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The Lake Avernus Vineyards
Pozzuoli
By Piero Castellano
15 Oct 2014

Pozzuoli, Italy

October 15, 2014

While Italy is caught in a seemingly endless economic recession, some people are finding success by turning their backs to the disappointments of modern jobs and reverting to agriculture and traditional activities.

In Pozzuoli, near Naples, a crater lake that ancient Romans considered to be the gate to the Underworld has become the entryway to a new life for descendants of sharecropping farmers, turned producers of amazing wines.

Lake Avernus, one of the many craters of Phlegraean Fields (“Campi Flegrei”, “Burning Fields”) volcano, was so deadly in ancient times that birds flying over it were said to fall dead because of poisonous fumes. An oracle, the Cumaean Sybil, lived in a cave by the lake, and prophesized while intoxicated by exhalations. Later, the Romans used it as a training base for their warships, building temples and thermal baths on the hot springs, the ruins of which still dot the crater. In September 1538 CE a sudden eruption, lasting just one month, raised a new 133-meter tall crater, the Monte Nuovo (“New Mountain”) on the eastern side of the lake. Less than 4 kilometers away, the still active Solfatara crater is a tourist attraction, with its sulfurous fumaroles.

Today, the Lake Avernus area is a lavish green oasis that lies in amid a heavily urbanized area, although sometimes mysterious bubbling kills scores of fish. Joggers and cyclists trail around the lake and on holidays families from nearby Naples flock to the area, part of the natural park “Parco Regionale dei Campi Flegrei”.

Thanks to the fertile volcanic soil and Mediterranean climate, the region is famous for its varietal wines, produced under the Campi Flegrei D.O.C. appellation (“Denominazione di Origine Controllata”, Controlled Designation of Origin). Almost half of the surface inside the Avernus crater is covered with vineyards.

Like much of the Italian farmland, it was neglected and gradually abandoned for decades because farming was not lucrative enough.
For the larger part of the 20th century, Italian governments pursued an industrial development strategy in the region. All that remains of it are an abandoned steel mill that stretches over an enormous area near Naples and an empty information technology facility in Pozzuoli.

Emilio Mirabella and Umberto Guardascione were both children of unrelated families farming vineyards in Lake Avernus, the aristocratic owner of which lived far away and seldom visited it.

Predictably, both Umberto and Emilio chose jobs and ways of life different than those of their parents: while Emilio was fascinated by the sea and became a sailing yacht skipper, Umberto was an electronic technician.

They were doing well, but just before the economic crisis started to ravage the Italian economy, both of them received a call from their respective parents. The owner wanted to sell the land and they were asking for their children’s help to buy it and farm it on their own.

They faced a tough dilemma. Either they let their parents down by abandoning the town where they were born and raised or they had to give up their careers and everything they had done. Emilio had just gotten married and his wife had soon discovered she had seasickness. After a brief heart-wrenching discussion, they decided to sell the boat and buy his father’s share of the land.

“I miss the sea,” the sailor turned winemaker confides. “But this lake is like a small Mediterranean. Here is everything I could wish for.”

For Umberto the choice was easier: “I always loved farming the land and making wine – especially making wine. When I was a boy it wasn’t possible to make a living with it, but when my father called I saw a great opportunity.”

Times had changed indeed and Italian winemaking had gained worldwide appreciation, becoming lucrative and popular. In post-industrial times, the Phlegraean Fields area was trying to preserve what was left of its farming, winemaking and typical food traditions.

The trend led to a rediscovery of farming culture, which included traditional music and dances. Until the 19th century, croppers harvested grapes to the sound of improvising bands. As in many other agricultural societies around the world, the harvest season was also a time for courting. Musicians, who were mostly farmers or croppers themselves, played the romantic “Canti della Vendemmia” (“Harvest Songs”) and were paid with wine.

The winemakers of Lake Avernus are trying to revive these traditions, inviting folk music bands to perform in the vineyards, at the banquets they host and during the harvest.
Meanwhile, the former croppers, now neighbors, began a slow but successful improvement of the vineyard and the wines with the help of professional oenologists.
The vineyards of Lake Avernus have a rare distinction: they are some of the very few wines in the world that survived the devastating “Phylloxera Plague” of mid-19th century, which wiped out most of Europe’s vineyards. The sandy, sulfuric soil of the volcanic crater was too resistant for the vine-killing aphids.

