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Vineyard theft  ‘the viticultural equivalent of an art heist’

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Call it the great grape caper.

A thief or thieves with a taste for an unusual wine grape have made off with virtually an entire vineyard’s worth.

“It’s certainly an unusual caper, not unlike the viticultural equivalent of an art heist,” said Paul McBride, owner and partner of Grand Rêve Vintners of Kirkland, Wash., which owned the crop before the vineyard villains struck.

The theft of 1 ½ tons of mourvedre grapes occurred sometime between Sept. 15-20 at the Grand Rêve vineyard on the renowned Red Mountain region in eastern Washington, likely in the dead of night, McBride said. And the crooks targeted the mourvedre grapes, leaving behind less than 200 pounds of grapes in the half-acre experimental vineyard and ignoring other varietals growing nearby.

The grapes were worth approximately $4,000, but the rip-off was especially aggravating because McBride and Ryan Johnson, his partner and vineyard manager, were just days away from harvesting their first planting of the unusual — for Washington — mourvedre grape varietal.

“It takes three years of really nurturing and caring for those plants … and then you’re within about 10 days of getting it picked and someone with nothing invested shows up and cleans you out,” McBride said. “I suspect that was by design. Whoever did it knew what they were doing.”

McBride and Johnson reported the theft to the Benton County Sheriff’s Department and offered a $5,000 reward, but as of Monday afternoon “we haven’t had any new leads,” McBride said.

While mourvedre is common in the south Rhone region of France and elsewhere, where it is used primarily as a blending grape, it is relatively new in Washington.

“It’s an exotic and unique variety of fruit around here,” said McBride, who speculates that a “wine geek – the sort of person who lies in bed at night thinking, ‘I’ve just got to have this vine-grown mourvedre’” – is responsible for the theft.

“But since we don’t know who it is, any option is on the table,” he said.