Hot wine from French Laundry burglary may be tough to sell

Russ Parsons
The California Cook
Stolen wines from French Laundry may be difficult to peddle

The rare wines taken during the Christmas Day burglary at the French Laundry -- Napa Valley’s storied restaurant -- though very valuable, may not be easy to sell, wine industry experts say.

Seventy-six bottles of rare wines, worth as much as $15,000 a bottle, were taken in the burglary. The majority of those wines were from the Burgundy producer Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, though several bottles of highly collectible California cult Cabernet Sauvignon Screaming Eagle also were stolen.

The total retail price of the wines would be roughly $300,000, if they could be found for sale. Retail prices are only a fraction of what the wines would sell for on a restaurant wine list. Typical restaurant mark-ups are two to three times retail, and for rare wines can be even higher.

“Those are extremely rare wines,” says Bob Golbahar, president of Twenty Twenty Wine Cellars in West Los Angeles, which handles both Screaming Eagle and wines from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. “They for sure knew what they were taking. They got the cream of the crop.”

Scott Torrence, vice president and senior wine specialist at Christie’s auction house, which says it has sold $75 million of wine in the last year, agrees. “They’re extremely collectible. These are the blue chips of the auction market.”

Six bottles of the 1990 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti “Romanée-Conti” -- one of the wines stolen -- recently sold at a Christie’s auction for $125,000.

But even though the wines are extremely valuable, they may not be easy to sell.

“First of all, most of these wines have serial numbers on the bottles,” Golbahar says. “These days when the distributors sell you the wine, they put the serial numbers on the invoices and those bottles can be tracked very easily.

“Wines like this are like artwork -- they’re almost impossible to sell if they’ve been stolen. Everybody knows about it, it’s been so highly publicized. It’s like trying to sell a hot Picasso or something.”

The French Laundry, located in Yountville, is acknowledged to be one of the greatest restaurants in the world. It has earned a coveted three stars from the Michelin restaurant guide every year since Michelin began reviewing American restaurants in 2006.

According to a restaurant spokesperson, the serial numbers of the stolen wines had been recorded and were immediately distributed to potential resellers. Torrence says the list of wines stolen was already circulating at his company within an hour of it being published.

And auction houses such as Christie's have long memories. Torrence says he still keeps a list of wines that were stolen from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti more than a decade ago and regularly checks bottles that are being offered against it.

For wines that have not been recorded, resale is much easier. “We can’t really distinguish their Romanée-St. Vivant 2010 from somebody else’s without that serial number, or some other distinguishing marks,” Torrence says.

With the popularity of Internet forums specializing in wine collecting, the market for these bottles is even more connected than before. And it’s more suspicious than ever since Los Angeles’ Rudy Kurniawan, once one of the biggest names in wine collecting, was convicted of fraud for duping other collectors by selling bottles labeled for expensive wines that had been refilled with cheaper stuff.

“It’s like artwork,” Golbahar says. “Everyone who is interested is connected. All the auction houses know about it. All the legitimate stores know about it. Anybody who collects those wines knows about it. It’s going to be almost impossible to sell them legitimately.”

That same connectedness, however, can make it easier for the unscrupulous to sell stolen wines privately. “Somebody could get a conversation going in a chat room somewhere and say ‘hey here’s my email address and I could sell you some things out of my cellar’,” Torrence says. “It’s just simple as that.”

“More likely, whoever has it will just sit tight for a while," Golbahar says. "Even if they just put out a bottle at a time, people are going to ask questions. This is not just something that can just disappear into the wind."

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