There may yet be a happy ending to the great grape heist of 2018, which officials say is the first of its kind in Virginia.
After losing more than two tons of wine grapes to thieves, Firefly Hills Vineyard in Ironto announced on Friday that a Washington state grower has offered to replace the loss.
“We’ve been nothing short of amazed with the level of support,” Firefly co-owner Allison Dunkenberger said Friday. “The whole East Coast has been wonderful.”
Despite the excessive rain that has hurt Virginia’s grape crop this year, Allison said, they’ve had in-state offers of help. But it’s been a great year for grapes in the Pacific Northwest, and Washington state’s Alexandria Nicole Cellars wants to donate the entire amount of fruit that was lost.
Jarrod Boyle of Alexandria Nicole, a 268-acre vineyard and winery operation headquartered in Prosser, Washington, said he read about the theft.
“I couldn’t believe it, actually,” Boyle said. “We’re going to work together to see if we can get them back on track.”
David Dunkenberger said he is scheduled to fly to Washington on Wednesday and on Thursday to help harvest about 2 1/2 tons of Roussanne grapes, a white grape variety from France. In addition to Roussanne, Boyle said, they likely would offer some Cabernet fruit, which makes red wine. Firefly grows both red and white varietals.
David said they will press the grapes and ship the juice back to Virginia, and the Dunkenbergers will make a 2018 wine at their own operation.
Some 20 years ago, Boyle said, he and his wife, Ali, started out small like the Dunkenbergers, and he recalled the struggles. It was other growers in the industry who helped the Boyles succeed. Without it, they might have given up, Jarrod Boyle said. So they’re going to pass on that tradition.
The Dunkenbergers live in Salem but own the Firefly Hill Vineyard and wedding location. When they got started 20 years ago, they were among the first grape producers in Montgomery County, David said.
Then came the heartbreaking loss this month.
The wine is just a sideline for the family, not a full-time income. It wasn’t the money loss that hurt the most, David said. It was the amount of care and work that went into the crop — battling pests, diseases and weather is just the start.
“Dad was there every day for eight months,” David said. “It was heartbreaking to tell him. The look on his face was just devastation.”
According to the Dunkenbergers, someone — or rather, a knowledgeable team of someones — entered the vineyard on the evening of Sept. 10 and removed 2 to 2½ tons of grapes from 2,500 vines growing on 3½ acres.
The loss wasn’t insured, they said. The crop was worth about $20,000.
The thieves cut them carefully and quickly, Allison Dunkenberger has said. While the Dunkenbergers planned to take several days to harvest, working with friends and family and pausing for processing, the thieves accomplished the job between sundown and dawn the next day.
“The poachers would have to have been well-equipped and very knowledgeable about the process,” Virginia Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Elaine Lidholm wrote in an email. “It apparently happens in France occasionally and even in California, but this is the first time something like this has happened in Virginia.”
Investigator Don Link of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office has asked that anyone with information about the theft call him at 540-382-6915, ext. 44421.