James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

What Kind of Wine Goes With an Evening in Prison?

What Kind of Wine Goes With an Evening in Prison?

Pinot Nero in Milan

Standing in the pouring rain at the end of the subway line in Milan, two taxi companies hung up on me.

With my imperfect Italian, I was trying to explain that we needed to get to Bollate—a medium-security correctional facility on the periphery of the city.
Finally able to convince a dispatcher I was serious, our cab eventually arrived.

“Ragazzi!” the driver yelled, “you’re going to prison!”

The end of the subway line had felt suitably remote, but we continued to drive into the night, with the driver laughing softly to himself. I was now mildly concerned and mentally confirming that I had dragged us into the middle of nowhere in order to voluntarily eat in a jail.

The jailhouse restaurant at Bollate is a progressive work-experience program designed to allow prisoners to interact with the public and learn marketable skills in hospitality that they can use when they’ve completed their sentence. But standing at the security entrance in the dark, I was suddenly less sure of my plan to support the initiative.

Two volunteer high school students were perched in the waiting room, ready to escort us past police vans towards the looming concrete box that housed the inmates. On the prison grounds, we shed our umbrellas and coats at the door of the restaurant, InGalera, (slang for “in prison”) and stepped into a brightly lit modern space.

“Vino?” the waiter asked as we sat down and glanced around the dining room uncertainly. “A glass of red or white?”

A glass was not going to cut it. We were going to need a bottle. We were presented with an elegant leather-bound wine list.

A gourmet dining experience inside of a functioning jail (and fully staffed by current prisoners) made us think about balance. We needed a wine with balance. Red, but not too red. Italian, but not too Italian. A Super Tuscan, for example, would feel overt and brash. A southern Nero d’Avola on the other hand seemed too spicy for the somber northern setting.

My eyes were drawn to Alto Adige. Pinot Nero—known elsewhere as pinot noir—does well in the cool microclimate of southern Tyrol. High-altitude and drinkable: this was the wine we needed to ground us for the evening.

Almost instantly, I felt myself relax into the wine. The ruby liquid rolled over my palate and reduced my self-doubt about dining in this experimental restaurant.

We clinked glasses in front of a floor-to-ceiling poster of Escape from Alcatraz. The place had a sense of humor. And plenty of wine.

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