July 14: This story was updated after the release of the French court's official written judgment.
“Get me a unit of Cheval, a good chunk of Cheval,” said the voice on the recording, a taped telephone conversation between the accused mastermind of an eight-month crime spree that stole more than $1.1 million of Bordeaux’s best wines and one of his partners, who allegedly fenced the wines for him. Both men, along with 13 accomplices, stood trial in Bordeaux’s criminal court this week, accused of robbing 18 wineries and négociants, including Châteaus d’Yquem, Haut-Bailly and Palmer, and selling the wine through a diverse network. The court found all 15 men guilty today, handing down sentences ranging from $67,000 fines to four years in prison.
The man speaking on the recording, according to French gendarmes, was Carlos Da Silva Lopes de Sa, who worked at a catering supply company and a wine club in Biarritz. He was placing an order with Yoann Gautrau, 27, a resident of Cantenac and an alleged cocaine addict. According to state prosecutor Jean-Louis Rey, Gautrau was the ringleader of the 15-man network, though Gautrau’s attorney argued that the young man had been influenced by his older partners, eager to get their hands on lucrative wines.
“It was theft à la carte. They got him excited about earning so much money so quickly,” said defense attorney Alexandre Novion.
During the four-day trial, Gautrau and his uncle, William Allard, sat in a glass-enclosed dock with three guards. Allard had been there before, having spent more than half of his life behind bars for armed robbery and rape.
A few feet away sat their 13 accomplices, a diverse group that included an aging thug with a long rap sheet; two small-town elementary-school teachers; a local bar owner; three Bordeaux négociants; the owner of that catering supply company from Biarritz; and a political science professor from an elite Paris university. Their link? Rey said the men shared a “fascination with the luxury of the world of wine, a world that was out of their reach.”
The spree began on June 10, 2013, when Gautrau and Allard broke into Château d’Yquem and stole 384 half-bottles of d’Yquem 2010 worth more than $110,000. It remains a mystery why a 27-year-old with no knowledge of wine knew enough to specifically take d’Yquem 2010. Prosecutors believe he had received an order. Phone records reveal that he received a phone call from Biarritz the night before.
Before each heist, they stole a van or truck. Gautrau then forced gates, cut through locks, scaled walls and squeezed through ventilation systems to access the cellars. He meticulously sprayed his path with bleach to destroy any DNA evidence. His uncle helped him load the cases and escape. They burned each getaway car, again destroying DNA evidence.
According to investigators, the two men stole 3,771 bottles of Bordeaux in all. They sold the wine for one-third of its retail value, netting themselves nearly $400,000, which they quickly spent on fast cars, designer clothing and cocaine.
Most of the wine flowed to the catering company and wine club in Biarritz through the owner’s jack-of-all-trades, Da Silva Lopes de Sa. But several other players throughout France moved the wine, as well, some who knew it was stolen and some who should have suspected.
But while the various players in this network moved the wine, the gendarmes were watching them, connecting the dots. Gautrau had made a mistake—on Sept. 19, he broke into négociant Barrière Frères and left behind an aerosol bleach can. The crime squad lifted DNA from the can, got a hit, and put him under surveillance. When the gang hit Barrière Frères a second time, accomplice Stephane Ornecq, accused of having participated in four of the robberies, left traces of his DNA.
Over the next five months, investigators watched Gautrau and monitored his communications, tracking the wine. On Feb. 10, 2014, pre-dawn raids involving 300 gendarmes put an end to the crime ring, arresting everyone. When the gendarmes caught Allard, they found a Glock handgun and more than thirty cases of Château Pavie.