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Italy’s Most Exclusive Wine is Actually Made by Prison Inmates

Italy’s Most Exclusive Wine is Actually Made by Prison Inmates

How Gorgona’s agricultural program is inspiring a different kind of social impact
Gorgona Vineyard | Photo Credit: Devin Parr

I had accidentally overslept, something I rarely, if ever, do. And everyone else was on time, something that rarely, if ever, happens in Italy.

I woke up with seven minutes to get dressed and ready to go, pack up my suitcase as we would not be returning to the hotel, and make it to the Port of Livorno, where we would be boarding a boat. As someone who normally appreciates a minimum of thirty leisurely minutes to make myself presentable, this was a herculean task. I’ve never moved so fast in my life.

When I arrived at the boat – at full sprint, lungs burning – it was perhaps best that I hadn’t had time to dwell on the journey ahead, because I likely wouldn’t have gone. While I’ve never actually been seasick, the fear of it – stemming from a particularly crippling case of emetophobia – is real for me. So, as we left the stillness of the port and headed out onto open water, panic set in. To combat my unease, I downed some preventative anti-nausea (and possibly some anti-anxiety) meds and did some deep breathing. 

The mood was initially festive on the boat. Dozens of wine writers, travel journalists, and trade chatted excitedly among themselves about today’s activity – a visit to the island of Gorgona, the northernmost and smallest island in the Tuscan Archipelago. But, as the boat heaved over the lurching swell, things got eerily quiet. People started loosening collars around pale faces, swallowing hard, dabbing beads of brow sweat. The trip’s organizers began handing out motion sickness medicine and, in some cases, plastic bags, “just in case.” This was my worst nightmare. 

As everyone’s meds kicked in, the boat ride gradually returned to its jovial, pre-departure energy, and, about 90 minutes later, land finally came into view. Thirsty for wine and discovery, we were ready to disembark for the rest of our adventure.

Not All Prisons Are Created Equal

Located off the western coast of Italy in the Ligurian Sea, the tiny island of Gorgona is unique for various reasons, the most interesting of which is that it is home to a small penal colony dedicated to – you guessed it – wine. Originally home to a monastery which, over time, fell into decline, its purpose was transformed in 1869 when the Italian government established a penitentiary instead. The prison was initially meant for long-term inmates who had shown good behavior and had the potential for rehabilitation through agricultural and viticultural work. Today, the penitentiary remains; and, through a partnership with one of the most well-known wine families in Italy, if not the world – Frescobaldi – its inmates contribute to the island’s limited but distinctive wine production.

The tiny island of Gorgona | Photo Credit: Devin Parr

Frescobaldi’s president, Lamberto Frescobaldi, recalls receiving an email in late July of 2012 from the Gorgona Penal Institute – sent to many Tuscan producers – asking if any wineries would be interested in working with some of their inmates to make wine from a few acres of their vineyards. “I was the only one who answered the email,” he says. “Within a few days of responding, I found myself on a little boat with prison guards on the way to the tiny, remote Gorgona island.” 

Concepts like Gorgona’s island penitentiary seek to demonstrate the potential of structured, purposeful engagement to support the rehabilitation process. These programs redirect inmates’ energies toward productive activities that foster a sense of responsibility, skill-acquisition, and personal growth, ultimately easing their reintegration into society, and, hopefully, reducing recidivism. 

Since their prison reforms in the 1990s, Norway has been a longtime proponent of this approach to rehabilitation. The country is home to some of the most progressive correctional facilities in the world, including the Bastøy Prison, an island property built in 1902 that can house up to 125 male inmates serving time for a range off offenses including rape and murder; Søndre Vestfold Prison, a low-security facility housing Norway’s maximum sentences, where prisoners can apply to serve the last years of a longer sentence; and Beskrivelser Agder Prison, a high-security facility opened in 2020. These prisons are focused on teaching skills that can be put to use upon reentry, through schools, workshops, recreation, practical job training in fields like agriculture, cooking, carpentry, and automotive repair, as well as mental health and addiction counseling. 

Gorgona’s concept seeks to accomplish the same thing for its inmates, using the craft of wine as a conduit. “Gorgona is an open prison: the prisoners are locked in their cells only during the night,” explains Lamberto. “At dawn they are free to move around the island. They go to work in the orchards, in the vineyards or to look after the animals. Some are employed in the kitchen, others clean or take care of the prison buildings. In the afternoon they can volunteer, participate in sports, or participate in cultural activities.” 

