Clippings from experimental grapevines with high earning potential were taken from the University of Minnesota’s Horticultural Research Center in Victoria, Minn. in what police say may be an inside job.
The 5-year-old vines are a result of generations of genetic breeding, and are “individual, truly one-of-a-kind,” Peter Moe, operations director at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, said.
If the grapes are successful, each vine could potentially earn the University “several tens of thousands of dollars or more,” said Dr. James Luby, a horticulture professor who worked with the plants.
The clippings can be replanted to grow new vines and leech University royalties. “These are trade secrets to protect,” Carver County Sheriff Bud Olson said. “It’s espionage.”
Clippings were taken from six vines. The seedlings on the vines were recently tasted by a breeder who realized they had potential, Moe said.
The thieves targeted the vines from out of 10,000 plants in the vineyard, and knew what part of the plant to cut, leading police to question whether the robbery could have been inside job.
The thief would have to understand “the winemaking business and the importance of those vines, and how to propagate those vines,” Olson said.
Illegal clippings have occurred at least once a winter over the past two years, but the grape breeder did not call police, Moe said.
Previous illegal clippings were taken mid-winter, but this year the vines were cut around Oct. 19, which prompted the University to report the crime. “They could keep coming back all winter and take more and more materials,” Moe said.
A chain-link fence topped with barbwire and a padlocked gate protect the vineyard. But the fence was cut last year, and this year was pushed up so someone could crawl underneath, Moe said.
The fence has been fixed and the lock to the gate has been changed, Moe said.
There are about 25 people with access to the vineyard, including horticulture staff, graduate students and maintenance staff, he said.
Moe said it is difficult to monitor the plants.
“We’re not out in the vineyard everyday in the middle of winter,” he said.
“Somebody can take this material and use it in their own breeding program, or even introduce one of the seedlings as a variety in the future and compete with the University,” Moe said.
“There’s a lot of investment in time and dollars to get to the point where you have seedlings to evaluate,” Moe said. The University invested in developing parent vines, maintaining the vines and taking samples in a wine lab, he said.
It is difficult to estimate the value of the vines because they are seedlings, and can take up to 10 years to produce a possible new grape introduction, Moe said.
“If this vine research produces the grapes they’re looking for, the potential for the University to sell the royalties is immeasurable,” Olson said.
Over pruning also damages plants and the University’s yield. “It’s really an art and a science,” Moe said.
He said the University deserves to get the full benefit of the investment, which helps support future research. Bypassing the legal process is also unfair to professional wineries and people legally buying the plant for their backyard, who pay royalties to the University, Moe said.