“A few plants were affected, but most survived,” Emilio Mirabella explains.

Both the Mirabella and the Guardascione Vineyards can sport the appellative “historical,” and for a good reason.

“Unlike almost all the vineyards in Europe, we do not need to graft the plants on American vines, to make them resistant to Phylloxera,” he added. Ungrafted vines can live much longer.

“We have been visited by officials from the regional authority recently. They counted more than 1,900 historical plants, some of which are them 150 years old,” Umberto Guardascione, who owns the oldest surviving part of the original vineyard, said proudly.

Lake Avernus wine production is very small; Emilio only produces 4,000 bottles per year and Umberto sells his wine mostly to locals. But both have bigger plans. While Emilio is restoring one of the buildings to offer accommodation, like a real “agriturismo” destination, Umberto has finally accomplished his dream of obtaining a restaurant license to offer his homemade food to visitors.
But the fight through the quagmires of Italian bureaucracy has been exhausting.
“Bureaucracy is the real problem for economy in Italy,” Umberto complains. “After I worked hard to comply with thousands of regulations, an inspector claimed that I was disposing waste frying oil into the lake. In spite of contract and records with a disposal company, I had to pay for a report to prove my regularity.”

Umberto, however, will not give up.

“We will go on. We owe it to our ancestors; we owe it to the land,” he said. “After all, this place has produced wine for thousands of years, nothing could stop us - not even volcanoes.”

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Lake Avernus Vineyards 22
Rampa I Averno, 80078 Pozzuoli, Naples, Italy
By Piero Castellano
16 Sep 2014

Pozzuoli (Italy): The Lake Avernus crater with the vineyards visible in the foreground. The slope visible on the left is the Monte Nuovo, a volcanic cone that sprouted with a furious eruption in only one month, in 1538 CE. (Photo by Piero Castellano)

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Lake Avernus Vineyards 17
Rampa I Averno, 80078 Pozzuoli, Naples, Italy
By Piero Castellano
16 Sep 2014

Pozzuoli (Italy): An extremely old grapevine loaded with grapes of the Falanghina variety in one of the Lake Avernus vineyards. The volcanic soil on the lake's banks is sandy and very rich in sulfur, so the plants survived the "Phylloxera Plague" and do not need to be grafted on American vines, growing much older than the commonly grafted ones. The average age of Lake Avernus vineyards' plants is 50 years, but some are more than 150 years old. (Photo by Piero Castellano)

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Lake Avernus Vineyards 04
Rampa I Averno, 80078 Pozzuoli, Naples, Italy
By Piero Castellano
16 Sep 2014

Pozzuoli (Italy): Umberto Guardascione, owner of the Guardascione Historical Vineyard, in the Lake Avernus crater, in his ancient cellar. He sells a portion of his grapes to the Mirabellas, but he also makes his own wine that he sells unbottled to locals. His banqueting facility is called "Il Canneto dell'Averno", "The Avernus Rushes". (Photo by Piero Castellano)

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Lake Avernus Vineyards 21
Rampa I Averno, 80078 Pozzuoli, Naples, Italy
By Piero Castellano
15 Sep 2014

Pozzuoli (Italy): The vineyards on the banks of Lake Avernus, with the crater rim reflecting on the water surface. The crater is part of the natural park "Parco Regionale dei Campi Flegrei" and it's a very important green area for locals and wildlife. (Photo by Piero Castellano)

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Lake Avernus Vineyards 06
Rampa I Averno, 80078 Pozzuoli, Naples, Italy
By Piero Castellano
13 Apr 2013

Pozzuoli (Italy): Gisa Avino (Left), her husband Emilio Mirabella (Center) and his brother Nicola (Right), the owners of Mirabella Historical Vineyard, in the Lake Avernus crater, chat by an antique wine press. While Gisa and Emilio run the vineyard, Nicola also teaches at the Agricultural Sciences Faculty of University in Napoli. (Photo by Piero Castellano)

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Lake Avernus Vineyards 08
Rampa I Averno, 80078 Pozzuoli, Naples, Italy
By Piero Castellano
13 Apr 2013

Pozzuoli (Italy): Emilio Mirabella cooks for his guests during a banquet at the Mirabella Historical Vineyard, in the Lake Avernus crater. When he was a sailing yacht skipper, Emilio was used to cook for his boat's charterers, but now he can cook ingredients that he farmed himself. (Photo by Piero Castellano)

