How to Steal a Crop from a Vineyard

I wish I’d thought of that. I don’t mean stealing someone’s else crop for filling up our fermentation tanks (as regulars know, this would have come in handy last year, after we lost 80% of our crop to hail in May). But we certainly missed a trick as potential victims of such a crime. We could have had the children crying in front of the cameras.

dsc_0006Now I’m quite sure that there is nothing false about vigneron Roland Cavaille’s claim that his Cabernet Sauvignon grapes were swiped at night last week, costing him some €15,000 in lost revenue and a year’s hard labour. The surprise is that the world’s media have got hold of the story with such fruity conspiracy theories. Google his name and you’ll find 50 news stories about the grape heist, including this film from the BBC.

Here’s a ‘Wine Mafia’ report from the London Evening Standard:

“Two harvesting machines were used to take about 35 tonnes of the ripened fruit from a field in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. “These are some of the best grapes in France, and we fear a wine mafia gang has stolen them,” said a detective. He believes the grapes were taken straight to a specialist to create a fine vintage.”

dsc_0103Apparently, the 2 hectare vineyard was a mile or so from his home in a secluded spot, and the grapes were worth €15,000 (£12,900). Some of the best grapes in France? If this amount of Cabernet Sauvignon had been stolen from Château Lafite in Pauillac, the Rothschilds would have lost not €15k but €20 million, based on their opening 2009 price per bottle to the Bordeaux trade of €550. And Lafite 2009 (pictured during the ’09 harvest), with 82.5% Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, is worth double that now.

Now that’s not to say that Lafite make 17 tonnes per hectare of Cabernet from their precious old vines, because permitted yields in Bordeaux are about a third of what our man Roland produced down south. 35 tonnes would produce about 27,000 litres of wine (36,000 bottles), whereas here we’re only allowed to produce just over 10,000 litres from 2 hectares.

img_0989(In case you’re thinking that Roland’s grapes could be transformed into a wine that tastes like Lafite, even our 9 year-old Amelia could spot the difference. We teach ’em young to taste, and spit out, at an early age in these parts. This tasting session prior to her learning to decant some wine in our local restaurant came straight after Judo, hence the unusual kit.)

On reflection, what the media attention proves is just how honest French wine growers and producers are. Thefts from vineyards are very rare (unless you include pallets of wine collected for export by unscrupulous or financially-challenged merchants, but never paid for).

dsc_0696The vineyards of Bordeaux, which stretch over 117,500 hectares or 290,000 acres, are almost all easily accessible from the road, even by a large harvesting machine, let alone on foot. There are some enclosed plots dotted about, but I can only think of Château Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion within the suburbs of Bordeaux that are behind a large, inpenetrable fence. The best bits of Château Latour in Pauillac and Léoville-Las Cases in St-Julien are behind walls, and negotiating the slopes of Ausone or the stone walls of Canon or Belair in St-Emilion would not be advisable in the dark on any machine, never mind a harvester. Other than that, access to even some of the top vineyards wouldn’t be too difficult.

dsc_0070One feature of so many Châteaux, which most wine lovers are unaware of, is just how spread out the parcels can be. Although some Châteaux, like the 33 hectares of Troplong Mondot in St-Emilion, have vines that surround the Château as a single entity, this is surprisingly unusual. A few of the great Cru Classés of the Médoc have as many as 40 to 50 different plots, many of which are quite a trek from the Château itself.

img_19571However, you’re not going to be able to steal from Château Lascombes and call it ‘Lascombes’. More usefully for the thief with a harvesting machine, a couple of tractors and suitable trailers, the vast expanses of the straight Bordeaux appellation and AC Bordeaux Supérieur, or the Côtes de Bordeaux, form a patchwork of different owners. With a small amount of local knowledge, it wouldn’t be tricky to steal grapes under cover of darkness.

dsc_0694The sight and sound of harvesting machines, with tractors and trailers in tow, is very common right now. Around St-Emilion today, for example, I saw at least 20 machines in operation. As for working in the dark, in 2009 there was a great deal of harvesting in the early hours: one half of the Entre Deux Mers had been hit by hail in May, to devastating effect, whereas growers in the East and South East of the area between the rivers were untouched.

dsc_0125Since many there were, shall we say, within touching distance of their permitted yield, it was natural for them to, er, assist their beleaguered friends come September and early October. The roads were sticky with juice, flowing from trailers first thing in the morning. It became so obvious what was happening that customs officers set up a check point.

So, in Bordeaux, you could easily steal someone else’s grapes if you have access to the right kit. It’s just that if you were caught  – and you would be, because someone always talks in the end – I wouldn’t want to be around to witness the consequences.

img_0382As for our vines at Bauduc, which surround the house, you’d have to be a bit dim to try it on, as the only way out passes the Gendarmerie at the end of the road. And that’s assuming you can escape our vicious hounds.

8 thoughts on “How to Steal a Crop from a Vineyard

    1. Gavin

      Hi Paul
      Of course. But just look at the press coverage. Sadly though, I don't think Roland is in a position to profit from that. Rgds, Gavin

  1. Jo Quinney

    It always intrigues me what get picked up by the main media, I'm a PR person so it would. This story has a human interest and could be seen as a TOT (triumph over tragedy story.

    But when you look at his in the BBC today http://bbc.in/bu5KcU
    It does make you wonder? Rgds Jo

    Great post – great thoughts – great wine

    1. Gavin

      Hi Jo
      Thanks for the kind words. I didn't really get the significance of the Greggs story on the beeb. Let me know if you have a mo. Best regards, Gavin. PS Note to readers: this Quinney is no relation, as has already been established, by the way.

  2. Ryan O'Connell

    I too was pretty surprised that two different grape heist stories broke this vintage. There's this one and the guy in Washington. Anyway, good press. Getting British press to say that Languedoc Roussillon grapes are very good and can produce fine vintages is good news no matter how we get it ;D

    1. Gavin

      Thanks Ryan
      It seems that between you and Louise Hurren you're doing a good job on promoting the Languedoc on Facebook, and on Twitter of course – @louisehurren and @mroconnell on Twitter if anyone is interested in news from there.
      I bet Louise wishes she could have generated this much press with a story.
      Hope the harvest is going well. Rgds, Gavin

  3. Sean Allison

    I think it was Languedoc chapter of Al Quaida – our old friend Laden Bin is up to his dirty tricks again!! But if it isnt him then i am sure this will end up as Pinot Noir in the USA under the label "Stolen Red Bicyclette"