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Wine crime: Full-bodied heists pop cork on boozy thefts

Using reconnaissance and infiltration methods worthy of blockbuster heists or painstaking counterfeit operations, a growing number of criminals are making off with liquid gold by draining wineries of their finest vintages with elaborate schemes. 

Last summer, thieves in Paris pulled off a caper worthy of a big-budget Hollywood film. Bandits drilled through the basement walls of a city wine collector’s private cellar to make off with 300 bottles of rare wine, aged for decades and valued at $300,000. 

The criminals used the sprawling Paris catacomb system to get close to the subterranean collection. Authorities believe they had specialized knowledge of the vast tunnel system that has left many explorers lost for days, Wine Enthusiast reported. 


Former Mexican beauty pageant contestant Priscila Lara Guevara spent months on the run after stealing over $1.6 million in valuable vintages from the Michelin-starred restaurant of a high-end hotel in Caceres, Spain. 

Using a fake Swiss passport, she and her partner, Constantín Gabriel Dumitru, visited the restaurant three times before going on a private tour of their wine cellar. Hours later, the pair checked out of the hotel with the liquid payday, which included a single bottle of Chateau d’Yquem from 1806 valued at over $300,000, per Vice News. 

The pair were brought to trial last March, per Town & Country. Although they pleaded not guilty, they were sentenced to four years and ordered to pay $800,000. The most expensive pilfered bottle still has yet to be recovered, according to the outlet. 

Most recently, in June of this year, a man who has yet to be apprehended made off with $600,000 of stolen product from Lincoln Fine Wines in Venice, California. The black hoodie-clad burglar cut a 5-by-3-foot hole in the roof of the building, according to Town & Country, and then rappelled directly into the store’s rare wines room. He avoided alarm sensors but not security cameras. He could be seen meticulously pillaging the store’s stock, picking and choosing the bottles to steal. 


Pouring wine

Petrus, Latour and a monster 1.5-liter Nebuchadnezzar of Billecart-Salmon were among the 75 bottles squirreled into a waiting white pick-up truck in the retailer’s parking lot, the Los Angeles Times reported. 

Maureen Downey, a global authority on wine and spirits who is frequently called as an expert in wine-involved criminal trials, told Town & Country that the June caper followed a familiar formula of other recent wine-involved crimes.

The thief appeared to be speaking on the phone during the crime, perhaps receiving instructions on which wines to grab. Perhaps, she guessed after speaking to a detective on the case, he was receiving instructions to skip over the most expensive items in favor of French standards, which she said are easier to move. 

“Like other wine robberies in California in recent years [including an infamous $300,000 heist at French Laundry in 2014], this looks like a smash-and-grab team executing a well-planned operation and following the specific orders of somebody who isn’t there on the night of the heist,” Downey told Town & Country. 

Downey told the outlet that because long-aged fine wines are a “commodity with a fixed supply” that are “diminishing on a consistent basis while facing ever-growing demand,” there are ample opportunities for the thieves to find unwitting buyers on the black market.

“You’ve got people buying up vast quantities of salvage stock and then selling it to unsuspecting customers at premium prices, and the label still smells of smoke,” wine authenticator Siobhan Turner said of the phenomenon.  



Still, others create counterfeit bottles or mix wines to sell off faux high-price wines. For example, convicted wine fraudster Rudy Kurniawan once sold $24.7 million of wine at a 2006 auction, setting a record for a single consignee, but many bottles turned out to be fake, The Associated Press reported.

Downey and Turner cited a World Health Organization report that 25% of all alcohol sold globally is counterfeited. Downey estimated 5% of the world’s current total supply of wine is sold under fraudulent pretenses, while another noted wine expert cited by Town & Country, Michael Egan, puts the number at 10%. 

To combat potential thefts, certain producers – like Ponsot and Domaine de la Romanee-Conti – have begun including serial numbers on their bottles, codes only visible under black light and tracking information embedded in corks. 

Wine collector Robert Dentice told the outlet that, due to the often-uncertain provenance of rare wines, he only splurges on expensive bottles from well-established cellars. 

“Who truly has the familiarity or empirical knowledge [to tell a counterfeit or stolen wine from an authentically sold one]?” he asked. “How do you know it was stored correctly or that it isn’t just fake? Just look at all the people posting old bottles – it makes you wonder.” 

Even hobbyists looking to get into wine collecting, or to profit off the wine trade themselves, are not safe from wine-related crimes. 

Earlier this month, 58-year-old Stephen Burton was arraigned on charges of wire fraud, wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering in a wine-based Ponzi scheme that allegedly raked in $99 million.

The British national reportedly ran a company called Bordeaux Cellars – they told New York residents that they would profit from interest and loans after they brokered agreements with wealthy wine collectors that would be secured by the value of their wine collections, according to The Associated Press.

In reality, the collectors did not exist – instead, investors’ money was allegedly used by Burton and his coconspirator to make fraudulent interest payments to the duped investors and profit off the remainder. 

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