If you wish to surprise your guests during the coming festive season, you might like to produce a bottle of one of Italys most exclusive wines. The cork and label alone will be a guaranteed conversation piece; besides the IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) certification and the star symbol of the Italian Republic, the cellar name stands out in sombre print: Casa Circondariale di Velletri. This can be roughly translated as enclosed house, and is an Italian euphemism for a prison.

Velletri jail, built in 1991, stands in the heart of the Castelli Romani wine land, roughly 40 km southeast of Rome. A white-washed, turreted block with guard posts at its four corners, it rises out of a rolling landscape of vineyards and olive groves. The prison began producing its own wine on an experimental basis a couple of years ago, thanks to the efforts of two men one behind bars and the other on the outside who joined forces to create a minor miracle.

The scheme was the brainchild of Rodolfo Craia, an agronomist employed in the prison sector. A few years ago, Craia was posted to the Tuscan island of Pianosa, then in the process of closing down its

century-old penal colony. He was distressed to see the once-flourishing vegetable gardens and vineyards, which the convicts had cultivated with dedication, in a state of total abandon. That was where I got the idea of making wine in prison, he explains. However, his dream might never have materialised but for a fateful encounter with one of the inmates at his next posting, Velletris Casa Circondariale.

Marcello Bizzoni, an eminent Velletri wine producer and enologist, had fallen on hard times. I overreached myself and my business started to run into financial difficulties. Unfortunately, I tried to set things right the wrong way, he says. The wrong way eventually landed him in jail for fiscal fraud and tax evasion. Bizzoni was in a state of deep depression when he met Craia. Id only been here just over a month, but Id already lost all my self-esteem. This happens very quickly in prison, and unless you get

help from someone

you just never recover,

he explains. When Rodolfo asked me if I wanted to help him set up a wine cellar here in the prison, I thought I was dreaming. I felt like a shipwrecked sailor who had suddenly been saved.

Although many of the inmates and prison guards were at first suspicious of Craias designs to create a model winery inside the prison walls, he managed to obtain the backing of then governor, Luigi Magri. The necessary funding came from the ministry of justice, which provided 400,000 to buy equipment and transform one of the prison outhouses into an ultra-modern, high-tech laboratory and cellar.

The result of two years hard work and experimentation is six different wines and a total production of some 55,000 bottles: a red and a white table wine, a superior quality red and white with IGT certification, and a very commendable barrique red, matured in French oak

casks. The cellar also launched its own vino novello at the beginning

of November.

Although work in prison is contemplated by the Italian penal code as part of the rehabilitation process, it is not always easy to put into practice due to the costs involved, explains Velletris present governor Giuseppe Makovec.

Prisoners are paid a salary of around 650 a month for their work in the vineyard and cellar, plus full pension and social security benefits. This makes employing them very expensive for the prison. Almost all of them would like to have the chance to work but, at the moment, we can only give about a dozen of the 350 inmates the opportunity.

In order to solve this problem, the prison decided to put the wine on the market. Obviously, the prison cant sell the wine directly, Craia explains. So, with the help of the Rotary Club of Velletri, weve set up a co-operative to run the business and handle sales. Were hoping that this will bring in more money so that we can employ more people. I can assure you that someone with the skills acquired working in a wine cellar or a modern agricultural farm like ours is guaranteed to find a job once he gets out.

Craias miracle is not limited to prison wine production; he has also transformed the once bleak and barren internal courtyard of the prison into a mini garden of Eden. The entire area is now occupied by row upon row of vegetables, growing under protective plastic canopies. He proudly shows off the hydroponic strawberry and tomato section, where the plants are suspended and cultivated by drip-feed method. At the back are orchards and olive groves, flourishing under the shadow of the prison wall, and there is also an apiary and a jam-making section.

Meanwhile, Bizzoni is once more a free man. He has elected, however, to return to the prison each day to carry on the work of producing Casa Circondariale wine.

People think the wine wont be good because its made by convicts, Bizzoni remarks wryly. So we have to make it to the very highest standards. This will be an excellent year the best vintage for the last 20-odd years. We dont want people to buy it simply out of curiosity, but because they really appreciate its quality.

To purchase wine from the Casa Circondariale of Velletri, contact Stefano Lenci, president of the Cooperativa Sociale Onlus Lazzaria, tel. 339 / 6430257, e-mail: stefano.lenci@unitec-st.net.

Picture: Marcello Bizzoni (left) and Rodolfo Craia joined forces to creat a modern winery in jail.