Winemakers in the trenches

The year 2017 was not good for winemakers. The European grape harvest was poor because of drought conditions, and forest fires in Napa and Galicia left bodegas and vineyards nothing more than charred ruins.

In both places there are wine producers who will never make wine again.

But tell all this to Francesco, a Sicilian winemaker, and he laughs bitterly.

“My problems,” he remarks, “are never-ending.” He is referring to the battle between farmers and the rural mafia.

Looking around it is obvious he considers his winery to be in constant danger. Video monitors are everywhere and the large steel gates are manned by armed guards.

“See those?” he asks, pointing out a number of wooden stakes tipped with white cardboard stuck into the soil everywhere. “They mean this land belongs to them, not to me.”

Wineries have been burnt down and there have been gunfights.

“They” are a network of shepherds, lawyers, and, allegedly, politicians, whose aim is to threaten landowners to make them sell out at low prices.

Then, once the ownership has been transferred, they apply for EU grants via a corrupt chain of intermediaries that reaches as far as Brussels.

The grants are approved but of course the funds never get to their destination and are siphoned off along the route.

The big-time mafia bosses have by and large been dealt with in high profile court proceedings, and are serving time.

Their properties have been confiscated by the state, and the law was changed to enable them to be handed over to local cooperatives dedicated to winemaking.

The thousands of vineyards already being exploited in this way produce wine with the label stating “Made in vineyards confiscated from the Mafia.”

Many wines are dedicated by name to victims of Mafia violence.

However all this makes little difference to Francesco and his fellow agriculturalists.

They have no illusion about the state of their own particular war, and the graffiti in local villages leaves no-one in any doubt about who is believed to be behind the racket: 'Rural Mafia - A Protected Species.'