Doing Time in Tuscany

Frescobaldi’s island wine is made in a prison like no other
Doing Time in Tuscany
Gorgona's vineyards, recently expanded with new plantings, include Vermentino, Ansonica, Sangiovese and Vermentino Nero. (Robert Camuto)
Jul 18, 2018

Lamberto Frescobaldi, the Tuscan aristocrat who leads his family's 700-year-old wine business, was prepared for a picture-perfect debut for the latest vintage of his pet project: a small-production, Vermentino-based white from the tiny, pristine island of Gorgona.

Wearing a cotton blazer and a button-down shirt and still looking dapper after a morning hiking through vineyards in the heat of June, Frescobaldi, 55, stood in the shade of a terrace, pouring from a chilled magnum of Gorgona 2017, being released in September.

A plentiful buffet was laid out, with summer salads and fresh island cheese for more than 50 guests—including wine journalists, Italian television crews, sommeliers and trade professionals, along with Frescobaldi family members. Below, the blue and turquoise waters of Gorgona's small bay glistened.

Around the old village of Gorgona, home to a monastery in the Middle Ages, stone paths led up to gorgeous terraced vineyards planted on schist soils and to an organic farm for cultivating livestock, vegetables and dairy.

Looking out on this Mediterranean idyll, Frescobaldi raised a glass.

"Let's not forget, this is a place of pain," he said. "And this is a project of hope."

Gorgona—22 miles off the coast off Livorno and the smallest island in the Tuscan archipelago—has the distinction of being Europe's last island prison, a place where once-violent criminals learn agricultural skills before release.

Robert Camuto
Access to the island's harbor is by chartered boat.

Since the 2012 vintage, Frescobaldi has made wine here, paying some of Gorgona's 100 inmates standard wages to cultivate vineyards, harvest fruit and ferment wine in a small garage of a winery.

Gorgona is a sought-after place to do time. Prisoners noted for good behavior—excluding those convicted of sex- or Mafia-related crimes—may apply for transfer here. All have committed what Frescobaldi calls "blood crime."

The Gorgona cellar master who worked with Frescobaldi enologists from 2013 to 2015 was Benedetto Ceraulo, the Sicilian gunman sentenced in the 1995 murder of fashion mogul Maurizio Gucci, plotted by Gucci's ex-wife Patrizia Reggiani. (Both Ceraulo and Reggiani have recently been released on shortened sentences.)

"If you like it, or you don't like it, you have to accept that one day these people are going to get out," said Frescobaldi, "and you have to give them the hope of leading a better life."

Robert Camuto
Prisoners learn farming skills by tending the vines, with the help of a donated tractor.

For Frescobaldi—whose wine empire includes 10 Tuscan estates, from Chianti's Castello Nipozzano to Bolgheri's Ornellaia and Masseto—this project is personal. Associates say his two great passions are motorcycles and Gorgona. The roughly 4,000 bottles made each year move quickly, retailing for a hefty $90. After paying rent and wages, Frescobaldi donates all profits for prison improvements. 

"Thank God he has this project," says his charismatic wife, Eleanora. "It keeps his feet on the ground."

Gorgona has been used as a prison since 1869. Nearly 30 years ago, about 2.5 acres of abandoned sea-facing terraces were replanted by inmates with the white varieties Vermentino and Ansonica and a few rows of reds, Sangiovese and Vermentino Nero.

Robert Camuto
Lamberto Frescobaldi with Santina Savoca, who oversees the Gorgona prison.

Six years ago, Italian prison authorities sent out dozens of letters to Italian wineries in search of a partner for Gorgona. Frescobaldi jumped at the chance. When he later inquired about why he'd been selected, he was told he was the only one who responded.

Then he visited, in August 2012, and, as he recalls, "the wine was disgusting."

That wine, destined for government workers, was dull, oxidized and clumsily made. The men who produced it were not allowed to even taste it because of the prison's no-alcohol policy (since liberalized for the cellar master).

Yet Frescobaldi and his team saw potential in the terroir, with its schist soils, southeastern exposure and salty sea breezes.

"The first time, you can sell the wine for its story, but then it has to be drinkable," said Frescobaldi's longtime production chief Nicolò D'Afflitto.

Frescobaldi immediately slashed yields and brought precision and discipline to the vineyard and harvest management. An Italian farm-equipment manufacturer donated a tractor. Wines are still made with what D'Afflitto calls "zero technology," fermented in used wood barrels from Castello Pomino without climate control or added yeasts.

Robert Camuto
Nicolò D'Afflitto, left, has helped improve the quality of the wines.

In winter, the wine is shipped in barrels to Frescobaldi's Rèmole estate, where it is eventually blended and bottled.

The resulting Gorgona Costa Toscana Bianco is a fresh, fruit-driven and slightly salty Vermentino blend.

In recent years, Frescobaldi has expanded, nearly tripling the planted terraces and adding a cuvée; with the 2015 vintage, they released 500 bottles of Gorgona red—aged in one amphora.

At the Gorgona lunch, the buffet was manned by inmates who wore street clothes. Joining Frescobaldi were penitentiary officials, including prison director Santina Savoca in sunglasses and summer-chic attire. Beefy guards casually watched over the scene.

After cannoli and coffee, the guests prepared to leave in a chartered boat anchored offshore.

"Every time I come here," Frescobaldi mused, "I realize how damn lucky I am to be able to leave." 

Italy Tuscany People

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