French Wineries Shrug Off Security

With the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris still ringing in our collective consciousness, I was asked about what French wineries do about security. They possibly could be “soft” targets for terrorism, and it just so happens I am traveling through France at the time of this writing.

There have been instances of vine terrorism in France. The greatest vineyards in the country are less secure than many of our public parks. These include the First Growths of Bordeaux, Grand Crus of Burgundy, Champagne and Alsace, the hill of Hermitage and the rest.

There are virtually no gates — the gates that are present are more a demarcation of who owns the vineyard with signs above the entryway, or where to drive the tractor or vehicle so as not to run over any vines, rather than any sincere effort to thwart any entry. The walls that surround many of the vineyards are much the same. They may be taller than the average man, but they would be scaled easily with a simple ladder or chair. There are certainly no security guards or surveillance — you can walk right up to the vine and reach out and touch it without a second thought.

I even have heard many anecdotes of drunkards relieving themselves in some famous vineyards. On purpose or not, I cannot verify. It may be just a funny story, but it does highlight the accessibility of the vines.

One of the most famous vineyards in the world, and certainly one of the most valuable, is Romanee Conti. The owners of the vineyard are forwarding a campaign to have the United Nations recognize the area as a World Heritage site. A bottle of the current vintage will set you back an average of $12,000.

This vineyard is the most high-profile case of vine extortion to date. Back in 2010, Aubert de Villaine, co-director of Domaine de la Romanee Conti, received two letters from a man threatening to poison the vineyard if he did not receive 1 million-euro ransom. The perpetrator was found and thwarted, thankfully, and yet to date the only thing to discourage anyone from tromping in this living legacy of land is a sign that reads, “Many people come to visit this site and we understand. We ask you nevertheless to remain on the road and request that under no condition you enter the vineyard. Thank you for your comprehension.”

Although the DRC case is more a story of extortion, there are cases of more malevolent wine terrorism, mMany of them attributed to the Comite Regional d’Action Viticole (CRAV). The group was born in the 1960s out of unrest because of high taxes, depressed prices and rife unemployment in the Languedoc region of France. It has taken its plight to violence and sabotage, including explosives detonated in supermarkets and government buildings in the south, and the shooting of a tanker of Spanish wine and the emptying of its contents. Destruction of French rail tracks and carriages filled with foreign wine are not beyond its tactics. One video released by the group even suggested that “blood will run in the streets” unless Nicolas Sarkozy, French president at the time, would not show support for its cause. Violence is not beyond it. There is nothing too extreme for this group.

I cannot say that the destruction of a vineyard or wine is equivalent to the murder of people. But to lose historic vineyards and their wine would be a great loss. These vineyards and the wine they produce are every bit entwined in the heritage of France as great works of art, literature and music. It is part of the essence of French culture, and part of the identity of the country. It would silence another great expression for the people of the world.

When asking a few wine-makers about the security of their vineyards while here in France, they shrug it off, saying that it has been this way for centuries.

They seem to have a trust that being a “soft” target keeps them out of the crosshairs of terrorism. Let us hope so.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier.