Weathermen face grapes of wrath

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EVERYONE MOANS that the weathermen always get it wrong, but few would think of suing meteorologists for their mistakes. But that is exactly what a group of French wine producers from the Perpignan region wants to do.

The vine-growers are furious that Meteo-France, the main French weather forecasters, failed to warn them about a heavy hailstorm that struck the area last Wednesday.

They claim that their harvest has been destroyed - an economic catastrophe for the area - and they are demanding justice. Jean Roger, 50, president of the Vine Growers Association for Pyrenees-Orientales, said: "The storm should have been foreseen; we should have been warned. If the weathermen can predict that it will rain in Paris at 3:23pm, how did they miss this?"

According to the Chamber of Agriculture, 2,080 hectares of vines suffered severe damage, and a further 5,230 hectares were mildly affected. Grapes have been detached from the vine, and those remaining have been bruised. "Our whole harvest has been lost and it has made men of all ages cry," said Mr Roger.

Hail has always posed a problem in the area. Ten years ago, the wine producers invested in 72 hail-cannons, which are managed by the group Lutte Contre La Grele(Battle Against Hail). With three hours' warning of a hailstorm, the group will fire chemical crystals from the cannons into the clouds to prevent hailstones forming.

Meteo-France denies negligence. Mr Lopez, a spokesman for the south- west office, told The Independent: "Until this year we had a contract with Lutte Contre La Grele, but the 1999 contract has not yet been signed.

"Even though there was no direct contractual obligation, we informed the group of a grade B warning [a moderate chance of a storm]."

He added: "With all the progress that has been made in forecasting, people seem to think we are infallible - but there is always some risk of error."