Four men convicted of falsely imprisoning and assaulting one of France’s best-known wine collectors were sentenced to prison by the Criminal Tribunal in Niort, last week, with terms ranging from 18 months to five years for their role in the attempted armed robbery.
On June 19, 2014, a man masquerading as a delivery person rang the doorbell of Michel-Jack Chasseuil. The elderly collector didn’t hesitate to open the door. He regularly received cases of wine from all over the world, and was expecting a delivery that morning. But after Chasseuil opened the door, masked men pushed their way inside.
The men, all from the northern city of Lille, came to the village of La Chapelle-Baton, population 400, in a stolen van, false license plates attached, and not by accident. They had heard the reports of an underground cellar, 82 feet long, holding 50,000 bottles of luxury wines and spirits collectively valued at $30 million. And they had come to steal it.
Chasseuil, now 76, is a retired industrial designer for Dassault Aviation. He bought his first fine wine in 1970, cases of Château Dassault from St.-Emilion, which he got at an employee discount. From there wine became a passion. He bought Château Pétrus 1924 and Château d'Yquem 1926, then Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti 1974. He bought rums and Ports, whiskeys and Cognac. He bought wines from California, Italy and Australia.
As his collection blossomed, he outfitted four cellars: one for everyday wines, one for family and friends, one for the world's finest spirits, and one for rare and classified wines. In 2014, a Chinese tycoon handed him a check for $57 million, offering to put the collection in the Imperial Palace. Chasseuil tore up the check.
Today, he refers to his collection as "The Louvre of Wine,” kept in his cellars at 60° F and 80 percent humidity. He has 80 vintages of Pétrus, walls of Château d'Yquem, including some truly rare bottles like d’Yquem 1811, 1821 and 1847. He has magnums of old Bordeaux first-growths. "I have a 1931 Quinta do Noval Nacional Port. It's the Mona Lisa of my collection," Chasseuil told Wine Spectator. His collection has gained widespread attention, and visits from celebrities, including Prince Albert of Monaco.
But Chasseuil was not the only person to recognize the market value of his wines. And three years ago, on that June morning, his life nearly came to a violent end.
The masked men hauled Chasseuil first into his kitchen, then into the 'everyday wine' cellar. They brandished a gun and a meat cleaver, threatening to shoot him in the stomach and cut off his head. They punched him in the ears and broke his fingers. Why? They wanted the key to the reinforced door leading to the most expensive wines.
But Chasseuil didn't have the key. He kept it in a safety deposit box at the bank.
For two harrowing hours, the intruders tortured him, until finally they believed him. Frustrated, they stole his BMW and seven cases of Château Feytit-Clinet, a Pomerol estate he co-owns with his son Jeremy, the winemaker. They left Chasseuil tied up in the cellar. Injured and suffering from shock, he managed to free himself and call for help.
The police found the BMW an hour away, doused in gasoline. Forensic evidence, including fingerprints, DNA and cellphone activity, led investigators to the culprits, all of whom have long criminal records.
It took barely 20 minutes for the tribunal to reach guilty verdicts. Four of the men received prison sentences: Fabien Deschamps, 38, the "delivery man"; Jonathan D'Hooge, 33, the alleged ringleader; Mehdi Benabderrahmane, 26; and Nadir El Hadj Touchi, 32. A fifth man wanted in connection with the crime, Mohamed Mezaza, 28, remains at large.