$300,000 in fine wine stolen from famed restaurant recovered

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Posted: Jan 23, 2015 6:54 PM
$300,000 in fine wine stolen from famed restaurant recovered

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — More than $300,000 in world-class wine stolen from a famed Napa Valley restaurant has been recovered from a private cellar on the other side of the country.

But the mystery of who broke into the unmarked wine room at the world-renowned French Laundry eatery and how the 76 bottles of fine wine got to a private cellar in Greensboro, North Carolina, has yet to be solved.

The theft occurred on Christmas, a day after Chef Thomas Keller's restaurant closed for a six-month kitchen remodel.

The Yountville establishment is rated three stars in the Michelin guide and twice has been named the world's best by Restaurant Magazine.

Napa County sheriff's Capt. Doug Pike said no arrests have been made. But he added authorities are withholding some information — including any clues about how the wines were found or who took them — to maintain the integrity of the investigation.

Still, those in the tight-knit Napa Valley wine community have their theories.

"This has the earmarks of somebody who knew what they were doing and had the knowledge to choose those wines," said Stefan Blicker, who co-owns BPWine.com, an online merchant of fine and rare wines in Napa.

Because of their value, some of the stolen bottles would have been outfitted with digital tracking devices, a practice used by winery owners to prevent theft and counterfeiting, Blicker said. It's unclear whether that helped crack the case.

"I'm not positive that the tracking numbers on the bottles themselves had anything to do with this apprehension," Blicker said. "It's hard to know if that wine was even sold."

It did appear the suspect or suspects were familiar with the restaurant. The French Laundry was referring questions to authorities.

Restaurant Magazine named the restaurant best in the world in 2003 and 2004. The French Laundry is famed for twice daily serving nine-course tasting menus, none of which use the same ingredient more than once. The wine list is several dozen pages.

The stolen wine included Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, a single bottle of which can cost up to $10,000. An online wine list shows the bottles sell for $3,250 to $7,950 at the restaurant.

Bottles of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the most highly sought-after American wines, also were stolen. The restaurant wine list shows one vintage sells for $6,000.

"I looked at the French Laundry wine list, and those wines probably make the most sense from a thief's point of view in the sense that it packed the most amount of value in the least amount of space," Blicker said.

The Domaine de la Romanée-Conti would have been especially appealing, he said.

"To have a very large collection of multi vintages of one very prestigious producer was a logical choice," Blicker said. "It's quite possible that this was pre-planned."

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti bottles have a tracking number, and collectors want to see that number because it legitimizes the bottle, Blicker said.

"If the person buying the wine has the inclination to find out where the original sale of the bottle was, they can do that," he said. "You have to imagine a bottle of wine like a rare piece of art. It may change hands five or six times."

Screaming Eagle uses radio-frequency identification tags to fight counterfeiting.

On Monday, after a nearly monthlong investigation, analysis of forensic evidence, and numerous interviews, Napa County sheriff's detectives traveled to Greensboro to recover the majority of the stolen wines.

Capt. Joel Cranford said the Greensboro Police Department was not involved in the case. The FBI did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The sheriff's office will be working with state and federal law enforcement to follow up on leads, Pike said.

Blicker said he's happy French Laundry will have its wine returned but hopes it was properly cared for in the transfer.

"Wines like that are very delicate" and must be kept at a certain temperature, he said. "If they were driven through the Las Vegas desert in a 98-degree day, (they) may have destroyed $300,000 worth of wine."

Emily Wines, wine director for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants and one of 140 master sommeliers in the nation, said she understood the theft of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and the Screaming Eagle, since they are high-dollar wines.

But she wondered why some lesser-valued burgundy and Dom Perignon — listed at French Laundry for $695 to $1,450 a bottle — was part of the take.

"Dom Perignon champagne is certainly something people recognize, but it's not something that you can sell for megabucks," Wines said.

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Information from: The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, http://www.pressdemocrat.com