Lamberto also says inmates are free to meet visitors and have lunch with their families. They are also paid a salary for the work they do, which is allocated for their ongoing care, their families, and their ultimate release. “Here on Gorgona, surrounded by its scents and tastes, is everything one could want: love for this island, man’s loving attention, hope for a better life, the influence of the sea, and this extraordinary environment, all elements that combine to bring forth a wine that is inimitable, innately exclusive, a symbol of hope and freedom,” he says. “It is the very quintessence of this peerless corner of our planet and of our project, a symbol that never ceases to give us excitement.”

A Hopeful Cause for Wine… and Humanity

Some in the United States have tried to do the same thing, with little success. Jeremy Petty, owner of Walla Walla Vineyard Management worked with the Washington State Penitentiary for years to get a program together to train inmates with three years or less left on their sentence to plant, care for, and harvest wine grapes and beer hops before release. Just as the program was about to reach the public forum stage – the last step in securing approval – COVID hit, and the project ground to an instant halt. “I’m now told there is minimal staff to be able to continue with the project and it’s been sidelined,” says Petty. “We were pretty bummed about it.”

The thinking behind this sort of program is compelling. “I figured if we can train these guys before they get out, maybe it would give them a step up and a feeling they could build something once [they got] out,” says Petty. “Not to mention they would learn irrigation and many [other skills] all at once.” 

The approach isn’t exclusive to agriculture either. Tim Mann, former program director for non-profits like The Fortune Society, whose mission is to support successful reentry from incarceration and promote alternatives to incarceration, and Back on My Feet, an organization that empowers people to break free from cycles of poverty, homelessness, and addiction through fitness, community, and employment resources, agrees.  

“As part of the Back on My Feet program, individuals living in these programs would meet three days a week at 5:30am to run with volunteers from the community,” he explains. “The discipline, achievement, and sense of community and belonging gave them an outlet to shed preconceived notions of themselves and explore new ways to engage in the community, learn new skills, and view themselves in a new light.” 

Beyond transferring new skill-sets to those reentering society after a prison sentence, programs like these are also potential vehicles for creating jobs in agriculture. “Some inmates of course could have gone to work locally and I would have been up for hiring them on my teams,” says Petty. “Labor is always needed in the fields, so we could have helped there.”

There’s also a demonstrable impact. During the planning stages of the Washington State Penitentiary program, Petty actually consulted with the team at Frescobaldi. “[Frescobaldi winemaker Nicolo D’Afflitto] told me the program was basically a slam dunk there,” recalls Petty. “They have reduced recidivism to 15%! Other institutions were at 80%. They have proven this program works. He said he hoped we get it going here, and that Frescobaldi would most likely even be up for helping us break ground once it was set.” As a result of Norway’s prison reforms to today’s current model, the country went from a recidivism rate in the 60-70% range in the 90s to 20%, among the lowest in the world. 

The Fruits of This Labor

While a noble vision is at the core of these programs, let’s not forget about the byproduct – in this case, delicious wines. Gorgona produces a very small amount of white wine made from Vermentino and Ansonica, and now a red wine from Sangiovese and Vermentino Rosso from grapes grown in a tiny, amphitheater-shaped area overlooking the sea. These wines are exquisite studies in terroir – elegant, thoughtful, and bursting with a remarkable sense of place. They also come at a pretty penny. The 2021 vintage of Gorgona is currently available on for $150 a bottle. For about $100 per bottle more, you can snag yourself a bottle of Gorgona Rosso… if you can find it. But can one really put a price on the potential societal impact of wines produced in pursuit of a better, more humane world? 

Lamberto Frescobaldi & Gorgona | Photo Credit: Devin Parr

“Gorgona is a social project, and as such it must remain at the forefront of our thoughts,” says Frescobaldi, noting that they have plans to plant additional acreage to produce what he calls wine that is “a symbol of rebirth for all of us, inside and outside of the project. It is a hymn to hope and that in life – sometimes – a second chance is enough. The will of the director of the prison and ours is that this can be taken as an example for the world.” 

“I think its a win-win for all parties,” adds Petty, hoping to one day revive the concept in Washington State. “I always said these guys will be out walking amongst us and our families, and, if I can help them from reoffending by teaching them something, I’m in.”