Inmates Produce Fine Wine in Italy Prison

Named for the prison, this fine wine sells in America for $90 a bottle.

Named for the prison, this fine wine sells in America for $90 a bottle.

Eighteen miles off Tuscany’s coast, Gorgona is Italy’s last island prison, with steep cliffs that rise up from azure Mediterranean waters. For years, select convicts have served the end of long sentences by farming, and now, a legendary winemaker is training them to make high-end wine.

Mentioned by Dante in The Divine Comedy, for thousands of years Gorgona was a refuge for hermits and monks. It was established as a prison in 1869 and has been one ever since. There is no regular ferry, just occasional police boats for prison guards and relatives visiting inmates. With Italian prisons among Europe’s most crowded, serving time here is very attractive. Prison guard Mario Pascale says the inmates currently serving time on the island know they have come for work and rehabilitation. “They’ve got to be trustworthy,” says Pascale. “By the time they get here, they’ve already spent many years in jail – at least half of a 20 to 30 year sentence for very serious crimes.”

Prison Director Carlo Mazzerbo is a staunch environmentalist who says Gorgona is an ideal place to discuss issues such as organic farming, vegetarianism and animal rights. He believes inmates should be encouraged to take part in the dialogue. “In jail, they see the state as the enemy. They learn the less you speak, the better,” says Mazzerbo. “Here, on the contrary, the point of this project is to give inmates a sense of responsibility and participation. That way, you help them change their views of life and values.”

Recently, Lamberto Frescobaldi, the 30th generation of the Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi winemaking dynasty that was supplier to many Popes, to the Court of Henry VIII and to Renaissance artists such as Donatello, answered a call from prison authorities about teaching prisoners skills that will help them find jobs once they are released. It is called “The Grand Duchy of Tuscany Project,” named for the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, which in 1786 became the first civil state in the world to do away with torture and capital punishment.
“One day these people are going to be out of jail and what do they do then, when they don’t have a penny in their pockets? They do bad things again,” said Lamberto Frescobaldi. “We wanted to try to help them, to give something back to society. Gorgona is the only prison island in Europe and probably the only one in the world that has a vineyard.”

Lamberto Frescobaldi, of Italy’s famed Frescobaldi vineyard, with a prison inmate.

Lamberto Frescobaldi, of Italy’s famed Frescobaldi vineyard, with a prison inmate.

So far, the project seems to be working. Among Italy’s prison population, the rate of repeat offenders is 80%, yet at Gorgona, it is only 20%. Another 2.5 acres of vineyards were planted earlier this year, doubling the size. There are hopes of replicating this plan on the nearby island of Pianosa, also once a penal colony, but closed a few years ago.

Prisoners work six hours a day – eight during the harvest – not only in the vineyard but also on the island’s farm, where they look after a dozen cows, several pigs, a couple of dozen chickens, a herd of sheep and goats and a few horses. They have been taught to make cheese and honey, plant vegetables in a neatly-tended garden, bake bread and repair the island’s dry stone walls. In the evenings they are back behind bars, in a dormitory block overlooking the island’s only harbor.
In the island’s vineyard, Umberto Prinzi, 43, tends the vines. When he landed on Gorgona, he looked around for a guard to cuff him. But he was told he was free to move around on his own. “That was fantastic,” he says. “In other prisons I was locked up for 22 hours a day in a six by nine foot cell. Here I am outdoors from morning to night.”

Inmate Benedetto Ceraulo works in the wine cellar. He was convicted of the sensational contract murder of Maurizio Gucci, former head of the fashion empire, on the orders of Gucci’s former wife. Here, 56-year-old Ceraulo has learned plenty of skills. “It’s been an enriching experience; it’s made me feel better. … I take care of the beehives and I make sculptures out of pieces of wood.”

When it comes to the wine of Gorgona, the quality is top notch. The 2013, Gorgona vintage, a Vermentino and Ansonica grape blend, sells in the U.S. at a hefty $90 each. Fewer than 3,000 bottles have been produced.

Convicted prisoners who have committed sex crimes are banned from Gorgona. Carmelo, a convicted murderer, has been on the island for 18 months. He has another eight years to go but is already thinking of the life he hopes to rebuild once he returns to Florence, where he will be reunited with his two grown children.

“I’d never done this sort of work before,” he said. “When I’m free I hope to buy a piece of land and plant my own vineyard. I’ll always be grateful to the people who gave me this opportunity. It’s been an amazing experience.”

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