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Grand Theft Vino: Higher Wine Prices Are Attracting More Thieves

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A 1969 bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Last Christmas, thieves stole $300,000 worth of fine wines from famed Napa Valley restaurant the French Laundry. Most of it was Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

If you've bought a bottle of nice wine recently, you'll know that the costs have gone up. And the price of really fine wines – the ones that cost at least several hundred dollars – have doubled, tripled and more over the past few years.

As prices rise, so, too, do the number of thefts.

Prima restaurant in Walnut Grove, Calif., has a celebrated wine list, with a number of Bordeauxs and Burgundies that can set you back several thousand dollars. Thieves have successfully targeted those wines several times now.

"The first [time] was February of 2013," says Jon Rittmaster, the co-owner of Prima. "Someone broke through the skylight, dropped a ladder down into our wine storage areas."

"This is not the Ocean's 11 crew," he adds. "These guys are not super-sophisticated." Still, Rittmaster says, thieves managed to get away with tens of thousands of dollars' worth of fine wine.

"Very high-end wine," Rittmaster says. "They really didn't take that much, but what they took was really quite valuable. It was grand theft by any way you measure it. And not only that, the stuff is not really replaceable."

Not surprisingly, Prima fortified its wine storage areas after that robbery. Good thing, because there were three more attempts, including one last Christmas. That one was part of a string of wine robberies at high-end restaurants in Napa Valley and the Bay area. One of the establishments hit was the famed French Laundry — thieves stole $300,000 worth of its premier wines.

"Fine wine theft is on the upswing," says Frank Martell, a wine specialist with Heritage Auctions. "It's a relatively new thing, because wine values are so much higher now than they have been historically. It used to be [that] in order to steal enough wine for it to be valuable, you had to steal a ton of wine. Now there're individual bottles that are worth tens of thousands of dollars, and that's life-changing to a lot of people."

Meaning more thieves are willing to take the risk here and in Europe. Just a few examples: $2.5 million of wine stolen from a warehouse in Irvine, Calif.; $650,000 from a Seattle retailer; $150,000 worth of wine from England's oldest wine merchant.

Thieves are also targeting producers, especially wineries across France's Burgundy and Bordeaux regions, according to Jane Anson, the Bordeaux correspondent for Decanter magazine.

"I'm thinking of an estate called Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard, which is an excellent Chablis winery, and they got targeted three times over, I think, six or seven months," Anson says. "They used armored vehicles and ramrodded into the cellars."

Like other robberies, they took only the best, most expensive wines.

"It's not just any thieves who are thinking, 'Oh, these wines are expensive, I'm going to take them,'" Anson says. "It has to be somebody who has ... inside knowledge within the wine industry of understanding which wines are best."

"At this point in the game, I would imagine every significant theft is an inside job," says Heritage Auction's Martell, adding that thieves often already have buyers lined up — and are stealing-to-order.

"I think there's an emergence of a particular class of buyer who puts feelers out and says, 'Hey, listen, if you ever find such-and-such product, let me know because I'm collecting it, I'm putting it away,'" Martell says. That would include distributors and restaurants, as well as private collectors.

When the thieves haven't lined up a buyer ahead of time, stolen fine wines end up at auction houses or are fenced, Martell says. But getting rid of wine from big heists can be difficult, because the tightly knit wine community knows what was taken and is on the lookout.

"I think anybody who is going to be able to pull off a $200,000 or $300,000 heist in wine is going to know better than to call company A, B or C on the Internet to get the wine sold," Martell says.

For example, remember the wine that was stolen from the French Laundry at Christmas? Most of it was Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, or DRC in shorthand. It can run anywhere from $3,000 to $25,000 a bottle at the French Laundry. Each bottle has a serial number. A month after $300,000 of the DRC was stolen from the Michelin-starred restaurant, Brian Walker, a defense lawyer in Greensboro, N.C., got a phone call.

"I had a very scared client on the other end of the phone who did not know what to do," Walker says.

His client, whom Walker didn't want to identify, had unwittingly purchased the wine stolen from the French Laundry. Walker would not say where his client got the wine. He got in touch with the Napa County sheriff's office, and the wine was returned. Walker says his client is the injured party here.

"He paid good money for wine, and ultimately, he chose to do the right thing and return it. But the French Laundry now has their wine returned, and my client is left holding the bag," Walker says.

To date, no arrests have been made.

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