Prison Wine Wins Regional First Prize

Joan Manuel a prisoner serving his time in the Alcoentre penitentiary in Portugal was given the job of working in the vineyards and has since won first prize in a region's wine competition as well as having an honourable mention regarding his red wine.

Now in his second term Joao is no stranger to wine and is in fact a trained oenologist who happened to be sent to a prison that is in the middle of Portugal’s prime wine making regions.

With shears in hand while proudly tasting this year's award winning grapes Joao Manuel said "They're sweet, less so than the white, but they will still be good," said the prisoner, now in his seventh harvest at Alcoentre, adding that 2008 will be a good year for the Riba.  He added “I enjoy it; it’s great to be outdoors”.

Guards and Prisoners

The prison which houses 481 prisoners has achieved critical acclaim on a regular basis since it began growing grapes and producing wine in 1994 in its own 66 acres vineyard.

With 8 guards to every 50-60 prisoners the perimeter is patrolled with teams of 4 armed guards and the exterior of the vineyards are closed off every morning.

The volunteers have been specially picked from a high number of those wishing to work there and the prison’s deputy director, Jorge Gregorio explained "We have a lot of volunteers. We choose them based on the length of their sentences. Generally after they have served at least one third of their term, but we also look at their behaviour and how dangerous they could be."

Labelled Wine Bottles

Each year a massive 85,000 litres of red wine and 25,000 litres of white wine are produced by the prisoners and guards alike.  Up to 10,000 bottles of the speciality Chao de Urze that has labels of ‘Made in Alcoentre Prison’ are snapped up while the remaining wine is sold as table wine.

"It's an artisan wine. There is no use of chemicals or machines, it’s absolutely natural," explained wine expert Francisco Cruz Ferreira. He claims this shows how good the soil and climate is for making wine in Ribatejo.

The low cost of producing the wine means that traditional procedures can be used instead of mechanized machinery which would add further costs.  Each prisoner that works in the vineyards is paid a daily rate of 3.60 Euros.

Luis who is another prisoner happy to be chosen to work during the harvest and able to work outside said "It's sure better to be out here than in a cell. We make a little bit of money, but also the work is taken into account for parole."

Prison guards have the added responsibility of giving technical advice to the workers but chief guard Gabriel Vaz commented that there had never been any serious problems in the past five years.

Joan, 58 who has already served 12 years and has only two years left to serve sleeps alone in the wine cellar every evening and during the weekend he himself becomes a guard.