France's vineyards grapple with grape thieves at harvest time

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By Daniel Bellamy  with AFP
France's vineyards grapple with grape thieves at harvest time

In the heart of Burgundy's most prestigious vineyards, security forces patrol day and night during harvest time to deter grape thieves.

"The leaner the harvest, the greater the risk of theft," said one winemaker in the village of Vosne-Romanée, south of Dijon.

"The presence of the gendarmes reassures us", explained Vincent Gros, head of the Gros Frère area where the great wines of Echézeaux and Clos de Vougeot are produced, and whose vineyards adjoin those of Romanée-Conti, one of the most expensive wines in the world.

"Our vineyard is very fragmented. Outside the village, it is difficult to monitor," he said.

And what is the profile of your typical gape thief? It is often a winemaker, whose vineyards have suffered frost, hail or sunburn, adds Gros.  

"When the harvest is too small, it is tempting to steal grapes, it can be enough to have just some secateurs and a bucket," he said. "With 40 thieves who cut, it can go very quickly!"

At the beginning of the harvest the seasonal workers, armed with secateurs, carefully pick the precious bunches. Meanwhile, on nearby paths, two gendarmes of the Nuits-Saint-Georges brigade patrol by bicycle.

And in camouflage uniform, two members of the Beaune Police Watch and Response Platoon (PSIG) also scrutinize the vines on off-road blue motorbikes.

Then at night, three PSIG gendarmes patrol by car. Once out of the vehicle, they watch the vineyards for a long time with night vision goggles.

"If we see people who have nothing to do in the vineyards at night, we turn on a floodlight, "said gendarme Manuel Fernandes.

"The robberies happen mostly in the early hours of the night, until midnight, and in the early morning, and there may be many thieves coming in with grape harvesters," he says.

The measures taken may seem extreme, but so important are Burgundy's vineyards that many have been given UNESCO World Heritage status.