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Ex-Mafia land produces prize-winning Italian wines

By Colleen Barry

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 26 2012 1:13 p.m. MDT

VERONA, Italy — A new wave of Sicilian winemakers are making an offer you can't refuse.

This isn't the old-fashioned mob piling the pressure on local farmers. These are new economic cooperatives making prize-winning wines from Italian vineyards cultivated on land once held by the Mafia.

Wines from the Centopassi vineyards — on display at the Vinitaly wine fair that runs through Thursday in Verona — are the result of a €1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) European Union-Italian project to integrate ex-Mafiosi property in the southern regions of Sicily, Calabria, Puglia and Campagna back into the legal economy.

The project aims to boost the economy, creating real jobs that can help establish a culture which rejects, rather than protects, organized crime. It also puts Mafioso land confiscated by authorities back into productive use.

So far €61 million ($81 million) has been invested in relaunching ex-organized crime businesses under the EU-Italian Pon Sicurezza banner. The project involves 125 hectares (300 acres) of vineyards plus 800 hectares (nearly 2,000 acres) of olive and citrus trees, grains and vegetables.

"The companies show that by defeating the Mafia you can begin to legally produce wines, oil and high-quality agricultural goods in the interest of the workers and the producers," Sicilian Gov. Raffaele Lombardo told The Associated Press at the Vinitaly show on Monday.

In a fresh project announced this weekend, Unicredit bank will help fund the establishment of new vineyards on 150 hectares (370 acres) near Palermo confiscated from ex-Mafia boss Michele Greco, who died in prison in 2008. Nicknamed "the pope," Greco was serving a life sentence for ordering numerous murders, including the 1982 assassination of Italy's top anti-Mafia fighter, Gen. Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, and his wife.

"What was an emblem of the economic force of the Mafia is now becoming a symbol of Sicily's rebirth," Sicilian Economic Commissioner Gaetano Armao told reporters.

Most of the land converted into productive use by the Pon Sicurezza project has long been left fallow by former masters after they are jail, and then can stay unproductive during a long legal process — up to seven years — before authorities could formally seize the property.

By the time those fields or vineyards can be turned over to new owners, most of the vines have died from neglect and the vineyards must be replanted, said Francesco Galante, a spokesman for the Libera network, which oversees the reintegration of Mafia lands.

"At the beginning, there were acts of intimidation," Galante said, including arson fires set to just-harvested grain at one farm. "It was discouraging, but then the project did well and created opportunities to work. At that point, the mood changed and the acts of intimidation stopped."

The obstacles, however, are still considerable. Some 40 percent of farmlands confiscated from the Mafia are legally in the hands of banks. Many Mafiosi, facing the loss of their property, took out loans on it and then deliberately defaulted in an effort to keep the property from being developed.

"The thinking is "if it can't be mine, it is no one's," Galante said.

Libera's agricultural businesses employ 130 people and generated €4 million ($5.3 million) last year. The wine business, including Centopassi, produced half a million bottles in 2011 for revenues of €900,000 ($1.2 million). The jobs are a welcome relief amid Italy's unemployment rate of over 9 percent, which spikes to the double digits in the south.

Each of the Centopassi wines is dedicated to someone assassinated by the Mafia. The white wine Grillo, which has been awarded a prize in the Gambero Rosso Berebene guide to Italian wines, is a homage to Nicolo Azoti, a union leader killed in 1946.

Galante acknowledges that the Mafia links to the wine create curiosity among customers but insists "it just takes a taste to confirm the quality is excellent."

Grillo, for example, as well as being given the Gambero Rosso's Berebene prize also merits a mention in the Slow Food guide.

Marcio Alexandre Alberto, a Brazilian sommelier, sampled Centopassi's wines at the show for his import business.

"The wine is good," he said. "It's a fantastic project with a lot of appeal. I can tell my customers this wine is from a place confiscated by the Mafia. It has great business appeal."

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