Updated: February 02, 2007
A theft from the cellar in a private home of 440 bottles of rare and expensive wines, including a magnum of 1959 Château Pétrus, has shaken wine collectors in the exclusive Silicon Valley enclave of Atherton, south of San Francisco.
The theft was discovered on Jan. 4. According to local police, the thief or thieves cleared the cellar of all but a few bottles of lesser value, possibly while the residents were on vacation. Only wine was taken. A search of Wine Spectator auction records indicates that the stolen wines may be worth about $120,000 in today's market. The Pétrus was the oldest and potentially most valuable wine on the list, with a current value of about $7,000. Other large-format bottles taken in the heist included 1982 Haut-Brion, 1959 Beychevelle and 2002 Peter Michael Les Pavots. Most of the collection was classified growth Bordeaux--more than 100 bottles of 1982s were reported stolen, including Mouton, Latour, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Haut-Brion and Pichon-Lalande. High-end California Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, primarily from Peter Michael winery and Kistler, were also taken, as well as an assortment of California Cabernets.
Wine Spectator has learned that the burglarized home belongs to a prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur, who asked not to be identified because he is concerned about the security of his home and family. "Certain bottles have a lot of memories for me. Some of them were birthday gifts. I'd just like to get the wines back," he said.
The Atherton Police Department has released few details about its ongoing investigation. There were no signs of forced entry, with the best guess that the theft occurred between 6:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., according to detective Kris Nichols, spokesperson for the department. The crime lab is now analyzing evidence gathered at the scene, looking for fingerprints. Technicians working on the property the day the theft was discovered have been interviewed, said Nichols, but are not considered suspects. "We'll continue talking to all the parties involved and any potential witnesses," she said.
On Wednesday, Atherton police received surveillance footage of the cul-de-sac entrance to the home. Detective sergeant Joe Wade, lead investigator on the case, would not reveal the source of the footage, but indicated that several other residences border the cul-de-sac, the sole entrance to the burglarized house. That footage, taken over several days, could help investigators determine when the theft occurred. The homeowner was out of town from Dec. 28 through Jan. 1, and didn't visit his basement cellar until Jan. 4, after noticing that bottles he had put upstairs were missing. He then discovered and reported the theft.
Atherton, which borders Redwood City and Menlo Park, is one of the wealthiest towns in California. Many of its 7,200 residents are executives at the technology and venture capital companies based in Silicon Valley. Big-ticket wine cellars are not uncommon here, but, says Wade, this is the first reported theft of a private wine cellar in Atherton or the surrounding area. Wade would not describe the specific security measures in place at the burglarized house, but did say many area homes have security systems, and that electric gates and fences are standard. "Property crimes are relatively common here," Wade added.
Under normal circumstances, police focus burglary investigations on how stolen goods might be resold. That will be difficult in this case, because there are so many outlets for collectible wine, including retailers, private collectors, auction houses and websites. Generally speaking, even the most expensive wines lack identifying marks. "Wines are not unique items like those dealt with by the rest of my colleagues," said Robert Sleigh, vice president at the wine department of Sotheby's New York.
Auction houses ask about the provenance and storage conditions of all consignments, but it's very difficult to verify the information they are told. "You are somewhat at the mercy of people being honest with you," said Sleigh. In 10 years at the Sotheby's wine department, he does not recall a consignment ever being refused specifically because they suspected it might have been stolen. Of course, Sotheby's and other reputable auction houses will now have their eyes open for any magnums of 1959 Pétrus presented to them. But thieves savvy enough to know which bottles to steal may already have a buyer, and may not struggle to successfully fence those wines.
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