Italian wine a life-saver in fight against HIV/Aids

Luca Sanjust's villa and vineyards in Tuscany, 2010
Image caption The natural treasures of Italy are being harnessed to help pay for anti-retroviral drugs for people with HIV/Aids in Africa

"Your very good health" is a popular toast often exchanged between people pinging two glasses of wine together.

Usually it is a gesture that is meant to be more friendly than literal.

But now in Italy, its meaning may, indeed, be taken at face value.

That is not because of the contents of the glass, but because of the bottle.

Italy's quality wine producers are selling some of their finest vintages with special labels on the bottle to help in the fight against HIV/Aids in Africa.

On the grapevine

The tiny red labels have been put on around two million bottles so far, each bearing the words 'Wine For Life'.

For every bottle sold, 50 cents (42p) goes to buy anti-retroviral drugs for people in Africa.

"This is about life, it is not about business", says Luca Sanjust, the owner of the Petrolo winery in Tuscany and one of the producers signed up to the scheme.

Luca led me through the idyllic rolling hills of his vineyards to his production line.

There, workers were putting the red labels on bottles of his delicious Galatrona.

"Wine to us is sacred. Life is sacred, " Luca says.

"It's about taking the love that we receive from nature, in the form of wine, and giving it back to the earth, in the form of helping our needy brothers and sisters in Africa."

This almost spiritual reasoning for supporting the project is shared by many of the 120 wine producers who are now a part of the 'Wine For Life' programme.

Luca happens to be a good friend of Jamie Oliver, the British chef who regularly visits Luca's villa to try out new recipes and buy his olive oil there.

Image caption 120 wine producers are now part of the scheme in Italy

His is a medium-sized winery, with the vineyards producing about 70,000 bottles of wine a year.

So, with each bottle making 50 cents, Luca is able to contribute around 35,000 euros (£29,500) a year to the scheme.

African dream

The 'Wine for Life' idea did not come from the wine makers, but from the Sant'Egidio Community in Rome.

Founded by students in 1968, Sant'Egidio has grown into a unique mix of Christian charity, social communicator and diplomatic facilitator.

In its long history, it has done everything from providing Christmas lunches for the homeless, to acting as mediator in the Mozambique civil war, leading to the Rome Peace Accord of 1992.

Mario Marrazitti, its ebullient leader, was part of that peace process and is also behind 'Wine For Life'.

"We were doing work in ten African countries in what we call our 'Dream' project and we needed to sustain it, financially", he tells me amid the tropical plants of Sant'Egidio's glorious garden in Rome.

"We thought that wine producers were a natural partner in this private/ public arrangement, as they represent a connection with nature, whilst also having the ability to raise money.

I ask Mario if the project has worked.

"It's been incredible," he says.

"We believe that about 20,000 children and 2,000 adults have been saved by getting access to the drugs paid for by the wine scheme".

Natural treasures

Image caption The charity behind the wine project believes 20,000 children have been saved as a result

Mario now wants to expand it, by getting supermarket chains like Tesco and Carrefour to set up special corners in their stores, where customers can buy a wider range of products with the red labels on.

"Everyone wins," says Mario.

"The supermarkets will attract a select, socially-conscious, clientele, the producers costs are all covered and the people of Africa get access to the drugs they need, but which governments and other non-governmental organisations can't always provide," he says.

In Tuscany and other areas of Italy, soil, weather and care blend to produce some of the world's finest wines.

Now, those natural treasures are being harnessed for people in a continent hundreds of miles away.

For Luca Sanjust, the link between his land and their life has become sacrosanct, a mission that goes beyond commercialism.

He knows that customers all over Italy are now helping uncork a different kind of revenue stream to fight HIV/Aids and where one of the pleasures of life is now helping to save it.

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