Big Wine Heist Is Hard Case to Solve - The Wall Street Journal

Posted by Chris Morales on Tue, Jan 13, 2015 @ 11:00 AM

The Morales Law Firm would like to share this article by Jim Carlton published by the Wall Street Journal. 

YOUNTVILLE, Calif.—The list of suspects could number in the dozens—or more. The places where the stolen loot could be sold: almost anywhere on earth.

Yet sheriff’s investigators in Napa County still hope to solve one of the most sensational crimes ever in this famed wine region: the Christmas Day theft of rare vintages worth as much as $300,000 from the French Laundry, a restaurant rated among the best in the world.

Taken in the heist were 76 bottles, including many from the legendary French winemaking estate of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Napa Valley cult favorite Screaming Eagle. The vintages are so rare that some bottles are valued at more than $15,000 each, according to the online database Wine-Searcher.

The theft itself was less exotic: Someone pried open a door just hours after the restaurant had closed to begin a monthslong renovation, then forced open a cellar where the bottles were stored, Napa County Sheriff’s Office investigators say. A burglar alarm at the restaurant hadn’t been set, they said.

As of Friday, the crime remained unsolved. Investigators said they could get a break if the thief or thieves attempt to sell the high-end wines, because many can be tracked by serial numbers on the bottles.

“The quality of these wines is such there aren’t large numbers readily available, so if they actually surface in a legitimate market, they will be seen,” said sheriff’s Capt. Doug Pike. His agency has alerted wine buyers and sellers nationwide about the theft.

However, no database exists of wine serial numbers for a vendor to readily check if a bottle is stolen, said Maureen Downey, a wine-fraud expert from San Francisco. In addition, stolen fine wine often is traded on the black market, including to buyers overseas, said Chuck Hanson, a wine buyer for Hi-Time Cellar, a wholesale wine retailer in Costa Mesa, Calif. Mr. Hanson said whoever committed the crime likely planned it carefully, and may sell it directly to a collector or a small store that may not be concerned about where the bottles come from.

“If the guy is fairly smart, no way you will track him down,” Mr. Hanson said. “They know they can’t sell that wine, except to someone they know.”

A nearby restaurant, Redd, suffered a similar burglary last winter, losing 24 bottles of high-price wines. No wine has been recovered or arrests made in that theft.

Industry observers said restaurant break-ins for wine are relatively rare, with more wine thefts taking place at storage warehouses. “It is a wake-up call for other retailers and restaurateurs who are sitting on a gold mine of hundreds of thousands of dollars of wine to upgrade their security,” said Jon Fredrikson, a wine-industry consultant in Woodside, Calif.

The French Laundry, owned by celebrated chef Thomas Keller, has been awarded a coveted three stars from the Michelin restaurant guide each year since 2007. Known for a French menu that changes daily and features vegetables from its own garden, the restaurant sees its tables booked months in advance.

Mr. Keller declined to comment beyond a statement on Dec. 29, when he made the theft public. “We are confident that if and when any of the stolen bottles appear in public, they will immediately raise questions and red flags among the wine knowledgeable,” Mr. Keller said. The restaurant is insured for the loss, a spokeswoman said.

Capt. Pike said the theft appeared to be committed by someone with a great deal of knowledge about quality wines. “We are looking at any number of possibilities, including potentially an employee,” he said. He said that some of the 104 workers at the establishment are among those being questioned.

Yountville, meanwhile, is still coming to terms with this latest crime. “It is a violation of our safe place,” said John Dunbar, mayor of the town of about 3,000 people, whose restaurants and tasting rooms are a big tourist draw in the famed Napa Valley.

Walking by the closed restaurant early in the new year, Abby Zeiser, a visitor from Chicago, articulated a widespread anger. “It’s a really stupid crime to commit,” said Ms. Zeiser, 30. “It’s unfair to the people who built up this business.”

Other local businesses said the theft has made them more vigilant. At the Pacific Blues Café, assistant manager Nikko Steen said his business began storing its fine wine in a locked cellar and stepping up other precautions after a case was stolen there a year ago. The magnitude of the French Laundry theft “is an eye-opener,” Mr. Steen said. “We are on more alert now.”

There was relief, at least, that no one was hurt in the incident. “It’s only wine,” said Bob Hurley, chef-owner of Hurley’s, another upscale eatery here. “It’s not the end of the world.”

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Tags: violation, Investigation, stolen, theft, crime