Feature photo: Lamberto Frescobaldi, president of the Marchesi Frescobaldi group, with two workers in the vineyard on the Gorgona island penitentiary near Tuscany.
The Frescobaldi family has been producing Tuscan wines for more than 700 years and some 30 generations. But it’s been gaining more attention for a fairly recent wine project with the Gorgona penal institution.
Frescobaldi has released its fifth vintage of Gorgona, a small-production, high-end organic white wine. A 50/50 mix of vermentino and ansonica, Gorgona is produced from grapes tended to by the prisoners; the wine retails for about $90.
How did Frescobaldi get involved with the project? Marchese Lamberto Frescobaldi, president of the Marchesi Frescobaldi group, shared the story during a Gorgona wine tasting in New York in late February.
It began in late July 2012, when Frescobaldi received an email from the director of the prison on the island of Gorgona, located about 20 miles off the coast of Tuscany. Gorgona had a small vineyard, the director said, and was looking to make better wine while creating a program to provide the prisoners with agricultural skills.
Frescobaldi noted that his wife immediately told him not to get involved with the prison. But he was intrigued with the idea and paid the rocky, 400-acre island a visit a week or so later.
Gorgona, which has been a prison since 1863, is now where prisoners go to serve the end of their sentence, typically the last five to six years. While many Gorgona inmates have committee serious crimes, none are sex offenders or involved with the Mafia, Frescobaldi noted.
The 2.5-acre vineyard was well kept, Frescobaldi said, because a Sicilian inmate who had previously owned a vineyard had been tending to it for a few years. After tasting the wines in the small cellar, Frescobaldi realized he could help the island improve its production.
More important, he could provide the prisoners with a way to make a livelihood when they were released. Frescobaldi initially signed on for a three-year project with the prison.
Planting and Pruning
Frescobaldi agronomists and oenologists began working in the Gorgona vineyard alongside the inmates, teaching them about winemaking and organic farming. They doubled the size of the vineyard; wines from the new plantings will be 100% vermentino.
Both vermentino and ansonica are native to the island and coastline and do well with the heat, Frescobaldi noted. “Ansonica is a big berry that matures slowly and travels well with vermentino.” They recently released a small amount of Gorgona red, from the sangiovese and vermentino rosso grapes already growing on the island.
The wine is shipped in barrels to Frescobaldi’s winery where it’s finished in the bottle. “This wine is Gorgona—it’s really an expression of the island,” Frescobaldi said, with lots of minerality from the volcanic soil, crispness from the maritime winds and the aromas of the vegetation.
Frescobaldi signed a new 15-year agreement with Gorgona in 2015. Of the 95 prisoners currently serving at Gogona, 18 work on the wine project. The inmates involved are shifted so that others have the opportunity to participate and earn some money.
The project costs Frescobaldi about 100,000 euros per year. The winemaker essentially rents the vineyard from the island, and it pays the prisoners by the hour (12 euros per hour), which is a standard wage for the job.
Working For a Second Chance
The earnings enable the prisoners to save money so that they can buy a car and rent an apartment when they get out. For many inmates, “working in the vineyard is the first ‘clean’ money they’ve made,” Frescobaldi said.
The program also provides them with experience to find jobs. As a result, Gorgona has a much lower recidivism rate—about 20% vs. 80% for the rest of the Italy’s prison population. A few of the prisoners who have worked in the Gorgona vineyard have been hired by Frescobaldi following their release.
The prisoners are allowed to taste the wine they’ve help make once a year, on the launch day for the vintage in June. Gorgona wine has a special taste, Frescobaldi said, “the taste of hope, to give these people a second chance.”
Melissa Dowling is editor of Cheers magazine. Reach her at email@example.com. Read her recent piece Talking Shop with Brittany DeLoach, Hard Rock Int. Beverage Director.