Grand Theft Mourvedre

You’ve planted a vineyard, and nurtured the vines for years in anticipation of your first crop. As you await the moment of harvest, expectation and anticipation are almost unbearable. One morning, when you venture into the vineyard to check the ripeness and maturity level of your grapes, you realize that they’ve already been picked—by someone else, that is.

This was the discovery made recently by Ryan Johnson, a grower in the Red Mountain region of Washington State. He had planted head-trained Mourvedre in a vineyard near Col Solare, and awoke one day to find that thieves had picked 1.25 tons of grapes overnight. Johnson had a contract to sell the fruit to Syncline Cellars for $4,000.

There are several bizarre aspects to this crime. For starters, the perpetrator would need a crew of pickers, along with equipment and trucks. He or she would have to be highly organized and practiced to be able to get in and out quickly. Then there’s the question of what to do with the grapes. Mourvedre is an unusual variety in that part of the world, and almost anyone who bought the stolen fruit would know where it came from. The wine made from it would be highly recognizable as well.

This is not an isolated incident. A rash of grape thefts have broken out in Europe, primarily in Germany and France. A grower in the Languedoc recently had 35 tons of Cabernet stolen from his vineyard overnight. The sheer size of this particular theft has led some people to speculate that a “wine mafia” is targeting vineyards in the area—perhaps Russian in origin, fencing the grapes to the Chinese.

Some cynics have suggested that (in the case of the Languedoc grower, at least) the “theft” was orchestrated by the victim for purposes of collecting insurance money. Certainly, there’s a big logistical difference between stealing 1.25 and 35 tons, both in terms of manpower and equipment. Simply transporting the grapes out of the vineyard would probably make enough noise to be noticed. While the Col Solare vineyard was isolated atop a hillside, most vines in the Languedoc tend to be planted at sea level, in proximity to population. Selling them in France would be next to impossible, given the strict laws about grape origin and yields; most certainly, any winery facility operating prematurely (before their own grapes were harvested) would be easy to spot.

Last year, the prime target for theft in California’s wine country was solar panels; this year it seems to be grapes. According to Ryan Johnson, the real irony of the Red Mountain heist was that the thieves, if they had waited another week or ten days, could have captured the fruit at its peak.

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