Castello di Potentino: A Return to Tradition

  • Kacie McGeary

Tucked inside a secret valley in one of the last undiscovered corners of Tuscany sits an ancient stone structure surrounded by unspoiled countryside. Dating back to the Etruscan civilization, Castello di Potentino was once a cultural center of the region, bearing witness to the artistic prowess of Classical Antiquity, the Renaissance, and the Age of Discovery. But somewhere amid the modern era, the castle and its grounds were abandoned.

Charlotte Horton first discovered Potentino among the pages of a faded Italian guide book. At the time, she was an established English journalist and a cultural figure in London looking to open her own winery and reconnect with nature in a refreshingly visceral way.

Seeing the castle’s raw, enigmatic beauty suspended in time provided an undeniably unique opportunity—it beckoned her to partake in a slower, more organic way of life and recover the age-old traditions of Tuscan winemaking.

Within a year, Charlotte—along with her expatriate mother, stepfather, and stepbrother—visited the storied site. Though dilapidated and overgrown, its potential was unequivocal. With visions of restoring Potentino to its cultural peak and bringing rural logic back to the modern age, Charlotte moved to the castle full time.
The renovation was no small undertaking. “You don’t even want to know what this place was like when we started the restorations,” Charlotte explains. “Luckily, I was born a natural optimist.”

With the help of volunteers and the support of her extended family, Charlotte recovered every inch of the castle. “I painted every window, restored every surface, planted every vine by hand, and brought the olive trees back into production,” she states in a matter-of-fact tone. The most pivotal detail, however, is that she did it all using natural materials and local, traditional techniques. “It wasn’t easy,” Charlotte adds, “but a place like this really gives you energy—it gives back whatever you put into it. I think all beautiful places do.”

Bit by bit, Potentino was architecturally and agriculturally revitalized—but it was only the beginning. Charlotte’s next step was to focus on recreating the castle as a cultural center, which first required that it be reopened to the public. “My aim was to offer what I call ‘deep tourism,’” she notes. “I wanted to give people a deeper, more intimate understanding of culture through the landscape.” Naturally, the most authentic way to do this was by offering experiences that had been rooted in the valley for centuries.
Over the following months, Charlotte invited local artisans to teach resident courses in everything from foraging to winemaking to oil painting, welcomed volunteers from around the world to tend the vineyards in exchange for room and board, and opened Potentino’s bed and breakfast as a way to accommodate individuals who sought solace among the bountiful, biodiverse terrain. With each initiative, visitors were given an opportunity to connect with their surroundings and discover more sustainable practices of living—be it in the form of cultivation, expression, or communion.

“I think that we, as humans, are in a phase where we’re disconnected from our environments,” Charlotte offers. “But human civilization only exists because we learned how to live with our environments—we were only able to develop art and poetry because we could find water, produce food, make shelter, and begin trading and learning about different cultures.” In order to restore a more holistic, non-Trumpian society, she believes that we must return to tradition, relearn how to live in harmony with nature, and carry these understandings into the modern world.
For the past two decades, Charlotte has sought to create wholly authentic experiences for everyone who visits the Italian fortress. That means collaborating with pecorino cheesemakers who raise sheep that have been pastured in fields on the mountain, breadmakers who grow their own grain and mill their flour via natural water energy, food archaeologists who prepare food in the Etruscan–Roman fashion, and producers who educate on the difference between genuine and fraudulent olive oil. But it also means ensuring that Potentino operates like a 21st-century castle in terms of culture.

From commissioning artists, writers, and musicians to create original works inspired by Potentino’s natural surroundings; to hosting esteemed symposiums on food systems and global political issues; to developing a series of concerts, plays, and documentary screenings showcasing the work of individuals from around the world; Charlotte has prompted a cross-pollination of the arts within the confines of undisturbed acreage. “We’re not old fogies, or some hermits living in a castle,” Charlotte says cheekily. “We get up to quite a lot.”

But aside from establishing award-winning varieties of food, wine, and art, Charlotte has also fostered a community grounded in conviviality, a concept that is increasingly rare in this day and age. At Potentino, everyone eats together, works together, and spends their free time together. “We don’t have a television here, so people sit and talk, play games, and sing together,” Charlotte adds. “It’s interesting how easily people return to that.”

And when it comes to the concerts, the artists in residence, and the rest of the castle’s cultural events, everything is done without monetary exchange—it’s all altruistic in spirit, relying on bartering, donating, and volunteering. “I think this sort of community creates wonderful things,” Charlotte notes. “It sounds very idealist, but I think it actually produces a different quality of work if people aren’t having to think of the lucrative results or do something according to someone else’s formula.”
So even if members of Potentino’s community don’t go on to become traditional farmers, winemakers, or castle-busters, they certainly leave the grounds with an understanding of the value of food, the beauty of observation, and the importance of living harmoniously with plants, animals, and people. “It seems elementary, Charlotte offers, “but it’s what can really change our lives for the better.”

Looking forward, Charlotte’s dream is to continue her efforts in preserving and conserving the importance of place by creating a type of reserve, a biodiversity fortress of the valley—and she’s well on her way. Last year, she increased Potentino’s microlife biodiversity by planting 350 indigenous fruit trees, working with a local honey man to put in 30 new beehives, and commissioning a local naturalist to write a book about the flora and fauna of the valley. But the largest initiative to date remains the Potentino Valley Project.

“It’s a really simple idea—basically, we allow people to adopt a plot of land in the valley, and their contribution helps preserve the natural landscape,” Charlotte explains. “In return, they get 10 years worth of wine and olive oil, made in the old style on their own land.” The intent is to reconnect people with where their food and wine comes from, raise their awareness and sensibility about food production, and, ultimately, get more people involved.
From its inception, Potentino has not only reawakened the importance of tradition within today’s generation; it has reestablished and maintained pivotal practices for generations to come.

“This return to tradition is important because it’s in our DNA. We simply wouldn’t be here if, thousands of years ago, people hadn’t observed nature and learned how to live with it,” Charlotte says plainly. “It’s dear to my heart because it’s dear to everyone’s hearts. From an understanding of place comes life.”