It’s a beautiful summer’s day as we set off towards Gorgona in a chartered boat from Livorno, in western Tuscany. The small island sits just west of the port, about an hour’s ride across the sparkling blue Mediterranean. I’m feeling excited and privileged to be going there. But this is no vacation spot; Gorgona can’t be accessed by just anyone. I’m on a special excursion that has to be cleared with the local police and approved by the ministry. That’s because this idyllic island is not a holiday resort but a prison.
As we approach the small landing dock, I look for the tell-tale signs of confinement: barbed wire or watch towers, perhaps. I spot neither (though I notice the guards keeping a close eye on who comes off the boat). Gorgona, which was referenced by Dante in The Divine Comedy, became a penal colony in 1869 and has been used as such ever since. Today, it offers a uniquely free environment for its 100 residents, who spend nearly all day outdoors, working the land, and are locked up only at night.
‘The men we receive have earned their chance to come here by being model prisoners during the main part of their sentences in other conventional – and often overcrowded – jails in Italy,’ says Carlo Mazzerbo, the prison’s director. ‘If they are approved for transfer here, they will stay for a maximum of two years before being released. The idea is to focus on the reintegration of prisoners into society by giving them paid work experience in a rural context, so they can find jobs in this sector when they are released.’
The rate of recidivism is down to 20% – a far cry from the 80% rate in Italy’s main prison population
The project seems to be working: despite the island housing prisoners who have served heavy sentences for serious crimes, the rate of recidivism is down to 20% (a far cry from the 80% in Italy’s main prison population). While they are here, the inmates work on the island farm – home to cows, pigs and other animals, as well as a large vegetable garden, beehives and olive groves. The men learn animal husbandry, in addition to how to make cheese, honey and olive oil. When they leave the island, they will have learned a trade and are free to look for work in agriculture. Several ex-prisoners have found such employment locally.
The reason for my being here – along with Lucas Reynaud-Paligot, sommelier at London’s New Street Grill, who won the trip as part of the 2018 IWSC–Frescobaldi Sommelier Prize – is to visit the most ambitious part of the island’s project: the production of an exclusive fine wine from Gorgona’s two hectares of vineyards.
‘In 2012, the prison was scheduled to close due to lack of funding,’ Mazzerbo explains as we walk from the small port on the beach up to the vine terraces, in a natural amphitheatre facing the sea. ‘We searched for winemaking sponsors from among the celebrated wine estates on the Tuscan coast to help fund it. We sent out 100 invitations asking for partnerships. Everyone said no, except for Lamberto Frescobaldi.’
‘Their loss has been my gain,’ says Frescobaldi, as we tour the vineyards later. ‘I was immediately interested in collaborating on such an innovative social project, and I had faith that vineyards in this magnificent position would produce great grapes if they were encouraged to do so.’
It’s not surprising that Frescobaldi was able to spot a diamond in the rough: his family has been producing wines in Tuscany since 1308. (His aristocratic ancestors traded wines for paintings with Michelangelo and supplied bottles to Henry VIII’s court.) The Frescobaldis are still one of the most notable noble Florentine families, with large holdings throughout the region; Lamberto represents its 30th generation of winemakers.
On Gorgona, the Frescobaldis hire the prisoners to tend the vines, harvest the grapes and work in the small but modern cellar under the guidance of their wineries’ expert agronomists and oenologists. However, alcohol consumption is forbidden to the prisoners, so the finished wine is bottled on the mainland. ‘
‘We feel like pirates as we load the barriques filled with wine on to the boats and steal away across the sea,’ says Frescobaldi with a laugh. As well as paying wages and running costs, he also rents the vineyards from the prison. ‘The whole operation costs us about €100,000 [$110,000] per year, but I think it’s worth it,’ he adds. The arrangement leaves him free to market the wines under the family label.
As we stroll up the hill, we encounter two prisoners working diligently on the neat rows of vines, pruning excess leaves to allow the bunches to get more sun. Frescobaldi immediately breaks off from our group to greet the men, and they talk animatedly about how the vineyard is performing this year. There’s a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere here; the men are treated with a respect that comes from the work they are doing now, not the life they led before.
At lunchtime we are invited to a colourful buffet lunch prepared for us by a group of prisoners who have been trained in culinary skills. They stand proudly beside their fare, serving us a range of dishes including panini, fried rice balls and unusual rolled savoury tarts I recognise as being Neapolitan. When I ask one of the prisoners about them, he confirms that he is from Naples but adds wryly that, unfortunately, he hasn’t had chance to visit his native city for a while.
Frescobaldi and the prison director attend to the opening of the bottles of white Gorgona wine that has been cooling in ice buckets. It’s made exclusively from local varieties Vermentino and Ansonica, and the handsome black-and-white label shows an early map of the island. Maybe it’s thanks to the setting, on a sunny terrace overlooking the dazzling sea, but the wine has a wonderful hint of saltiness that speaks of summer Mediterranean beaches. About 9,000 bottles are produced per year, sold for €90 ($100) in Italy. Its red counterpart, made from Sangiovese and the rare Vermentino Nero in a limited edition of 500 bottles, retails for €150. Both are available in small quantities outside Italy, where they join Frescobaldi’s most iconic labels from other parts of Tuscany, from Ornellaia and Luce della Vite (both originally produced with Mondavi but now owned entirely by the Frescobaldis) to Mormoreto, CastelGiocondo, Montesodi, Pomino and Lamaione.
I can’t help but be struck by the contrasts here: native grapes grown on an isolated island are being turned into a celebrated and costly fine wine by men who have committed sometimes terrible crimes but are now gaining access to a new life through their work. Of all the joint ventures I’ve come across in the wine world, this is altogether the most inspiring.
The Frescobaldi estates
The Frescobaldis’ Tuscan castelli have traditionally been located in established wine-producing areas, including Montalcino, Chianti Rufina and Bolgheri. Recently they have added to this collection by buying a large estate in Chianti Classico, Tenuta Perano, and investing in a designer cellar in the Maremma, Tenuta Ammiraglia. Although trips to Gorgona are not possible, these other estates, in all corners of Tuscany, offer a wealth of choice if you’re planning a wine and food lover’s Tuscan tour.
Hospitality of various forms is now available in seven of the eight Tuscan properties, with food grown on the estates served in the restaurants. Some even have rooms. Wine tastings and visits are offered by appointment only and can be booked at frescobaldi.it.