Sunday, October 10, 2010

GRAPE CAPERS


Grape Capers

Several news items from the wide world of wine caught my eye recently.  You may have heard about these incidents involving the theft of grapes, right off the vines.

In Kirkland, WA, an estimated one and a quarter tons of Bushvine Mourvèdre grapes were taken from the Grand Reve Vineyard.  The crooks apparently left the outer row untouched in an effort to hide the fact that the fruit from the inner rows of bushes was gone.  Other grape varieties nearby were not taken.

Then, a few days later, the BBC reported that Villeneuve-les-Beziers was hit by grape thieves.  According to the report, illegal harvesters used the light of a full moon and a harvesting machine to strip the French vineyard of its 30-ton crop of Cabernet Sauvignon.  A farmer in the area said he had heard of similar crimes being committed in the Languedoc-Roussillon region.  Using a harvesting machine, the farmer said, would have meant the grape caper could have been pulled off by only two people.  The vineyard was reportedly quite isolated, so the robbers probably worked unmolested.

A German vineyard near Hamburg was stripped of nearly its whole crop of grapes intended  to be a premium wine used primarily as a VIP gift.  The Telegraph states that only a basket of those grapes remained.

In at least the French and U.S. cases, the vineyard owners registered some surprise at the lack of solidarity among grape growers that the crimes represent.  To say the least.

These thefts indicate a professional level of expertise, not only to pull of the heist but also to know what to do with the grapes once they are stolen - or at least to know who would be interested in buying the illegally obtained fruit.  One would imagine that it's rare for a truck to pull up unannounced at a winery and offer to sell a ton - or thirty - of grapes.  These criminals had to know what they were doing.  A French detective is quoted in the Telegraph that he believes a “wine mafia gang” is to blame for that theft.

I asked a few wine people for their feelings on these events.  I was curious about how common grape thefts like these are, and whether there were any personal stories that mirrored these actions.

Dave Potter, of Municipal Winemakers, told me these are the first crimes of this nature he's heard of in the U.S.  However, when Potter worked in Australia for a Bulgarian winemaker, he heard stories about how it was not uncommon for roving thieves to do their worst in the dark of night in the winemaker’s homeland.  "He said they'd come and take the crops at night before the winemakers were ready to pick.  It ended up being a bit of a race, and the wineries always struggled to get the fruit ripe."  Potter added that because of this, "that winemaker was always surprised at how the Aussies were able to get the fruit so ripe."

Amanda Cramer, winemaker for Niner Wine Estate in Paso Robles, took a break from a busy harvest to say she had never heard of grapes being stolen from a vineyard.  “It’s quite a bold crime, to pick all that fruit without being seen.”  Cramer wondered about the possibility of an insurance scam.  However, at least in the French case, the vineyard was insured but not the grapes themselves.

Richard Maier, proprietor of St. Helena Road Vineyards and Winery in Napa Valley was also unaware of these events, or any others like them.  Maier says, “We have never had a problem here, a little out of the way and hard to find.”

Peggy Evans, Executive Director of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association, echoed the previous sentiments.  She was familiar with these recent events, but had never heard of them happening in California.

Tyler Coleman, under his guise of “Dr. Vino,” asked in his blog, “Will this outburst lead to the rise of Chateau Razorwire, a fenced vineyard with a panopticon in the center?  Of course, back in the day, some of the best vineyards in Burgundy were 'clos,' or walled vineyards.  Chateau Razorwire would have a tad less charm.”

While searching the internet to see if any other incidents of this type appeared, I came across an article from the California Farm Bureau Federation website from harvest time 2007.  In it, accounts of metal theft from California vineyards in Kern and San Joaquin counties were discussed.  It was pointed out the money made by selling the metal equipment for scrap was a pittance compared to what the thief could have earned had he simply asked the grower for a job.

There was also an account of a half ton of grapes stripped from a vineyard, but the van the thieves were using to carry away the loot got stuck in the mud and was abandoned.  Another 700 pounds of grapes were dumped on the ground behind the vehicle.  Vineyard thieves have apparently upgraded their skills in the few years since then.