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Originally published Saturday, August 2, 2014 at 6:03 AM

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For these prisoners, making wine beats marking time

One of Italy’s oldest winemaking families has lent its expertise to the prison inmates working a vineyard on a remote island, where their “Gorgona” wine has received a celebrated boost in taste, reputation, production — and price.


The New York Times

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GORGONA, Italy —

The inmates of the penal colony on Gorgona, the northernmost island in the Tuscan archipelago, are not normally allowed to drink alcohol. But prison officials made an exception on a recent sultry summer day, when detainees and guards clinked glasses to celebrate the 2013 vintage of a wine named in its honor.

“This island is closed,” the prison’s director, Carlo Mazzerbo, said during a toast to the straw-colored wine.

“But opening up, challenging yourself, is important,” he added, pointedly addressing the group of detainees clustered around him while reporters and wine writers took sips of “Gorgona,” a fruity blend of vermentino and ansonica grapes. “The problem of closure is overcome when you begin to open up to the outside.”

That philosophy is what guides the penitentiary, where detainees work in the vineyards and at various other farming-related activities and have open access to the grounds from dawn until a late-evening lockdown. And it’s what brought the Frescobaldis, one of Italy’s oldest winemaking families, to this remote island to help with a new approach to incarceration.

For the past two years, Frescobaldi enologists and agronomists have imparted their know-how to a group of the island’s inmates as part of a rehabilitation program that aims to provide skills for life after their release.

Recidivism is high, around 80 percent, for the inmates of Italian prisons, “but instead, if you give people education, training, or access to a job, recidivism drops to 20 percent,” said Lamberto Frescobaldi, president of Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi, and the driving force behind the project.

Giuseppe Fedele, an educator at Gorgona, where training programs have been going on for years, said that “the best thanks a prisoner can show when he is released from here is not to be sent back to prison.”

Inmates must apply to be admitted to the agricultural colony, and there are long waiting lists.

There now are about 70 detainees at Gorgona, an “optimal situation,” according to the penitentiary’s superintendent, Alessandro Zaccaria.

First opened in 1869, the prison operates like a working farm. Some inmates carry out agricultural chores — growing fruit and vegetables, raising livestock, and making cheeses and bread — while others work in maintenance or in the kitchen and commissary.

“It’s still a prison, but the day flies because you’re working. It’s one thing to be in a cell for 12 hours, another to be outside, busy doing something,” said Santo Scianguetta, who has six years to go on a 16-year sentence, adding that the experience of working in the vineyard was building his confidence. “I think a lot about getting out. And now I see hope in the future.”

Most of the inmates here are serving the final years of long sentences for serious crimes, including murder. Prison officials asked that for reasons of privacy, reporters refrain from specifying inmates’ individual crimes.

Projects like the Frescobaldi initiative make inmates feel like “the protagonists of their incarceration, and not passive recipients where the state is the enemy,” said Mazzerbo, the prison director, who has lobbied to extend similar programs to other Italian prisons.

“It costs nothing to change the mentality” of an inmate, Mazzerbo said. “You can do that anywhere. You don’t need an island.”

Several penitentiaries are already involved in economic activities, and at least two others produce wine. Some penitentiaries are involved in food or fashion initiatives, and products can be ordered from the Justice Ministry website.

Prisoners here receive a monthly wage, about two-thirds of what they would get on the outside, based on the provincial agricultural labor contract. “It’s good not to depend on our families for money,” said Ciro Amato, who is serving a 30-year sentence.

Winemaking on the island began before the Frescobaldi involvement.

The 2½-acre vineyard was planted in 1989, and wine began to be produced shortly after. Assisted by enologist friends, the early vintages, both red and white wines, were “discreet,” said Mazzerbo, and the products were first presented at Vinitaly, Italy’s top wine fair, in 2004. The wine sold for 3.50 euros (about $4.75) a bottle, “and some thought that was expensive,” Mazzerbo said.

The jump in quality came when Frescobaldi came on two years ago, lending the company’s expertise and cachet to the product: The family has been in the wine business for 31 generations. This year, 2,500 bottles and 200 numbered magnums of Gorgona were produced, many headed to foreign markets.

In the United States, a bottle of Gorgona now costs roughly $90.

It’s a pricey product, Frescobaldi acknowledged. “It’s a wine you have to think about before choosing, like buying an expensive car,” he said.

The idea, he added, was to make people “step back and think about what’s behind that wine bottle. We wanted to get the meaning of the project across.” The wine label includes an explanation of the penitentiary project.

Based on the success of the first two vintages, Frescobaldi is in the process of doubling the size of the vineyard.

Umberto Prinzi, who has spent the past 18 years behind bars, has been one of the principal caretakers of the vineyard since the Frescobaldi project began. He was beaming when Gorgona 2013 made its debut this summer.

“I’m drinking the fruit of an entire year in the vineyard,” he grinned, holding a glass aloft. “It’s excellent. And that is very satisfying.”



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