Busted in Bordeaux: Crime Ring Suspected of Stealing $6 Million in Wine and Whisky

Plus, an illicit winery discovered in an Alabama sewage treatment facility, and thieves target cult Cabernet verticals in California

Busted in Bordeaux: Crime Ring Suspected of Stealing $6 Million in Wine and Whisky
French gendarmes apprehend one of 25 suspects in the alleged theft of more than $6 million worth of wine and whisky (Gendarmerie Nationale)
Dec 30, 2020

As 2020 comes to a close, the wine police blotter has been as active as ever, from Bordeaux to Napa to … Alabama? Don’t be surprised: Wine appreciation knows no borders, and wine crime never takes a holiday …

BORDEAUX, France—On Dec. 8, French gendarmes and cops pounced on a sophisticated crime ring suspected of stealing and trafficking in grand cru goods. Police simultaneously raided locations in the Bordeaux, Dordogne and Loire regions, arresting 25 people.

"We mobilized 140 gendarmes and 76 police officers," said Col. Jean-Baptiste Félicité, commander of Bordeaux's investigation squad. Authorities required a large, heavily armed force due to the perceived dangerousness of some of the suspects, all of whom are allegedly tied to 20 heists or attempts thereof.

Investigators found 900 bottles of high-end adult beverages—including Romanée-Conti, Lafite, Margaux, whiskies and Champagnes—worth approximately €1 million, but the gang is believed to have stolen around €5 million worth of wine (that’s about $6.2 million American). "The 900 bottles [confiscated] correspond to just a small part of the stolen wine, so there is still work to be done in the investigation," said Félicité.

Confiscated bottles of allegedly stolen wine
A few of the 900 confiscated bottles of allegedly stolen wine recovered in operation "Magnum" (Gendarmerie Nationale)

The operation, code named "Magnum," began to take shape in September 2019 after thieves struck wine warehouses in Bordeaux. A few months later, another robbery targeted a rural location. France's gendarmes patrol the country’s rural regions, while the national police cover the urban areas. Parallel investigations led both organization to the same ringleader, with the same M.O., and the two forces joined … er, forces.

The alleged ringleader, a 55-year-old Bordeaux businessman, has "priors in cases tied to wine and restaurants" and had "a role almost as a commander, giving the orders," said Jean-Yves Goriou, head of the criminal affairs division of the Bordeaux police.

The suspects arrested ranged from "professional" thieves in their thirties to older, allegedly established fences. "These are professionals who know how to get around security measures, such as alarms, cameras or motion sensors," said Patrick Léonard, interregional deputy director of the judicial police.

They also knew which wines to grab, and where to find them, targeting négociant warehouses, a supermarket, collectors and shops. A week prior to this month's raid, another attempted heist failed. "We've been following them for a long time," said Col. Olivia Poupot, departmental commander of the gendarmes, "and we needed to act."

Waste Water Winery Foiled by Tipster

Illegally made wine at the Rainsville Waste Water Treatment facility in Alabama
No tasting notes have been released. (Courtesy of DeKalb County Sheriff)

RAINSVILLE, Alabama—On Dec. 17, the DeKalb County Sheriff's Office received an anonymous tip about suspicious activity at the Rainsville Waste Water Treatment plant. Authorities arrived to discover an illegal winemaking operation and more than 200 gallons of illicit vino.

The government facility’s supervisor was suspended without pay and has been charged with misdemeanor unlawful possession of illegally manufactured alcohol and felony use of official position for personal gain. According to DeKalb County Chief Deputy Brad Gregg, the suspect admitted that he'd been conducting the operation for two to three years, using materials at the treatment facility. Gregg also said that the alleged rogue winemaker claims to have intended to give the wine away.

Thankfully, he wasn’t fermenting sewage into plonk. "There were blueberries, Muscadine [grapes] and apparently bananas," Gregg told Unfiltered via email. "We don't know the source."

"This is definitely one of the biggest [illegal winemaking] operations we’ve seen in our county and possibly our state," DeKalb County Sheriff Nick Welden said in a statement. "We won’t tolerate anyone using their position to hide their illegal actions at the taxpayer’s expense.”

California Cult Cab Smash and Grab

Smashed display cabinet at Joseph George Wines
Thieves made careful selections at Joesph George Wines. They were less careful with the cabinet. (Bert George)

SAN JOSE, California—At approximately 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 12, thieves smashed through the door of Joseph George Wines in San Jose, making off with about $40,000 worth of Napa cult Cabernets.

Third-generation proprietor Bert George arrived at the shop that morning to find that a vertical of Harlan Estate magnums from 1997 to 1992 was missing, along with a vertical of Caymus Special Selection from 1992 to 1987.

"They actually threw a rock through the front door and crawled [in]," George told Unfiltered. "They went beeline straight to the Harlans, busted that cabinet … you gotta have a crew that knows what they're doing to do this."

Since the loss of the treasured vertical of Harlan, which was on display but not for sale, Harlan estate director Don Weaver has pledged to help. "He really likes us,” George said, “and he said, 'Bert, we're gonna do whatever we can to replace that.'"


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