Thieves with a nose for some of the world’s most sought-after wines found what they were looking for twice in 2014 inside two exclusive Wine Country restaurants only blocks apart.
The heists were timed perfectly, when the restaurants were closed for winter remodeling and security alarms were not set. The thieves apparently knew exactly what they wanted, including bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, or DRC, which can command up to $10,000 a bottle and often are compared to works of art.
A Christmas heist at Yountville’s world-renowned French Laundry, which netted the thieves 76 bottles worth an estimated $300,000, has been called one of the world’s all-time wine burglaries. Eleven months earlier, in a similar break-in, burglars stole thousands of dollars’ worth of wine from Redd, an acclaimed restaurant a half-mile south of The French Laundry on Washington Street.
But despite sophisticated tracking technology and international interest in the cases, no arrests have been made, and the stolen wines remain missing.
Whether the work of home-grown burglars or sophisticated crime syndicates, the heists highlight the latest twist on high-end crime. Forget diamonds and Ferraris. What often garners cache in Wine Country is what’s stored in the cellar.
Chris Sawyer, a Petaluma-based sommelier, wine educator and founder of SawyerSomm.com, said recent wine thefts have stirred a “vast awakening” across Wine Country to how vulnerable purveyors and collectors are to similar crimes. The list of potential targets includes not only restaurants, but also hotels, wineries and anyone who collects and stores rare and expensive wines.
“I’ve got a cellar at home that’s vulnerable,” Sawyer said.
There have been a number of thefts of luxury wines across the Bay Area and worldwide in recent years. Tyler Colman, who teaches and writes about wine on his blog, Dr. Vino, listed several high-profile cases, including one in Australia in which thieves used trucks to haul away two shipping containers holding $500,000 of wine, and a fine dining restaurant in Sweden that lost 600 bottles valued at $485,000.
In the French Laundry case, Colman wrote in an email, “One thing is clear: The perpetrators knew what they were looking for. They snatched a little over six cases of wine valued at $300,000.”
The thieves mostly took the French wine but also several bottles from Screaming Eagle, a coveted cult winery in Oakville. The January 2014 heist at Redd netted thieves 24 bottles of high-value wine, including some from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti “is probably the single most prestigious wine property in the world,” said Jack Daniels, co-founder of Wilson Daniels in St. Helena, the exclusive U.S. importer of DRC wines. The estate’s main vineyard is only 4.5 acres planted in pinot noir grapes and yields no more than about 800 cases of wine annually, he said. As such, worldwide demand for the label far exceeds supply. A single bottle can retail for as much as $10,000 and appreciate in value roughly 20 percent per year in storage, Daniels said.
Some financial analysts advise their wealthy clients to purchase the wine as an investment, to buy and sell it as a commodity. That’s also created a robust black market for the wine.
To help curb counterfeiting and theft, Daniels said owners of the French estate use sophisticated laser and digital technology on corks, capsules and other parts of each individual bottle for identification purposes. Each bottle also has a unique serial number to attest to its authenticity and to assist authorities in cases of theft.
Serial numbers of the bottles snatched from The French Laundry have been provided to investigators and also circulated worldwide through trade publications and auction houses.
But as yet, authorities have no suspects and few leads in the French Laundry case, Napa County Sheriff’s Capt. Doug Pike said this week.
He said the Yountville restaurant thefts were less about sophistication and more about perfect timing. In both cases, the restaurants were closed for remodeling. Locked doors were pried open. Atypically, alarms at both restaurants weren’t armed.
“There was definitely a small window of opportunity. Lots of things kind of lined up. Somebody was able to take advantage of that,” Pike said. “Obviously, one aspect we have to consider is whether or not somebody from inside could be responsible.”
Another possibility, he said, is that the French Laundry and Redd break-ins could be connected.
Sawyer, the Petaluma sommelier, said collectors and purveyors should secure wines the same way they would precious jewelry. He said when he worked at The Lodge in Sonoma, he was one of the few people with a key to the wine cellar, which was near an employee work room and thus under frequent observation.
Doug Keane, the former chef-owner of Michelin-starred Cyrus in Healdsburg, said the restaurant had about $700,000 worth of wine on hand prior to its closing in 2012. The inventory, which included bottles of DRC, in total probably would have retailed for close to $2 million, he said.
The wine was stored in a 1,500-square-foot temperature-controlled room that was monitored with motion-sensing video cameras and an alarm. Keane said even he didn’t know the code. But during business hours, numerous people were in and out of the room to get wine. Pastry chefs also stored Finnish chocolate there.
The setup, in a fast-paced dining environment, underscores the challenge of protecting a valuable product that one also has to market and sell.
Keane said the video surveillance helped put his mind at ease that his inventory was secure. In fact, the only problem he encountered was when he retrieved what he thought was a $100 bottle of Champagne for his own consumption that ended up being worth a lot more.
“I ended up paying the sommelier $300,” Keane said.
Keane said there are probably only a couple of Sonoma County restaurants with similar wine inventories.
In the aftermath of the French Laundry heist, celebrated owner and chef Thomas Keller spread word of the crime via social media and released details of the specially marked and numbered bottles, asking for help in their recovery. That has generated tips from across the United States about the missing wine, Pike said, including calls from out of state. Those were being vetted by detectives.
Richard Reddington, the owner of Redd, was quoted in news reports saying 24 bottles were taken in the theft from his restaurant and that the cellar alarm wasn’t activated. According to Pike, the restaurant lost DRC Grand Cru 2008 and 2005 Domaine Comte Georges de Vogue Musigny Grand Cru. Detectives listed the loss at more than $10,000, but the commercial loss was believed to be much higher.
Reddington was out of town and unavailable for comment, according to an employee. The Thomas Keller Group did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.
Pike said detectives are investigating local and foreign angles to the thefts, including whether the thieves had buyers lined up for the very particular kinds of wine that were taken. That could mean it has already been shipped out of the country, he said.
“We expect this is probably going to be resold to private individuals and restaurants,” Pike said. “If any of these wines were to resurface on the market, it would create a rippling effect. … People in the know would recognize this stuff.”
The thefts were just the latest in a string of heists across the North Bay involving high-end wines.
In November 2011, two men hustled out of a Petaluma market with a grocery cart holding about 18 bottles worth an estimated $1,500, Petaluma Police Lt. Danny Fish said. Police tried to find the culprits through fingerprints, but no one has been arrested.
In a more sophisticated effort, Sonoma County sheriff’s detectives in 2008 investigated a scheme to sell almost 1,000 bottles of high-end wine stolen from Jackson Family Wines. The Bordeaux-style red was worth almost $200,000. Orchestrated by an employee, the wines were listed on inventories as being lost and then were sold on eBay and other websites. Three men were convicted of theft charges.
In another Napa County case, 330 cases of exclusive Napa Valley wine worth $400,000 were stolen last March, including 126 cases of 2011 PlumpJack cabernet sauvignon, 128 cases of 2009 Stags Leap Cask 23 and 88 cases of 2008 Continuum. An investigation led to the arrest of one man and the recovery of some of the wine.
What is becoming clear, the sheriff’s captain said, is that detectives in the Napa Valley need more knowledge of valuable wine, which has been the target in some of the biggest thefts investigated by the Sheriff’s Office in recent history.
Only half joking, Pike said, “We need to develop our own internal sommeliers who can speak to this stuff.”
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @deadlinederek. Staff Writer Randi Rossmann can be reached at 521-5412 or email@example.com. On Twitter @rossmannreport.