by Tim Atkin

Grape heists – no ladder required

It was among the most famous heists in the art world. Early one February morning in 1994, two crooks propped a ladder against the wall of Oslo’s National Gallery. They smashed a first floor window, climbed inside and lifted Edvard Munch’s masterpiece, The Scream, off the wall, sliding the painting back down the ladder and disappearing in a car. The thieves left a postcard where the painting had hung. “Thanks for the poor security,” it said.

Travelling through Burgundy last week, I drove past the vineyards of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Vosne-Romanée, themselves something of a work of art. These small, hallowed patches of Grand Cru ground produce some of the most expensive wines on the planet. The land itself is almost priceless. The crop it produces is considerably cheaper, of course, but given the value of a bottle of DRC, it too is worth a small fortune.

Ladders are unnecessary for access here. Toulouse-Lautrec could have scaled the wall that separates the vineyards from the road below. There’s a polite notice asking tourists not to pick the grapes, but no one to enforce it. In Burgundy, you can walk through almost any vineyard with impunity. The same thing applies in other regions, from Barolo to Bordeaux, McLaren Vale to the Mosel.

Indeed, it’s one of the joys of the wine world that ordinary punters can visit the great terroirs. It’s as close as many will come to tasting the wines the vineyards produce, but no matter. Those punters have had a connection, however brief, with a piece of special ground. No razor wire, no searchlights, no heavies wielding truncheons.

But maybe this is about to change. The 2010 harvest has seen three well-publicised heists in the Languedoc, Germany and eastern Washington. It’s possible that one or more of these thefts was an inside job — better to claim the insurance on stolen grapes than turn them into wine that’s hard to sell perhaps — but it seems highly unlikely. After all, the Washington thieves only took old vine Mourvèdre, leaving the other varieties on the vine. Like the people who nicked The Scream, they knew exactly what they were after.

Given the absence of security or surveillance cameras — one racy Master of Wine claims to have made love in the vineyards of all five of the Bordeaux first growths and I’m pretty sure no one has video evidence of him and his wife in flagrante — it’s amazing this doesn’t happen more often.

I still remember a story about an Australian flying winemaker doing a vintage in Moldova in the 1990s. Like a good New World oenologist, he visited the vineyards he was in charge of, took a few samples, analysed them in his rudimentary lab and told his employers they should begin the harvest the following day. When he turned up the next morning, however, the vineyard had been stripped. “The locals ate the grapes,” he was informed.

Nowadays, it’s profit, rather than hunger that motivates thieves. And if they think it’s worth pinching grapes in Villeneuve-les-Beziers, Hamburg and Benton County — hardly the most glamorous wine-producing areas in the world – how long before they start to target Margaux, Volnay and Bernkastel?

The more expensive fine wine becomes, the more grapes will be a magnet for criminals. If someone can steal 35 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Languedoc without anyone noticing, they could do it anywhere.

Unlike the world of art, where a painting or piece of sculpture is the finished article, grapes have to be processed before they have real value. But what’s to stop someone hiring some cellar space, making the wine and selling it on to a gang that’s happy to flog cut-price Lafite or DRC? You may think it couldn’t happen, but it’s not that far-fetched.

As things stand, top vineyards are ludicrously under-protected. DRC itself was the victim of an attempted blackmail earlier this year, where someone threatened to poison some of its soils unless he was paid a ransom of E1m. The police subsequently arrested the extortionist, but the ease with which he had apparently entered the estate’s vineyards was worrying.

Is Aubert de Villaine, co-manager of DRC, considering the installation of an electric fence, or buying a rotweiler to patrol the perimeter of Richebourg and La Tâche? It seems unlikely, at least for the time being. But just as security checks at airports have become a routine (if tiresome) part of daily life for travelers, so vineyards will surely become less accessible in future.

Despite the “poor security”, The Scream was eventually recovered, but that’s not always the case with masterpieces. There are currently 551 Picassos, 209 Renoirs, 174 Rembrands and 43 Van Goghs missing somewhere in the world.

Originally published in Off Licence News

Leave a Reply