French wine police are on the hunt for Burgundy grape thieves

French wine police are on the hunt for Burgundy grape thieves
A Burgundy vineyard during harvesting. Photo: AFP:
A relatively new phenomenon is affecting grape harvests in Burgundy - theft. The French police are on the case - and on their bikes.

Mounted on bikes and motorcycles, these gendarmerie officers are charged with protecting Burgundy's celebrated wine grapes from a growing number of thieves.

“The damage is enormous,” said Vincent Gros, who heads the Gros Frère et Soeur wine estate in the Cote d'Or region.

Gros has been forced to install security cameras in more remote fields due to ongoing thefts. But he feels reassures by the presence of police patrolling the region.

The big question is obviously who are the thieves?

The main suspects are surprisingly other farmers whose crops were damaged by the bad weather. This year's combination of frost, hail and blistering sunshine has had devastating effects on many vineyards.

“When the harvest is small, it is tempting to go and steal grapes. All you need are cutting shears and a bucket,” said Gros. “With 40 thieves cutting, it can go very quickly!”

Sometimes the loss is accidental. It sounds unlikely, but apparently contractors have been known to harvest the wrong tract of land.

The police mainly patrol at night, using night vision goggles to keep their presence covert until they need to pounce.

“When we spot people who have no business in the vineyards at night, we turn a spotlight on them…. and we question them,” said a patrolling officer who identified himself only as Philippe.  

“The thefts mostly happen at night… and in the early morning hours. Sometimes the thieves are many, and using harvesting machines.”

These police patrols began in Burgundy after a poor harvest in 2016 was further aggravated by a recent rise in thefts.

According to Cote d'Or police department, stealing grapes is punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine of €45,000.

“Grape theft is not only a crime but also directly affects the economy of the region and its wine sector already heavily affected by climate hazards,” the department stressed on its Facebook page.

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