When thieves broke into The French Laundry last Christmas, they had a careful plan – raid the wine cellar of Thomas Keller’s famous restaurant and steal a precisely selected cache of famous wines: 76 bottles worth more than $300,000. This was the first many people heard about wine thefts, but the FBI says it’s an unfortunately common occurrence – thieves regularly target restaurants with high-end wine cellars to pilfer bottles in demand by collectors. Rarity begets thievery.
Today, the most bizarre example of wine theft in quite some time came to light when scurrilous pickers stole rare grapes from the Guigal family’s prized Le Colombier vineyard in Condrieu in the Northern Rhône in the early morning hours of September 11. Condrieu is the ultimate site for growing viognier and it is tiny – the entire appellation produces only about 25,000 cases of wine in a good year. (Condrieu is also home to France’s smallest appellation, a single winery and vineyard called Château Grillet but that is another story for another day.)
The Guigals are among the most admired wine producers in France, particularly well known for excellent regional reds like Côtes-du-Rhône, village wines like Gigondas and St. Joseph, and a string of single vineyard wines from Hermitage, Côte-Rotie and other prized sites. The Guigals also make a small quantity of Condrieu called La Doriane, and an even smaller quantity of a late-harvest viognier called Luminescence from the small Le Colombier vineyard.
Luminescence is extremely rare because conditions for producing the ultra-clean, ultra-ripe grapes to make it have occurred only twice, in 1999 and in 2003, and now, finally, in 2015, a year winemaker Philippe Guigal calls, “remarkable.” And that brings us to the most bizarre wine theft of the year – renegade harvesters slunk into the Colombier vineyard and harvested a third of the vines carrying the prized grapes destined for Luminescence.
Now, consider this. You don’t back up a van to a warehouse and remove grapes as you would if you were stealing finished wine. These thieves (it’s hard to image a single picker could cover this much vineyard in the dead of night) snuck into the vineyard with pruning shears and baskets and clipped the super-ripe bunches from 850 vines. Look at the photo of the Colombier vineyard – that is a steep piece of land and that takes a lot of work, and planning, I would imagine. And now these thieves still have to find a place to make wine from the pilfered grapes without raising suspicion. Philippe Guigal says it takes quite a bit of experience to make wine with grapes this ripe, further evidence to him this was an experienced crew.
As for Luminescence, Philippe Guigal says he brought in the rest of his grapes and will go on to make about 2,000 half bottles of wine, four barrels worth. He says his father, Marcel, “hasn’t seen a vintage this good in his more than 55 harvests.” So, despite the theft we still have some amazing wines, both red and white dry and sweet, to look forward to.