great kids, what more do we need? This is a chance to give back.” So he sent a note back to Maria Grazia Giampiccola asking to come visit. He was the only one to reply.

BARBED WIRE AND THE TASTE OF SEA BREEZES

It’s a warm June day in 2018, and Lamberto Frescobaldi is boarding a small boat in Livorno with a group of journalists, friends, family, sommeliers, and employees. He’s dressed in a crisp cotton shirt and jacket, as if the heat and the winds don’t touch him. In the distance, a small rocky island rises into view.

 One of the most enticing islands in the Mediterranean, Gorgona isn’t open to visitors, except on one day of the year, when the Frescobaldi family, which makes wine on the island, brings guests over on a boat for an anniversary lunch. photo by Laura Fraser

The group disembarks at a semi-circular harbor with an alluring beach, even though swimming in these pristine waters is strictly forbidden. A few mostly abandoned houses are stacked up on a hill above the port, with a bigger yellow building, surrounded by barbed wire, at the top of the hill, where the inmates live. This is a once-a-year event, when Frescobaldi comes to the island to show off his passion project, and the one time of the year when the convicts, many of whom are in prison for what Frescobaldi calls “blood crimes,” can drink the fruits of their labors.

Today Frescobaldi is celebrating Gorgona’s latest vintage. The first time he arrived, it was August, and there was little time to harvest. He tasted the wine with the inmate who had produced it, spitting it out, as professional sommeliers do. “The guy at a certain moment looked into my eyes and put his hand on my arm and asked me how I liked the wine,” says Frescobaldi. He told the inmate it was good, even though it wasn’t, and the inmate, dismayed, asked why he’d spit it out. Frescobaldi explained about how you spit when you taste. The inmate relaxed his grip. “I have a lot to learn from you,” he said.

Despite his disappointment, Frescobaldi saw potential in the vines, volcanic soil, and salty sea breezes, and soon the wine was showing a more refined character. The family brought in better equipment, planted more vines, and pruned the existing plants. They now ferment the wine in oak barrels and ship it to one of Frescobaldi’s estates on the mainland for bottling. The result is a fresh, mineral-driven wine that tastes of salty, sea breezes. “The first time, you can sell the wine for its story, but then it has to be drinkable,” says Frescobaldi’s chief winemaker Nicoló D’Afflitto.

 The former fishing village stacked up over the beach is now inhabited by workers of the Penal Colony; in the summer, families of the heirs of the old settlers are the only people still allowed to visit and swim. photo courtesy of Frescobaldi

“YOU’RE SPENDING MONEY, BUT YOU’RE GIVING BACK”

It took Frescobaldi some time to reconcile how he felt about working with the inmates, all of whom were in for serious crimes (excepting sexual offenses and mafia violence—crimes that earn lodging in higher security facilities on the mainland). The cellar master who first worked here was Benedetto Ceraulo, a Sicilian gunman sentenced in the 1995 murder of fashion mogul Maurizio Gucci, a hit job plotted by Gucci’s ex-wife Patrizia Reggiani (Ceraulo has recently been released). But now Frescobaldi sees employing Gorgona prisoners—whom he pays the same wages as his workers on the mainland—as a way to give back. “Whatever happens, these people, one day, are going to be out,” he says. “If you teach them to make great wine, and they love what they’re doing, you will prevent them from doing a mistake again.” Indeed, Frescobaldi has already employed two prisoners who worked in the vineyards and have been released after their sentences finished.

In the tidy vineyards, one worker stops to talk to the guests. “Working here gives you a different perspective,” he said, gesturing at the grapevines, the cliffs, and the vast Mediterranean beyond. “In other parts of the system, when you work, you are a number. Here you are a name, a person.” When he is released in a few more months, he says, he feels sure he will have more options for work.

Italian inmates with long prison sentences hope to work on Gorgona as a reward for good behavior. Here, Lamberto Frescobaldi, scion of the family that produces wine on the island, talks to one of the winemaking inmates, who is paid an hourly wage by Frescobaldi. photo by Laura Fraser

Although the wine is expensive—a Vermentino/Ansolia blend retails for $90 a bottle—Frescobaldi regularly loses money on the venture, at a rate of about $100,000 a year. But he doesn’t mind. “You’re spending money but you’re giving back to the community,” he says.

Initially, Frescobaldi would visit the island every month or so; then he became so attached to the place that, in 2016, he and his wife celebrated their 25th anniversary there. Inmates spent days creating a feast with products from the island, from fresh meats and cheeses to pastries and, of course, a few sips of the Gorgona white. For our visit, they laid out a similar feast, which we ate under white umbrellas on a terrace with a magnificent view while prison guards hovered around the edges.

At the end of the celebration, the coffee, and the cannoli, the guests head down to the chartered boat. As we climb aboard, the inmates walk back up the hill to their barbed-wire, locked facility. While the boat is pulling away from the island, Frescobaldi says aloud what almost everyone is thinking. “Every time I come here, it hits me that I can leave. We take our freedom for granted.”

© 2019 Laura Fraser, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: March 17, 2019