How the daughter of an Iranian general became a winemaker in Italy
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Catastrophic floods brought Amineh Pakravan to Italy. One of the “mud angels” who rushed to Florence in 1966 to rescue the city’s books and works of art, her passion for history and literature turned into a real love story when she met Enzo Papi, her fellow student and future husband. And Tuscany became her new home.
“I taught him French, he taught me Italian, reading Dante’s Divine Comedy to me in his Tuscan accent,” says Pakravan, gazing over the dense Mediterranean maquis of strawberry trees, juniper and oak separating the couple’s hilltop vineyards from coastal flatlands and the sea.
They bought their first small parcel of land in 1973 near the medieval town of Riparbella, along with two stone villas, one completely in ruins.
“We had nothing – no water, no electricity – and we were happy, watching wild boar and deer on the slopes,” she says. The first grapes they planted were Sangiovese.
They built up their holding from plots deserted during the urbanisation of Tuscany in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Pakravan-Papi label can now be found on the 45,000 bottles of red and white wine they produce each year after going commercial in 2004.
Born in Iran to a distinguished family – her father Hassan was a general and ambassador under the late Shah – Pakravan grew up in the whirl of the diplomatic world, studying at an English school in New Delhi, in Pakistan and later in France where she graduated in medieval history at Aix-en-Provence university. French was as much the family’s first language as Farsi, but she wrote her first book, a novel set in 16th-century Amsterdam, in Italian, and speaks the language fluently, complete with a Tuscan accent.
Any thoughts of returning to Iran were dashed by the outbreak of the Islamic revolution in 1979. Her father was recalled from retirement in Paris to Tehran by the ailing Shah and was soon arrested. After two months in prison and a trial Pakravan says lasted seven minutes, he was among 11 senior members of the former regime to be executed by firing squad in one night. Pictures of their corpses were published in newspapers she received in Paris.
Pakravan recounts how a former senator, her father’s cellmate, described them sleeping on straw and her father’s sense of calm, reading Rumi, the 13th-century mystic poet who wrote of love being “an endless ocean with no beginning or end”.
Without apparent bitterness but with a deep sense of sorrow mixed with anger, Pakravan remembers how her father, then head of the Shah’s Savak secret police, had met regularly in 1963 with Ruhollah Khomeini, discussing religion and politics with the ayatollah who was then under house arrest after a wave of anti-government demonstrations. Her father, described by those who knew him as a pragmatist, argued against those close to the Shah calling for the cleric’s execution.
Instead, Khomeini was exiled. He returned to Iran early in 1979 to lead the revolution, welcomed by ecstatic crowds. Some claim that Khomeini then ordered the execution of the man who had once intervened to save him.
Pakravan’s mother returned to Tehran briefly in a vain attempt to recover her husband’s extensive library, but Pakravan says she will not go back as long as the current regime remains in power.
Over a lunch she has prepared of risotto with radicchio followed by rather un-Islamic wild boar and roast pork, she expresses views on similarities in Persian and Italian cultures, and not just their shared, ancient appreciation of wine.
She jokes about Iranian tarof, the elaborate etiquette of politeness that marks everyday conversations (as well as hard-edged negotiations) and that can disguise hidden intentions or emotions. Then there is the importance of connections – who you know to find your way through the maze of bureaucracy that can frustrate daily life in both countries. Italians and Persians, romantics at heart, also share a pragmatic streak – as conveyed in the Pakravan-Papi motto displayed on every bottle (in French), “Nothing Without Reason”.
Here her husband, an industrialist and entrepreneur, jumps in. “Everything has to be strictly controlled so that nothing is controlled,” he says.
Petite and wiry, Pakravan used to take part in the planting, pruning and picking on their steep and muddy slopes. Now, at 67, she concentrates on dealing with endless bureaucracy involved in managing the winery and preparing apartments in their newly renovated villa as holiday lets.
“We are absolutely chained to bureaucracy,” she says. “Europe is the worst – an incomplete puzzle where everything is left suspended.”
Before starting to plant a vineyard, a quota is needed. A few years ago that meant acquiring the right to plant from someone else in Italy who was destroying vines in exchange for EU subsidies intended to prevent overproduction. More recently that quota has to be bought from producers in Tuscany itself. “This is how they stifle competition,” she says.
Then officials have to approve the type of vines, check density per hectare and give permits based on the hydrological conditions as they seek to ensure the purity and origin of the wine. Pakravan gave up seeking “DOC” (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) certification, saying the process amounted to an “inquisition”.
Authorisation to restore their ruined villa took 16 months. “We have so many friends who want to come to Tuscany and restore villas. They have no idea what it entails. I advise them against,” says Pakravan.
Despite all the hurdles, the couple’s Pakravan-Papi winery, advised by oenologist Graziana Grassini, has won many awards, exporting mainly to US, Danish and Japanese customers.
The conversation turns to politics and how the new prime minister, Matteo Renzi, former mayor of nearby Florence, promises to tackle Italy’s suffocating bureaucracy. “I have great sympathy for him,” she says. “In another country he would succeed, like Tony Blair in the UK. But this is not a normal country.”
Guy Dinmore is the FT’s Rome correspondent
Pakravan’s verdict . . .
● Beautiful natural surroundings
● A rich cultural heritage
● Low crime rate
● Overbearing bureaucracy
● Tiresome provincialism
What you can buy for . . .
€600,000 A three-bedroom, hillside villa in southern Tuscany with a pool
€1.25m A seven-bedroom holiday rental property with owners’ accommodation near Volterra
€2.5m A 10-bedroom villa with pool and views towards San Gimignano