Suspects indicted in French Laundry wine theft-spree

Two Bay Area men are accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in high-end wine in 2014 from Thomas Keller’s renowned Napa County restaurant.|

Sixteen months after a collection of the world’s most sought-after wines disappeared from the cellar of exclusive Yountville restaurant The French Laundry, federal prosecutors indicted two California men in the heist and two other Bay Area wine thefts.

Alfred Georgis, 53, of Mountain View and Davis Kiryakoz, 44, of Modesto are accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in high-end wine during the Christmas 2014 burglary at chef Thomas Keller’s renowned Napa County restaurant.

The heist involved prized bottles of wine often compared to works of art - including Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, or DRC, worth up to $10,000 a bottle. Napa County sheriff’s officials at the time noted the thefts were remarkably timed when the restaurant was closed for renovation and its alarm atypically turned off.

The burglary was among a pair of 2014 thefts from Napa restaurants that represented the largest high-dollar wine heists the Napa County Sheriff’s Office has investigated, Lt. Keith Behlmer said Friday.

The thefts were stark evidence for upscale North Coast restaurateurs and wine dealers showing the vulnerability of prized cellars. The arrests this week put some at ease.

“It definitely was scary,” said Eric Mercer, manager and wine director at Madrona Manor in Healdsburg. “You start looking a little bit harder, paying attention to those new around you,” Mercer said. “It hits home, you really want to protect what you have.”

The indictment released Thursday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco says the two suspects, and other people unidentified by prosecutors, burglarized the French Laundry cellar. The theft involved about 100 bottles of wine. Earlier law enforcement reports pegged the value of the bottles taken at roughly $300,000.

Where that wine went from Napa County - most bottles were sold to a buyer in North Carolina - left a trail that FBI investigators traced back to California, and to Georgis, Kiryakoz and an unnamed, un-indicted co-conspirator, according to federal prosecutors.

The FBI investigators ultimately also linked Georgis and Kiryakoz to two earlier burglaries that, in at least one of the cases, involved lesser-value wine from a Cupertino restaurant and a wine merchant in San Francisco dealing in fine and rare vintages.

The men sold wines stolen in the three burglaries to a buyer in North Carolina, according to the indictment, which does not name the purchaser. Georgis and Kiryakoz received cashier’s checks and wire transfers from a company called Wine Liquidators, according to the documents.

A Raleigh-based company by the same name appraises and buys personal fine wine collections, according to its website. Calls and emails to the company weren’t returned Friday.

But the money agreed upon for the sale of the French Laundry bottles - between $120,000 and $150,000 according to the indictment - apparently dried up once the buyer realized the wine was stolen. About 66 bottles had already been shipped to North Carolina, and Georgis and Kiryakoz were supposed to receive the money in installments of less than $10,000. They only received a total of $45,700 in multiple payments on Dec. 26 and 29.

Behlmer, the Napa County sheriff’s lieutenant, said that several weeks after the French Laundry burglary, his office received a call from a North Carolina attorney who said his client had unwittingly bought the stolen wine.

Local detectives flew to North Carolina on Jan. 19, 2015 and shipped the wine back to California. They confirmed the wine had been taken from The French Laundry through serial numbers. They then asked the FBI to get involved to help them identify the client, which the attorney wouldn’t divulge.

“It was a local case, we didn’t know it would involve other burglaries from other wine establishments when we turned it over to the feds,” Behlmer said. “The feds were better prepared to do the work of finding out who the attorney’s clients were.”

The French Laundry theft came on the heels of other major high-profile thefts of fine wines, including a 2013 Thanksgiving Day theft of about $648,000 worth of fine wines taken from a Seattle wine dealer, Esquin Wine Merchants.

In January 2014, about a half-mile south of The French Laundry, thieves broke in to another Yountville restaurant, Redd, and made off with about 24 bottles of premium wine, including some from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, were taken. The alarm was also turned off at the time of that burglary, similar to the French Laundry case.

Behlmer, with the Napa county Sheriff’s Office, said that burglary remains an open case, with no mention of it in the federal indictment.

Mercer, the Madrona Manor wine director, said the unusual crimes left many people in the industry wondering how the burglars knew to take some of the best of the best.

“They didn’t go in there blind. They had a list or a map or someone had been there before, to take all that,” Mercer said.

Georgis and Kiryakoz face up to 10 years in prison and fines of $250,000 if convicted of crimes including conspiracy to transport stolen goods and transportation of stolen goods, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

No other details about the men’s backgrounds or associations were released in the indictment.

Both were arrested Wednesday and made their first appearances Thursday in federal courts in Fresno and San Jose. Kiryakoz was released and Georgis was detained pending a bail hearing Wednesday.

They are accused of violation of interstate commerce laws and face one count of conspiracy to transport stolen goods and two counts of transportation of stolen goods.

Telephone records and financial transactions, including money orders and wire transfers, helped federal agents identify suspects who sold to the buyer.

The federal indictment said that the men spoke with the North Carolina buyer several times by phone before, during and after the March 27, 2013 burglary at wine merchant Fine Wines International in San Francisco.

An “unidentified co-conspirator” transported more than 50 bottles of wine taken during the theft to the North Carolina buyer. The federal case doesn’t specify how much money the men received from blank money orders signed by the buyer.

But the men each received $5,750 from the buyer after the Nov. 8, 2014 theft of about 29 bottles of wine from the Silicon Valley restaurant Alexander’s Steakhouse in Cupertino. About 17 bottles were sent to North Carolina, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors said that Georgis and Kiryakoz requested the buyer make payments in installments under $10,000 each. Financial institutions are required to report any currency transaction above $10,000 to the U.S. Treasury Department’s financial crimes bureau.

While counterfeiting and fraud are two crimes that concern wineries the most, representatives of the industry said the theft serves as a reminder that wine buyers need to know where their bottles come from.

“Provenance is everything with rare wine,” said Mark Malpiede, vice president of sales and marketing for Williams Selyem Winery outside Healdsburg. “Even if it’s a legitimate bottle, you want to know its story.”

Staff Writers Bill Swindell, Randi Rossmann and Paul Payne contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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