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Gorgona: Frescobaldi's Social Reform Project Teaches Inmates Viticulture, Winemaking Skills

Gorgona: Frescobaldi's Social Reform Project Teaches Inmates Viticulture, Winemaking Skills

Looking out toward a sea that blends into the sky, Khatoui Chargui is thinking about his two children and wife back in Napoli, but today he's surrounded by the Mediterranean. Currently, he's tending to some Vermentino vines just out of fruit set. Canopy management is the order of the day, and he's trying to re-train the vines in order to protect the plant, and the precious low-hanging fruit, from the harsh Mediterranean winds. On the island of Gorgona, wind speeds are fairly consistent and blow in salty air, while the sun reflects off the water, exposing the fruit to possible sunburn.

This will be Chargui's second vintage on Gorgona, the smallest and most northern of the Tuscan Archipelago islands, 18 miles off the coast of Livorno, Italy. One hectare of the 2.2 square kilometer island (with another hectare on the way) is planted to Vermentino and Ansonica, made to blend for Frescobaldi Toscana's "Gorgona" brand. Chargui's job is to make sure that these grapes make it to the winery in the best condition possible, drawing on his previous agriculture experience and the help of Frescobaldi's vineyard manager and winemaker, Nicolò D'Afflitto.

All in all, it's gratifying work for him, something that he and his family can be proud of. At 46 years old, Chargui hopes that he can continue to work in this vineyard for the final two years of his 13-year prison sentence.

Gorgona is an island home to a prison, currently the only detention island in Italy. Roughly 300 inmates call the island home.

The Beginnings

Part of the Archipelago Toscano National Park, Gorgona is the only island inaccessible to boats and tourists (though this is changing, with once weekly guided tours) as it has been home to a correctional facility since 1869. Today, it is part of the Pianosa penal institution, and the first such island colony in the country. (Plans are in the works for another prison and accompanying vineyard to be constructed on the smaller island of Pianosa, just 85 kilometers south, though an official announcement has not been made). Three hundred fortunate Italian prisoners toward the end of their sentences are allowed to finish out the remainders of their terms working in contact with nature—learning to farm, cultivate and raise animals—in order to gain a new skill set to better allow them to re-integrate into society.

Visitors to the island of Gorgona first see a beach where children and families of the prisoners spend time together during visits.

Visitors to the island of Gorgona first see a beach where children and families of
the prisoners spend time together during visits.

The director, Santina Savoca, is dedicated to creating programs that allow these men to rebuild their lives. Savoca runs the Livorno prison system, which incorporated the Gorgona facility in 2013. In her first year working on the island, her chief priority was in logistics: ensuring that water flow and electricity remained constant. Once the basics were modernized, she then turned her attention to agriculture and livestock, which had been flourishing on the island for decades—perhaps a bit too well.

"We're investing a lot in agriculture. There are a lot of animals and they were breeding and breeding and there were all these new animals. There was no control so it was a cost for the jail. We saw the animals did not produce any milk. So we decided to control the new breeding and have the production of milk to make cheese," she said.

Inmates rotate working in various aspects of the prison—from cheese-making to livestock raising, baking to cleaning—all in an effort to learn as many new skill sets as possible.

"We want to make them work the most they can, to learn the most kind of work that they can," Savoca said. "Specifically, very qualified work, very specific work to become an expert in their jobs so that they can find a job in the free society."

In order to teach and allow the men to gain experience, she turned to prominent members of the Italian business world to work together as partners. As she described, the vast majority of the email requests went unreturned, and no one was interested in devoting time and money to the project. Lamberto Frescobaldi, however, was the only person to take the chance, and with his head of production, D'Afflitto, took the hour-long journey out to Gorgona to see what it was all about.

Winemaking on the island has a rough history, and Frescobaldi and D'Afflitto tasted it first hand. Prior to their arrival on the island, the winemaking efforts were led by a man who had no prior winemaking experience—and as a devout Muslim was unable to taste the wine to see its development or final profile. As D'Afflitto tells the story, when they arrived to see the island and taste wine, he and Frescobaldi nearly immediately spit the wine back out. The winemaker, confused and probably a bit hurt, asked "Is it really so bad?"

Today, there is no question about the quality of the wine. Following their visit, Frescobaldi was eager to get involved and in May 2013, 300 250 ml bottles of the first vintage (Gorgona 2012) were released. Each year following, the wine company has invested about €100,000 into the project. In 2014, Frescobaldi signed a 10-year agreement with the correctional facility to ensure the program is continued. At the same time two inmates were hired to work in the vineyard.

"The island has really changed from the beginning of this project," said Lamberto Frescobaldi. "It has started to have life once again. The aim is to give these men a reason to be, a reason to exist."

Soil

Much of the current production is made in the most uncomplicated way possible, a choice D'Afflitto says, is conscious.

Production starts in the 25-year-old single hectare vineyard Frescobaldi leases from the prison for €13,000. There, Vermentino and Ansonica grow in sandy soils 60 meters above sea level on eastern facing, high-density vines. Because of its location, the sea climate plays a major influence on grape maturation—fairly dry autumns and mild winters, with hot and airy summers.

Under the direction of Frescobaldi "agronomists," a rotating group of inmates learns how to manage the vine through the entire growing season, from pruning to harvest. For the 2016 harvest, there are 65 inmates learning the best viticultural practices—many of whom have never worked in agriculture before.

Among them is Luigi, who has embarked on his first vintage with Frescobaldi after two years spent on the island. When he's finished with the remaining two and a half years of his sentence, he plans to use the money earned while working with Frescobaldi to buy his own vineyard and continue working in the field. Until then, he's perfectly content to continue to learn from the best, undaunted by the learning curve.

