Lecce Journal: Italian Inmates Sip, Smell and Taste Their Way to Rehabilitation

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LECCE, Italy — One of his first students was a young man he had arrested four years earlier. Others have been convicted of armed robbery, drug trafficking and criminal association with the mafia. The classrooms are frugally equipped, behind windows protected by vertical and horizontal bars, although one has brightly colored paintings covering the walls.

But none of that deterred Marco Albanese, a police officer for 19 years and a trained sommelier for five, from teaching a class of rapt students the finer points of deconstructing the bouquet of a chardonnay or pouring a rare vintage.

Mr. Albanese, 43, is an instructor in an innovative effort at Lecce Penitentiary to teach inmates to be sommeliers, or wine stewards. The courses are part of a program to teach prisoners new professional skills, as well as to help them develop a bond with the region, which is renowned for its Negroamaro grape varieties.

The program has been enthusiastically embraced by the prisoner students, who were tasting white wines on a recent afternoon. It has also been an eye opener for Mr. Albanese.

“I could see their human aspect, once they were out of their context,” Mr. Albanese, who traded in his police uniform for the crisp blue jacket and tie of a sommelier for the class. “And I didn’t have to keep the same distance, now that I was their ‘professor.’”

He added, “They also deserve a second chance, and it’s important that they know that the institutions do believe that they can be educated to a different life.”

In eight lessons, the group of 30 men and women, who are instructed in separate classes, learn how to taste, choose and serve local wines.

“We hope to teach them the social value of work and the preciousness of their own territory, so that they can later choose to work here, already having the right skill set,” said Rita Russo, the director of Lecce Penitentiary, which is the largest in the region of Apulia. Inmates can also study for their high school diplomas, cultivate tomatoes, take theater classes and learn to be painters or tailors.

Class begins with a slide show on the history of wine, explaining how it was drunk by the ancient Greeks and introducing the students to the Roman ancestors of modern sommeliers in Italy. On a school table, covered with a khaki tablecloth, stood wine glasses, ready for use. Three bottles of chardonnay, a red primitivo and a Negroamaro stood on a table nearby.

Mr. Albanese then addressed the prisoners, who sat facing him on stools listing the temperatures at which different wines should be served and how to store them in cellars. For a finale, he offered a crowd-pleasing tip.

“Do remember, even if you had Trump over for dinner, the pope would still be served first. The clergy does come first, even before heads of state,” he said, to raucous laughter. The prisoners, whose identity is being protected by the prison, were not allowed to be interviewed or photographed for this article.

Roberto Giannone, who works for the local sommelier association, then demonstrated how to open a bottle, neatly slicing off the capsule covering the bottleneck in three cuts, inserting the corkscrew and smoothly pulling out the cork.

“Once the cork is out,” he said, “use a napkin to show it to your customers. It’s an easy way to be polite and avoid objections.”

Since the 1970s, the Italian penal system has focused on re-education for inmates. However, a lack of funds for rehabilitation, as well as chronic overcrowding, means that thousands of incarcerated men and women have little to do all day.

That has sparked some innovative rehabilitation programs, including a restaurant inside a medium-security prison near Milan in which the waiters and cooks are inmates. But the sommelier class at the Lecce prison is believed to be unique in Italy.

“Of course, sommelier courses can’t be considered a treatment,” said Georgia Zara, the head of a program at the University of Turin that offers a master’s degree in criminological and forensic psychology. “But they do educate inmates and create social interaction, which is very important.”

The classes also offer a “bridge between the jail context and the world outside, so it’s a small investment to reduce the risk of recidivism,” Ms. Zara said.

Gianvito Rizzo, 53, is the chief executive officer at the Feudi di Guagnano, a local vintner that provides wine for the classes, like the Negroamaro. He is also the creator of the sommelier classes at the prison.

Mr. Rizzo has proposed that inmates start working on his nearly 75 acres of vines in the coming year; under certain circumstances, some inmates in Italy are allowed to work outside prisons.

“I see wine in a democratic way,” Mr. Rizzo said as he walked through his vineyard recently. “The countryside is the opposite to a cell. You are free. You smell nature, and learn to care for it. I think it’d be good also for inmates to try it out.”

Mr. Rizzo said that when he had received a master’s degree from the Bocconi University business school in Milan three decades ago, he had been “fixated” on doing something for his native region of Salento, in Apulia, on the heel of the Italian boot.

He settled on going into the wine business, which had been struggling to convert farmers who cultivated for personal or local use into becoming larger producers.

He now produces 16 different wines from grapes grown in vineyards that he and two friends and business partners inherited from their fathers, added to those that other friends asked them to cultivate on their behalf. He calls this collaborative effort his “first social experiment.”

When Mr. Rizzo heard about the penitentiary’s activities for prisoners, he proposed the sommelier classes to Ms. Russo.

While it is unclear if any of the students will ever become professional sommeliers, the exposure to the world of wine provided by the classes has been very welcome.

“I don’t even drink, but I’ve learned to sip it, smell it and taste it,” said one inmate, who is serving a 10-year sentence and who was granted an exception to speak anonymously. “You can think it’s a small thing, but it means the world to us.”

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