Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Drinking Wine to Fight the Mafia

A new Italian white wine has become a symbol of the fight against organized crime, incurring the wrath of gangsters from Naples because it was produced from grapes grown on land confiscated from a Mafia godfather.

Campo Libero, which means "Free Field", was presented this month as the first wine made in Lazio region with grapes grown on land taken from an important member of the Camorra -- as the Naples version of the Mafia is known.

The lightly sparkling white wine is made from Trebbiano grapes cultivated by Il Gabbiano ("The Seagull"), a charity that employs people with troubled backgrounds, such as drug addicts and former detainees.

"The fact that we could turn a land bought with illegal earnings into something totally clean is the most important message we could send," said Dario Campagna, chairman of Il Gabbiano.

Campagna, a 50-year-old with silver hair, had no previous expertise in wine-making. At the beginning he had to rely on the knowledge of local farmers and he is modest about Campo Libero's bouquet, calling it a "farmer's wine". But he hopes it will symbolize to consumers the value of fighting organized crime.

Thanks to a law passed in 1996 by the Italian parliament, property belonging to convicted Mafiosi can be used for social purposes. In 2003, Il Gabbiano was given 10 hectares of land that had been abandoned for years.

It once belonged to Francesco Schiavone, head of the most powerful and violent Camorra family of Naples, whose empire spread from Naples to the farmland only 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Rome.

Roberto Saviano, a Camorra expert, wrote in his bestseller "Gomorra" that the Schiavone clan ran illegal drugs and arms but also had semi-legal businesses such as cement production and property developing, a shady empire worth some 5 billion euros ($7 billion).

The land on which Campo Libero grows was confiscated after Schiavone was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. The gangster had already devoted part of this land to growing grapes that were illegally sold on the market.

There is evidence that the rest of the land was used for shadier activities. When Campagna first started digging to build a dirt road inside the property, he found old Italian lira banknotes, shredded and buried less than a meter underground.

The lira was replaced with the euro in Italy in 2001 and the old notes were supposed to be disposed of safely, to avoid their toxic lead content seeping into farmland. But the Camorra is infamous for taking money to get rid of waste illegally.

"I think Schiavone got paid to dispose of the banknotes and simply decided to hide them here," said Campagna. "When we got the land, it was like a rubbish dump. It took us three years and a lot of work to change it."

This year Il Gabbiano produced 10,000 bottles of wine, but it hasn't been an easy job. Campagna, a teetotaler, first asked local farmers for practical help and advice. But every time they made an appointment to start working, the farmers mysteriously failed to show up.

"Finally someone told us that one of Schiavone's relatives lived in the area and the people were afraid he would find out they were cooperating with us," said Campagna.

He called the police and got them to drop by twice a day on patrol. He also asked an agronomist from another town to help. Soon, when local farmers saw nothing bad had happened, they agreed to come and lend the charity workers a hand.
Sabotage

"This was our first real success," recalled Campagna, who has applied for public funding to renovate an old building on the property and adapt it to receive primary school students.

His dream is to create an educational farm to show youngsters how wine, flour and other natural products are made and, at the same time, teach them the value and importance of staying on the right side of the law. But his success appears to have displeased the former owners.

One night last September, just before the first harvest was due, unidentified saboteurs destroyed half the crop by cutting the metal wire supporting the vines, which collapsed under the weight of the ripe fruit.

"We woke up and saw we had lost around 50,000 kilos of grapes out of 140,000," said Campagna. "It was a real blow."

Police are investigating but Campagna has his suspicions. "I think the Camorra are to blame. They want the law letting their assets be confiscated to fail. It's in their interests for this land to stay untouched. It's a sign of power."

That is why Campagna and his workers did not give up and last March replanted the vines from scratch. "It will take years for the vines to grow again, but it's worth it," he said. "The more we fight for this wine, the better it will taste in the end."

The Wine Messenger

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