PINHEIRO DA CRUZ, Portugal (Reuters Life!) - It might be the good sandy terroir and the sun, but oenologists at Portugal's Pinheiro da Cruz prison say what gives their wine its prize-winning taste is the spirit of the inmates who make it.
There are no striped suits, armed guards or watchtowers to be seen at the Pinheiro da Cruz vineyard in southern Portugal even though some prisoners are serving long jail terms. Inmates work unsupervised most of the time carrying sharp tools and chatting as they work their way through the fields.
They are even allowed a glass of wine every now and then.
"There is a relationship of trust, we identify the inmates who have a track record that allows us to trust them for this job," said Antonio Matias, a former guard-turned-vintner and currently head of the prison wine cellar.
The bottle label, signed by the chief oenologist, says the wine is "enriched by the hope that the inmates exude" and "inspired by their noble sentiments."
The wine-making project started in the 1950s as a form of hard labor for prisoners, but has turned over the years into a reward for inmates showing good behavior, giving them flexible rules and a sense of freedom.
"The main goal is always to help inmates prepare themselves to return to society. But, if, besides that, we manage to produce good wine, so much the better," said Matias.
The prison makes around 25,000 liters of red wine a year and 5,000 liters of white, with revenues worth some 100,000 euros ($137,400).
The inmates cherish the flexible rules, the ability to be in the open air, and a small daily wage, but still, their main reward is watching the hours go by faster, they say.
"We make 2.20 euros per day, it's not much, but it's a way to keep us distracted. Time goes by a lot faster here, it's a lot worse being inside the cell," says Vitor Grilo, who is halfway through a 19-year sentence for murder.
A bottle of prison wine sells for over 30 euros in Lisbon's top restaurants, whose wine lists put this wine from southern Portugal's Terras do Sado area next to world renowned reds from the Alentejo region.
While some inmates may be proud of their wine Eleuterio, who is about to complete his five-year sentence, says he will steer clear of the vineyards after doing his time.
"This is not my style, when I'm done I'll go back to my business in the construction sector. I don't care that much about the job I do here, I'm only worried about spending time."
Editing by Andrei Khalip and Paul Casciato