Napa Valley wine heists highlight value of luxury vino
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.