Stopping Vineyard Grinches
Bears and birds weren't the only predators of Northwest grapes and wine this year
While most vintners—even ice wine producers—were able to get grapes in and wines down for the winter prior to the holiday season, some grapes went astray as creatures whom many growers undoubtedly deemed “cuddly as a cactus” (to steal a line from the description of Dr. Seuss’ notorious Christmas-time villain, the Grinch) invaded vineyards and wineries from Oregon to the Okanagan.
Bears scarfed down Gewürztraminer at 3,000-case Weisinger’s of Ashland in Oregon’s Rogue Valley, while growers elsewhere kept their eyes on starlings, robins and even Canada Geese, but the furred and feathered felons took a backseat to the skill of thieves at Grand Rêve Estate Vineyard on Red Mountain in Eastern Washington.
With the year coming to a close, one of the enduring mysteries is the identity of the thieves who stole 2,500 pounds of grapes from a half-acre plot of bush-vine Mourvèdre in September.
The grapes were 10 days away from picking when vines were stripped clean of the clusters, robbing grower Paul McBride and winemaker James Mantone of Syncline Cellars in Lyle, Wash., the satisfaction of seeing what kind of winegrapes from local head-trained vines would produce. Remaining fruit was harvested later in the season and fermented with some grapes from nearby Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, but Mantone told Wines & Vines it was done “just to do it.”
The theft was unique in McBride’s 18 years of growing. Harvested sometime between Sept. 15 and Sept. 20, McBride said it would have taken two to three people a few hours to strip the vines. The thieves obviously knew what they were doing. The cuts were clean; only tire tracks were left behind.
“It seemed like it was done by someone who was pretty knowledgeable,” he said.
While depredations by animals are one thing, McBride said grape theft is unacceptable in a young industry where collaboration helps everyone. A reward of $5,000 was offered for information regarding the culprits, but McBride said greater awareness of the crime—and its consequences—ensures that the grapes are difficult to sell to knowledgeable buyers.
“This just can’t go on in the industry. It’s just not palatable,” he said.
While propane cannons help scare off birds, fences are key against mammals—including humans. McBride has been mulling the prospect of video surveillance. But a gate or fence would be cheaper at just $10,000 to $15,000. The deterrent must be cost effective relative to the value of the crop.
But even surveillance equipment was no use at 10,000-case Church & State Wines in Oliver, B.C., where thieves bypassed the winery’s security system at the end of November and absconded with 100 cases of red wine valued at $40,000. The winery sits in a low-lying area it calls Coyote Bowl, and thieves used a side vent in the building to extract the wines.
While offering a new spin on the term “wine thief,” the incidents highlight the greater need for security at some wineries, as the Northwest becomes a more competitive place to do business. Regardless of what the economy holds, no winery wants literally to be giving its best product away, either by choice or circumstance.