It was already a special occasion when Lamberto Frescobaldi, President of Frescobaldi Toscana and part of the noble Florentine family that has been making wine in Tuscany for 700 years, came to speak to a small group of media people that I was privileged to be a part of a few weeks ago, but I had no idea how momentous that experience would be.
Lamberto was there to pour a vertical of wines made on a penal colony, a volcanic island called Gorgona, located 20 miles west of the port city of Livorno on the coast of Tuscany. It is the smallest island in the Tuscan archipelago (group of islands) where a small vineyard, only a couple of acres, sits in a natural amphitheater that shelters the vines from the strong sea winds. Frescobaldi and a couple of his employees work with 15 or so prisoners to maintain organically healthy vineyards and to make quality wine from this unique place.
Frescobaldi for Social Causes Initiative
There are currently many projects being created by Frescobaldi Toscana to foster positive social change that includes hiring prisoners to make wine and olive oil but it all started with the Gorgona project.
One day, at the end of July 2012, Lamberto Frescobaldi received an email from the Gorgona Penal Institute inquiring if any wine producers in Tuscany would be interested in working with some of their inmates to make wine from a couple acres of their vineyards. It was an email that was sent to many Tuscan producers and Lamberto was the only one who answered the email. Before he knew it, he was taking a boat to visit the island. Lamberto spent a couple years in the Italian police force when he was younger and so initially he didn’t worry too much about being around inmates.
Within a few days of responding to the email he found himself on a little boat with prison guards on the way to the tiny, remote island of Gorgona. Fear started to slowly creep into Lamberto’s mind and he nervously asked the guards what these inmates were accused of, to which they would vaguely answer “good crimes”. Ironically, Lamberto said Gorgona was one of the most beautiful places he has experienced, with volcanic rocks that shoot up to the sky surrounded by turquoise water. It seemed odd that this fantasy island was a prison.
As Lamberto stood overseeing the work being done in the Gorgona vineyards, he continued to question the prison guards about the men and their crimes and it eventually came out that many of them were imprisoned for murder; their crimes were considered “good crimes” since there was no sexual assault or mafia involved. Then the fear started to pulse through Lamberto’s body again… he kept thinking how murder could be a good crime.
Before he knew it, he was left by himself in the prison’s cellar with the inmate who was the main person taking care of the vines and making the wine. The inmate was an Albanian man who used to work in Sicilian vineyards. There Lamberto stood as the inmate gave him a taste of the various wines he had made, and as he looked around between the servings of different vintages of wines he could see that there were no guards in sight, and he wondered how they could have left him with someone who had actually killed someone. But through time, he started to enjoy his conversation with the inmate; they talked about “everything and nothing” as Lamberto was always aware that he was speaking to someone who had the most precious thing taken away from him – his freedom.
A Moment Can Alters One’s Life
As Lamberto tasted the wines (professionally spitting out each wine as to not get intoxicated) he told the inmate that his wines were good because he was afraid to say the truth considering the circumstance. After the tasting, Lamberto was about to make his way out of the cellar to try to find the guard to help assist him off the island, and all of a sudden, he was firmly grabbed by the inmate who said that he did not understand why Lamberto was spitting out the wines if he said that he liked them. Lamberto was able to hold back his panic and calmly explain the way a professional tastes, and the inmate said to him with an intensely desperate look, “I need to learn a lot of things from you.” In that moment, a wave of emotion hit Lamberto; he knew he needed to do something to help this man and the other men who have proven over 20-30 years in prison by their exemplary behavior that if given skills, discipline and a sense of self-worth, they can become productive members of society.
To this day, Lamberto thinks about his first inmate experience with that Albanian man who he would later find out was Muslim, which is why he was fascinated by the idea that one can taste professionally without consuming alcohol. Lamberto would say how this man would work from the wee hours of the morning until late at night… whether it was tending the vineyards, moving barrels, scrubbing the cellar until it was spotless, he did it with enthusiasm and pride. This man would even skip the week the prison gave him to visit his home so that he could continue to take care of the cellar… maybe it is because this man found his home, his purpose with working with wine just like Lamberto found a greater purpose for his life, a greater purpose for Frescobaldi Toscana.
When people find a fulfilling purpose with their work and a company finds purpose by fulfilling their workers, the world becomes a more compassionate place, and it is just an added bonus that a unique wine was born in the process.
All of the below wines are made by Frescobaldi Toscana.
Everyday Drinking Wine (less than $15)
2017 Tenuta Ammiraglia, Alìe Rosé, Toscana IGT, Tuscany, Italy ($14.99): A blend of Syrah and Vermentino. This pale pink colored rosé is named after the fabled sea nymph Alìe, a symbol of sensuality and beauty, because of the sensual delights this wine bestows on the drinker. It has aromas of orange blossom and wild strawberries with a bright, mineral driven finish.
Special Occasion Wine (from $15 to $50)
2013 Castello Nipozzano, Montesodi, Toscana IGT, Tuscany, Italy ($40): 100% Sangiovese. This wine comes from a special “Cru” (vineyard) established in 1974 that is located 1312 feet (400 meters) above sea level and is considered the best expression of Sangiovese from the Frescobaldi’s Castello Nipozzano estate. It had a complex nose with rose oil, black cherries and hints of balsamic. The bright acidity and regal structure indicates an ageworthy wine yet the generosity of juicy fruit and velvety tannins makes it impossible to resist now.
Fantasy Wine (over $50)
2013 Frescobaldi Gorgona Bianco, Costa Toscana IGT, Island of Gorgona, Italy ($140): 50% Vermentino and 50% Ansonica. Vermentino is a known noble white variety that does well on the island of Sardinia, as well as other Italian regions, and it is noted in this wine by the saline minerality, crisp acidity and juicy peach flavors. The Ansonica grape variety is mainly planted in western Sicily and it is illustrated by a roasted nutty aroma in this wine. Lamberto said that they are going to make this wine 100% Vermentino in the future. We were able to taste vintages from 2012 to 2016 and the significant improvement was evident. This wine does not make economical sense to Frescobaldi since they cannot make money on the tiny quantity that they sell as their overhead of paying rent to the Gorgona Penal Institute, inmates’ salaries and the logistics of getting everything to and from the island is too great, and so the cost of the bottle is just to cover some of the expenses that they incur. Many other companies, such as those who make the labels, have donated time and material to this project.
This 2016 label was signed by Lamberto’s friend, legendary blind opera singer, Andre Bocelli because the label contains his description of what it was like for Andre to visit this island and interact with the inmates. There is a paper with a wax seal that covers the bottle so people who drink this very unique wine can write their memories on the paper and save it.
Also, we tried the first Gorgona Rosso which is a blend of Sangiovese and Vermentino Rosso from the 2015 vintage. Lamberto has plans to expand this project so more inmates can be included before they are released.