"There are people who teach us how to do this work," he said. "They teach us very carefully how to take care of the vineyards and they were with me, so there was no problem in learning it." 

He has even been given one of the more "prestigious" positions within the winery—Luigi has been named cellar master for this vintage, as the previous cellar master had finished his term. Working with D'Afflitto, he'll learn about the process of winemaking and guard over the precious vino while it ferments in tank.

"It's different from everything. Everything is not like Gorgona. It's very hard to find, very rare to find a jail like Gorgona. It's hard to explain," he said. "Now, in the normal jail it's closed. You cannot go outside. You stay in the bed, but now I am here, I am in the vineyards. This is the difference; here you're free."

Lamberto Frescobaldi (left) and Luigi discuss vineyard practices.

Lamberto Frescobaldi (left) and Luigi discuss vineyard practices.

Emotion

Once the grapes are harvested, the fruit is brought to the cellar, where they are pressed and brought to stainless steel tanks to ferment and mature. Some partial malolactic fermentation occurs, and the wine is transferred to barrel—and only because it's the only way to move the wine from the island to the company's bottling lines on the mainland.

The winemaking efforts are assisted by Frederico, who studied winemaking in Pisa and has experience with vineyards in Valterra, Montalcino and Lucca, and now works for Frescobaldi. At first he was skeptical of the project, doubting his ability to skillfully teach the inmates, but has really come to enjoy the process. Each vintage, he performs several trials on a very small percentage of the grapes to test the blend and winemaking practices. It has to be a miniscule amount, he says, because with such limited fruit and production, he can't afford any errors.

For the most part, it's Winemaking 101 here, and that's by design.

"Prisoners had been making wine for 20 years before Frescobaldi came in," said D'Afflitto. "They were trying to make simple wine complex." With such unique terroir, any attempts at manipulating the wine will destroy it, he says. And given that access to the mainland, and many pieces of equipment and supplies, is limited, it just doesn't make sense to try to do too much. Only a bit of sulfur is added post-fermentation, and that's it.

Soil, redemption, emotion. These are the three words that D'Afflitto feels embody the winemaking process and are the main drivers of the wine. What results is not necessarily the most technically advanced, or most nuanced wine, but it's one that will hold up well on its own or against a well-paired meal, create a conversation and evoke a reaction from its drinkers.

At a tasting of the wine with several dozen journalists, distributors, retailers and other influential Italians, one writer, Keith Beavers, described the wine as:

Golden straw in color; ripe, crisp apple, acacia and honeysuckle with a hint of pineapple and heightened minerality on the nose; Slight weight on the palate with well-integrated acidity balanced with a nice salinity. Oak is well integrated, contributing to the roundness of the wine.

But what the description fails to mention is how much excitement the reviewer had as he was listing off the notes. The emotion and hand movements behind each descriptor said more about the wine than any hint of pineapple or honeysuckle could. This is the story of Gorgona that Frescobaldi is trying to get across: that it is more than just a Vermentino/Ansonica blend. Gorgona is a story, with strong supporting characters and a magic concept that keeps you reading more.

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Redemption

"Gorgona gives you the possibility to be different, to change as a person," Chargui said, echoing the sentiment of the director (Savoca), the Frescobaldi family and company, and the prisoners themselves. For many inmates, it's a source of pride to know that the grapes they grew, the wine they helped to make, is being drunk and lauded across the world—from the United States to Japan.

"We want them to have a weapon, so that when they leave here, they can get a job. Redemption is the reason for this project," said Savoca. All too often in her career running the Livorno prison system, men finish their sentences, have trouble assimilating to a "normal" society and commit another crime that lands them back in jail. Her goal with this project is to put an end to the cycle.

"We have to think at the end of the jail period, that we have a future in front of us, and that we can use this work for our future," said Chargui.

While Savoca can not track the movements of every man that leaves the Gorgona facility, two former inmates have been hired by the Frescobaldi family to work at some of the company's other estates in Tuscany. She hopes that by giving each man a chance to work in various prison jobs, he can find a field that he enjoys and hone his skills so that he doesn't end right back in jail.

"I'm very thankful to the project because I can say to my children that their father is working. He is not in jail. He's working. I can allow a better future," Chargui said. "Here, you have to chance to learn something that can help your future, not only to be stuck in a jail. You can learn how to make cheese. You can learn how to grow properly vegetables."

To protect the grapes from sunlight, Khatoui Chargui is using his learned skills in canopy management to re-trellis the vines.

To protect the grapes from sunlight, Khatoui Chargui is using his learned skills in canopy management to re-trellis the vines.

Expansion

Another hectare was planted on Gorgona and should come online in 2018, with the first wines coming to market in 2019. The new plantings will nearly double production on the island, boosting total bottles to 7,000 or 8,000 depending on the growing year. The Frescobaldi company has signed an agreement to participate in the program until 2024, though by the way each representative speaks of Gorgona, it's likely that the project will continue past then.

Though unconfirmed, a similar project will break ground on the mostly flat island of Pianosa, 85 kilometers south. In 1865, Leopold II, then Grand Duke of Tuscany, established the island as a penal colony, which continued despite German occupation in the second World War. Following the war, the island prison was home to some of Italy's most notorious, and incarcerated, mafia bosses until it was closed on June 28, 1998. Plans are in the works to revert the island back to a penal colony, and Savoca hopes that a similar social project can be repeated here.

This article first ran on winebusiness.com

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