Police Are Closing In On Bay Area Wine-Fraud Ring

Beyond its world-famous cuisine, chef Thomas Keller’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant, the French Laundry, is also known for its exceptional wine list. The arbiters at Wine Spectator have honored the Napa Valley restaurant with the magazine’s top dining rating, the Grand Award, every year since 2007.

Another group that has noticed the wine list: thieves.

Last Christmas, burglars broke in and stole more than $300,000 worth of fine wines from Keller’s acclaimed restaurant in Yountville, California. The losses totaled 76 bottles, including dozens from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the esteemed Burgundy producer whose wines are generally among the world’s most expensive.

Law enforcement officials now say they are close to arresting the perpetrators responsible for the high-profile burglary. “We are feeling rather optimistic at this point that this case will be coming to a successful conclusion sometime over the next several months, with help from our law enforcement partners,” says Douglas Pike, captain of the Napa County Sheriff’s Office.

The investigation gained momentum after a Greensboro, North Carolina–based lawyer named Brian Walker notified police that an unnamed client of his had purchased all of the missing French Laundry bottles through a broker.

But while the break-in at French Laundry garnered all the headlines, investigators have discovered that the heist may be only part of a larger Bay Area wine-fraud ring that targeted more than a half dozen shops and restaurants. “The burglary at the French Laundry may very well be just one of several,” Pike says.

The other targets included several restaurants in the Bay Area. John Rittmaster, an owner of the restaurant Prima, which is 47 miles from the French Laundry in Walnut Creek, says thieves unsuccessfully tried to break into his restaurant twice within hours of the French Laundry theft. And in February 2013, Rittmaster’s restaurant was robbed of Bordeaux, including Chateau Mouton, Chateau Haut Brion and Chateau Margaux, worth more than $10,000, he says. He adds that thieves attempted to break in a fourth time without success.

There were other break-ins, too. Thieves targeted the Plumed Horse in Saratoga, French Laundry’s neighbor Redd as well as Alexander’s steakhouse, which was targeted twice. All three restaurants declined to comment for this article.

“The burglary at the French Laundry may very well be just one of several.”

Noted wine-fraud expert Maureen Downey says the Bay Area incidents are similar to a 2013 case in Seattle, in which thieves stole more than $600,000 in fine wine from the city’s oldest wine shop, Esquin Wine Merchants. Police later arrested two plumbers, Samuel Harris and Luke Thesing, in connection with the crime. The pair, who eventually pleaded guilty to a number of charges, broke into Esquin on Thanksgiving Day and spent 13 hours cherry-picking through the store’s wine-storage unit for select Bordeaux and Burgundies.

Chuck Lefevre, the shop’s owner, says the pair had first gained access to the wine storage unit by opening up accounts there. But during the times that the duo visited the facility to check it out, they only bought liquor, never wine, making the shopkeeper believe they were working on behalf of someone else.

Lefevre says he later learned the two local thieves were part of a bigger plan to resell the stolen bottles in Hong Kong. They even had shipping labels printed out to send to California for resale, he adds. “They were in contact with a wine broker in California who was probably going to send the wine to Hong Kong,” says Lefevre. “They took every Burgundy. So these guys must have told them that people in Asia want every Burgundy.”

Alexandra Voorhees, a former senior deputy prosecuting attorney who handled the Esquin case, says Harris was sentenced to nine years and Thesing was sentenced to five years in prison. Voorhees notes that both men didn’t appear to be wine lovers but were more interested in the financial returns of stealing.

“This was a for-profit thing for them,” she says.


Originally published at www.foodrepublic.com on November 6, 2015.

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