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Lake Avernus Vineyards 07
Rampa I Averno, 80078 Pozzuoli, Naples, Italy
By Piero Castellano
13 Apr 2013

Pozzuoli (Italy): Guests drinking wine produced at the Mirabella Historical Vineyard, in Lake Avernus crater. The commercial brand of Mirabella's wine, "Cantine dell'Averno" ("Averno's Cellars"), produces only 4,000 bottles per year. (Photo by Piero Castellano)

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Lake Avernus Vineyards 05
Rampa I Averno, 80078 Pozzuoli, Naples, Italy
By Piero Castellano
13 Apr 2013

Pozzuoli (Italy): Umberto Guardascione, owner of the Guardascione Historical Vineyard, in the Lake Avernus crater, points at a grapevine that, according to his father, is almost 100 years old. Umberto's vineyard includes some of the oldest plant of the crater, the ones which escaped the "Phylloxera Plague". (Photo by Piero Castellano)

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Lake Avernus Vineyards 03
Via Coste D'Agnano, 80078 Pozzuoli Naples, Italy
By Piero Castellano
12 Apr 2013

Pozzuoli (Italy): Tourists by sulfuric fumaroles in the Solfatara crater. The Solfatara, like Lake Avernus, is a crater of the large Phlegraean Fields volcanic caldera. (Photo by Piero Castellano)

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Lake Avernus Vineyards 19
Rampa I Averno, 80078 Pozzuoli, Naples, Italy
By Piero Castellano
07 Apr 2011

Pozzuoli (Italy): A grapevine bud on the terraced crater rim of Lake Avernus in springtime. The vineyard goes from the lake's bank up the crater's internal slopes. (Photo by Piero Castellano)

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Lake Avernus Vineyards 11
Rampa I Averno, 80078 Pozzuoli, Naples, Italy
By Piero Castellano
03 Oct 2010

Pozzuoli (Italy): Emilio Mirabella throws a load of Falanghina grape into a vat, where guests of the Mirabella Historical Vineyard will be able to tread it by feet, during a harvest folk reenactment in Lake Avernus crater. Both the Guardascione and Mirabella Vineyards organize events and banquets. (Photo by Piero Castellano)

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Lake Avernus Vineyards 13
Rampa I Averno, 80078 Pozzuoli, Naples, Italy
By Piero Castellano
03 Oct 2010

Pozzuoli (Italy): Gisa Avino, the wife of Emilio Mirabella, wears a myrtle crown during a harvest folk reenactment in the Mirabella Historical Vineyard, in the Lake Avernus crater. Emilio was a sailing yacht skipper when his parents asked him if he wanted to take over the vineyard, and he claims that Gisa's sea sickness helped him to make the decision to become a winemaker. (Photo by Piero Castellano)

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Lake Avernus Vineyards 12
Rampa I Averno, 80078 Pozzuoli, Naples, Italy
By Piero Castellano
03 Oct 2010

Pozzuoli (Italy): Guests of the Mirabella Historical Vineyard, in the Lake Avernus crater, play and sing in procession during a harvest folk reenactment. The crater was believed to have been the entrance to the Underworld, and was depicted in the "Aeneid" by Virgilius. Many local traditions are based on ancient beliefs. (Photo by Piero Castellano)

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Lake Avernus Vineyards 10
Rampa I Averno, 80078 Pozzuoli, Naples, Italy
By Piero Castellano
03 Oct 2010

Pozzuoli (Italy): Guests of the Mirabella Historical Vineyard tread grapes by feet, during a harvest folk reenactment in the Lake Avernus crater. Unlike modern wine pressing machines, treading by foot cannot effectively extract juice from the skin of the grape. (Photo by Piero Castellano)

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Lake Avernus Vineyards 16
Rampa I Averno, 80078 Pozzuoli, Naples, Italy
By Piero Castellano
03 Oct 2010

Pozzuoli (Italy): Grapes of the Falanghina variety in the Guardascione Historical Vineyard on the Lake Avernus crater. The Falanghina dei Campi Flegrei D.O.C. ("Denominazione di Origine Controllata", Controlled Designation of Origin) is a varietal wine, the most produced wine in the crater. (Photo by Piero Castellano)