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Thursday, Sep. 23, 2010

Thieves steal rare grapes from Red Mountain

While Ryan Johnson is plenty angry about the wine grapes that were stolen off his vineyard on Red Mountain, he's most upset about what could have been.

Sometime between Sept. 15 and Monday, someone slipped into Grand Reve Vineyard near Col Solare and took about 1.25 tons of Mourvedre, valued at about $4,000. Benton County sheriff's officials have no suspects.

"The most frustrating thing about this is we waited three years to see what these vines would do," Johnson said. "This was our opportunity to see what the future might hold for us."

Mourvedre is a red wine grape that is traditionally grown in the southern Rhône Valley of France. It is grown only in small amounts in Washington, and Johnson's vines are even more rare because they are "head trained" rather than trellised on wires. Such vines look more like bushes than traditional vineyards.

"This is agonizing," Johnson said. "We've been waiting to see how head-trained Mourvedre does on Red Mountain," and future planting decisions are being based on how these grapes turn out.

"This is totally lame."

In addition to the $4,000 in lost revenue for Johnson, winemaker James Mantone of Syncline Cellars in Lyle likely would have received at least $40 per bottle. Thus, the stolen grapes would have produced about 750 bottles of wine, which would have sold for $30,000.

"Syncline missed an opportunity, and we lost an opportunity. Yeah, it's real money, but it's a bigger picture than that. The least (the thieves) could do is leave a bottle on our doorstep," Johnson said ruefully.

Johnson walked through the vineyard Sept. 15 and noticed nothing amiss. Mantone drove up from his Columbia Gorge winery on Monday to get some samples for analysis and called Johnson to let him know almost no grapes were left.

It's not the first time grapes have been stolen on Red Mountain. Johnson, who also manages the world-renowned Ciel du Cheval vineyard across from Kiona Vineyards Winery on Sunset Road, remembers in 2001 when someone went into a Cabernet Sauvignon block and stole several hundred pounds of grapes.

Johnson's operation is high profile, literally and figuratively. His vineyard is just above iconic Col Solare and is the highest on Red Mountain, making the vineyard easily visible from Interstate 82. His operation also has received a lot of press from wine publications. This vineyard was planted in 2008.

"It's a bit isolated up there, especially when Col Solare is closed," he said. "If I was going to be a jerk, I'd steal from Ciel du Cheval or Klipsun, but you'd be more likely to get caught. There are not a lot of lights up by Grand Reve."

If the thieves came in the middle of the night, they would have had to use five-gallon buckets pick the grapes, then dump them into a pickup, which a ton of grapes likely would fill. Something like that would take more than an hour, he figured. Johnson said whoever stole that amount of grapes likely is making a commercial wine "or a whole lot of garage wine."

The Mourvedre vineyard is about a half-acre in size with 10 70-foot rows. They thieves left less than 200 pounds of grapes, so Johnson and Mantone still will be able to get a glimpse of what might have been.

Johnson is trying to put it out of his mind, however.

"What's done is done," he said. "I have a crazy harvest schedule over the next week, and if I get distracted by this, I might make a mistake."

He also sees just the slightest bit of humor in the thieves' timing.

"The grapes are good right now, but if they'd waited another 10 days, what they got would have been absolutely phenomenal. They missed out."