The Prison Wine Estate of Gorgona

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Arrival at Gorgona is similar to any other cozy Mediterranean island apart from the armed patrol waiting at the dock. A pocket-sized beach invites children’s shovels and the painted facades of the surrounding port are dredged in marvelous eastern sunlight. Pines, heaths, and heathers bake in the heat. Gulls and cormorants draw the eye upward to the island’s high, rocky western cliff and especially to the ruined tower where sentries once scoured the horizon for pirates. For visitors, Gorgona is an escape, for its residents, it is a captivity leavened with hope.

Gorgona is the last remaining island penal colony in Europe and likely the only winery you’ll ever visit that requires a criminal background check. Since the colony’s establishment in 1869, between 50 and 100 men live here at any given time. Free to move about the island during the day, they operate a small working farm while serving out the remainder of their prison terms—all for serious crimes. There is a long waiting list to transfer here.

The smallest and northernmost island of the Tuscan Archipelago, Gorgona lies over an hour by boat from Livorno, the port town inelegantly expressed in English as Leghorn. The Ligurian Sea is deemed calm the day of my visit, though I see anti-nausea gum making the rounds at lunch.

Since 2012, the Frescobaldi family has operated here in partnership with the Gorgona Agricultural Penal Colony. Fifteen individuals each year rotate through the vineyards and cellar in order to equalize the opportunity. Supported by Frescobaldi agronomists and enologists, they learn practical skills while earning money to send their families or start them back in the outside world. The island thus has two products: the wines, which are transported in barrel to the mainland in the winter, and the inmates, who upon release are eligible to work for a period at one of the conventional Frescobaldi estates. Accounts of recidivism vary, but all agree that the rate is far lower here than for the rest of Italy’s prisons.

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After all, grapegrowing and winemaking are subversive activities in a prison. They defy the intentional monotony of incarceration by giving a seasonality to life and an expectation for the future. One’s thoughts while pruning or leaf-pulling are always sovereign, subject to no one. On Gorgona, there is yet another subversion at play: that an enterprise in partnership with government bureaucracy can achieve excellence. 

Lamberto Frescobaldi, the 30th Marchese di Frescobaldi and the current patriarch of a 700-year-old winemaking enterprise, tells the story of the collaboration not as a savvy businessman but as though he found a winning lottery ticket on the bus. A vineyard established in 1989 had fallen into neglect, and an inmate had requested permission to revive it. The prison authority contacted dozens of wineries to propose a partnership. When Mr. Frescobaldi asked why his organization was selected, he was told he was the only one who responded. 

IMG 5551 captioned The 5.6 acres (2.3 hectares) of organically farmed vines occupy a natural amphitheater of volcanic soil. The edges are ringed with vegetation that gives off a scented warmth similar to the resinous scrubs of southern France or coastal California. Here Gorgona Bianco was first harvested in 2012; the wine is a blend of 75% Vermentino and 25% Ansonica. The Vermentino grapes are sweet and scented with sea spray. Their burnished appearance hints at the site’s perennial risk of sun and windburn. Preserving the grapes from these conditions is of particular importance as 10% of the must undergoes a brief maceration on skins. The Ansonica grape, reclaimed from long anonymity servicing Marsala wines, balances the Vermentino with welcome bracing acidity. 

Smaller plantings of Sangiovese and Vermentino Nero comprise the Rosso, first made in 2015, and are vinified in tanks and deoxygenated amphorae. The brand-new wine is deeply colored and spicy with blocky tannins that promise the rewards of time.

On this warm day in early September, the vintage is underway in the modest cantina, outfitted by the Frescobaldi team with simple yet sturdy, functional equipment. Frothy curtains of free-run juice pour out of the press while visitors crowd in and photograph a small cluster of stainless steel tanks. We do this perfunctorily and almost sheepishly because fermentation tanks look alike all over the world, yet we can’t help ourselves. 

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The occasion for the visit, an infrequent and highly regulated privilege, is the annual release party for the Bianco. The visiting media are bathed in perspiration, but Mr. Frescobaldi is impossibly cool in a sport coat as he greets guests, officials and inmates; the latter have prepared a luncheon for the crowd. Seasonal residents of the island have brought a baby, who becomes the focus of much attention.

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The 2020 Gorgona Bianco is floral and waxy with a saline freshness. It contains the pungent threads of sagebrush and coriander so joyously looked for and often found in Italian grapes. There is phenolic definition, but it conspires with a creamy texture to act more as flesh on the bones than grip on the palate. Even the label gives surprise and pleasure; it is a “newsletter” of the island’s features and activities, affixed around the bottle with a wax seal.

The Gorgona wines belong to the Costa Toscana IGT, carved out of the broader Toscana classification in 2010 to recognize the uniqueness of coastal climates and topographies. It remains a nebulous category and suggests little beyond something wet to sponge up with great bowls of cacciucco, the multifarious seafood stew steaming from every corner of Livorno and its environs. 

If the Gorgona wines were produced in higher volume they would define the region; as it is they transcend it, describing not a regional designation but the island itself, and the belief that a wine can be more than just a wine, not only for you and me but also for the man who watches full barrels speeding from the island and thinks, “I’ll be going next, and this time things will be different.”

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