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Frescobaldi’s Gorgona: A day on the prison island

Vicki Denig reports from the island of Gorgona off Italy's mainland, where a select few prisoners make wine under the guidance of Lamberto Frescobaldi.

The small island of Gorgona, just off the coast of Livorno, isn’t your run-of-the-mill viticultural area its main purpose is to serve as a penal colony.

Not just any prisoner can reside on Gorgona, however. Up to 90 incarcerated men live on the island at a time, alongside 17 residents and a handful of police officers.

Prisoners on the island are allowed to stay for a maximum of five years, which must conclude the end of their sentence. After Gorgona, the men are set free.

Scroll down to see tasting notes and scores for the two Frescobaldi Gorgona wines tasted

The only way to access the island is via a police-escorted boat and so, when invited to tour Gorgona with a small group of journalists last September, I jumped at the chance.

Upon first glance, it’s easy to understand the island’s appeal: turquoise waters surround its vast acres of land, on which its inmate residents are allowed to roam free. While on the island, prisoners practice masonry and learn various trades, including grape farming and vinification.

Viticulturally speaking, the island of Gorgona accounts for a speck of the world’s production.

Just 2.3ha of vines produce 9,000 bottles annually, most of which are crafted from organically-farmed Vermentino and Ansonica grapes under the direction of Lamberto Frescobaldi. Even smaller amounts of red wine are also made.

The 15 inmates involved in the winemaking project are paid a living wage, and their savings help jump start their post-island life.

See also:

Gorgona: the wine made by prisoners

Frescobaldi wine: 30th-generation winemaking

After a sunny lunch on the veranda of the small restaurant on the island, which services its 17 residents and is operated by prisoners, a few journalists and I were curious to learn more about the convicts living there. We went inside to the bar which, it turns out, is also the prisoners’ commissary looking for conversation.

When we approached the man at the bar, he seemed a bit surprised. Luckily, one fellow journalist and I both speak Italian, so we were able to engage with our wide-eyed waiter.

We asked for a splash more wine, of which there was none. In an effort to do the best with what he had, he leaned in and informed us of a small stash of amaro that he could sell. Our eyes lit up as he lined up four cups on the counter and grabbed a few dusty bottles from a rather bare fridge. Hefty pours of thick, brown liquid flooded into our plastic cups.

The four of us stood at the bar as he looked on. My mind raced a mile a minute. When was the last time he had a drink? Talked to someone that wasn’t a resident of the island? What was his drink of choice in his past life? How old could he even be? He looked young.

I asked him his name. ‘Angelo,’ he responded quietly. We discovered he was from Naples, had been imprisoned in Treviso and Vicenza prior to Gorgona, and had been in the system 10 years.

Ten years? I asked his age. ‘Trentadue anni,’ he replied. He was only 32. After a brief moment to process his youth, I asked him where he’d go after leaving Gorgona. ‘Mallorca,’ he replied, a sense of optimism and hope in his voice. I inquired as to whether or not his family still resided in Naples. ‘Si,’ he replied, pursing his lips and nodding his head. ‘So… why Mallorca?’ I pondered aloud. The answer was simple. ‘Nuova vita,’ he exhaled.

There’s only one major rule for journalists visiting Gorgona, and that’s to never ask a prisoner about the reason for their incarceration.

Of course my mind wandered, but I pushed the thought aside. We told him where we were from and a bit about ourselves. When we hit a brief lull in the conversation, he formed a heart with his index fingers and two thumbs, sheepishly smiled, and directed his gaze at the floor.

‘Us?!’ we asked, each of our group of four pointing at one another. He nodded his head and looked at us with the most sincere eyes. The sentiment, as simple as it was, was one of the most real and honest expressions of gratitude and vulnerability that I’d ever witnessed. We clutched our hearts and made the same shape with our hands, pointing it back to him. In just a few short minutes, we loved him, too.

I started to reflect on the fact he’d been here for 10 years, which seems to suggest he must have gotten into something pretty serious…or was he just a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time? After all, he was just 23 when he first entered the system; surely I’d made questionable decisions during that period of my life, too.

Soon after, our group leaders announced that it was time to board the boat. The four of us ran back inside. ‘We came to say goodbye to Angelo,’ I announced loudly, as four police officers exchanged slightly confused glances.

Angelo placed his rag down on the bar and walked in our direction, leaving about three feet between us. He stretched out his hand and made a fist, bumped each of our hands, and acknowledged us with a nod and smile as we prepared to leave.

I’ll likely never see Angelo again but I will never forget him. Frescobaldi’s Gorgona wine project is commendable, and the wine is actually quite good. However, what I took away from the experience goes far beyond grape to glass.

Visiting Gorgona forced me to ask questions and engage with others living under very different circumstances than myself, and to do so in an open-minded, non-judgemental way.

I boarded the boat feeling lighter and heavier all at once. At the end of the day, it’s people, experiences and relationships we foster with others   especially those different from ourselves that ultimately yield the greatest joy. Wine is just an added bonus.

Frescobaldi’s Gorgona project: the two wines tasted

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