Breaking the Law: The Criminally Minded Turn to Wine

Art imitates life as a real-world wine crime wave inspires TV dramas
Jun 23, 2011

Winemaking is a millennia-old occupation. Unfortunately, crime-making is an even older one. And ever since—we're guessing—that first Bronze Age hoodlum snuck into a cave/winery/morgue (mixed-use developments are older than we thought) and absconded with an amphora of the Caucasus Mountains' finest 6,000 years ago, wine and crime have made a most distasteful yet captivating pairing.

Wine crimes have even crept into pop culture. An episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent earlier this month featured the murder of a high-profile wine importer known for unearthing rare old trophy wines following his sale of counterfeit 18th century Bordeaux bottles engraved with George Washington's initials. In a recent episode of White Collar, someone gets murdered as two master counterfeiters attempt to fake a bottle of 18th century Bordeaux about to be auctioned that was purportedly given to Ben Franklin by Marie Antoinette. (Either of those sound familiar? Well, except for the murdering.) Bones got in on the act when the body of a wine critic was found gruesomely sealed inside a barrel of fermenting Cabernet. Of course, life inspires art, so don't be surprised if this recent rash of wine crimes will be the next Law & Order episode to be ripped from the headlines. These are their stories.

• A young lady in France was caught last month trying to get a discount on a few bottles of Château Pétrus, switching the barcodes on the $3,300 bottles with ones on bottles priced $3.50. This occurred at a Dordogne outlet of the supermarket Leclerc; the company’s wine buyer said such occurrences are common. To help stop this crime wave, Unfiltered has invented and is seeking to patent a new device: It’s a cabinet—of sorts—that is fitted with a kind of “locking” mechanism so that it can only be accessed by someone, perhaps a store manager, who possesses what could be described as an “unlocking” mechanism, or “key.” It’s the simplicity of the device that makes it so effective, and Unfiltered hopes it can be used to restore Bordeaux’s time-honored status quo, in which it is the buyer who gets robbed.

• Last month, Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control agents seized 670 gallons of illegal homemade wine that a Newport News man was selling out of his garage. The 82-year-old garagiste, James Edward Skinner, is just one of many vintners who have been forced out of business by either competition from large corporate producers who have access to distribution channels that are not a Ford Probe, or the police. Skinner had been selling the wine for $7 to $8 per half-gallon, a relative bargain if you can get your hands on it: With its limited 280 case production, it's rarer than most cult Cabernets that sell for hundreds of dollars per bottle. Skinner has been charged with felony illegal manufacture of alcoholic beverages and illegal sale of alcoholic beverages without a license, but Unfiltered has not learned the fate of the requisitioned vintage of Skinner Winery Block D The Garbage Can 2011.

• Unfiltered is a big fan of democracy and capitalism, and the right to sell, or refuse to sell, whichever Pinot, Chardonnay or Cabernet anyone with a state-approved permit wishes. China's wine vendors apparently don't have so much freedom on that front. In a bizarre attempt to create a tourist attraction in the Chinese town of Maotai, where a popular liquor bearing the same name is made, local officials ordered the eviction of all shops on a main street that refused to sell Maotai brand liquor, according to the Global Times. The order came May 1, and store owners were given until May 3 to comply, without compensation. The plan, apparently, was to convert one of the main streets in Maotai, in Guinzhou province, into a “baijiu street”—literally liquor street—as a way to promote Chinese liquor culture. Prohibition was no fun here in the States, but this opposite measure went over just as poorly, as police officials went shop to shop after May 3, forcibly evicting those that were not selling the liquor and by some reports ransacking the stores of offenders. The deputy town chief in charge of the project, Yuan Rentao, has since been suspended from his post, and city officials issued an apology May 16.

• New Scotland Yard reports that 400 cases of rare and valuable wine are still missing after being swiped from an east London warehouse in late May. Valued at $1.6 million, the cargo belonged to private investors who were storing the wine for resale in three to four years' time in a facility below a set of railway arches on London’s Cambridge Heath Road. After breaking through the padlock on the main gate and forcing open the door leading into the warehouse, thieves proceeded to disable security cameras and, using a forklift, split the cases between three vehicles. Police report that the burglary most likely occurred between midday on Saturday May 21 and the morning of Sunday May 22. Police also acknowledged that six men were spotted with the getaway vehicles late that Saturday night. Only two men, however, aged 40 and 50, have been arrested in connection with the crime, and they’re not talking. We can only hope that whoever is holding the wine at present is paying closer attention to its storage conditions than the warehouse did to its security.

Actors Crime Fraud Theft Legal and Legislative Issues Unfiltered

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