At dawn on Feb. 10, more than 300 heavily-armed French gendarmes raided what they are calling a highly organized crime ring dealing in stolen wine, primarily from Bordeaux classified growths. In an operation called Cassevins, the military police officers simultaneously swept through targets in Paris, Bordeaux and towns in the southwest of France following a six-month investigation. "Never before in France have we had a [wine-related crime ring] as methodical and structured as this one," gendarmerie Col. Ghislain Réty told Wine Spectator.
While the Bordeaux wine trade has kept quiet about the thefts until now, police say the alleged criminals have been targeting the region with alarming regularity—stealing wine stocks nearly every two weeks since at least June 2013, most recently on Feb. 5. Thirteen châteaus and two warehouses stocking wines from multiple châteaus have been struck. According to investigators, the thieves were fulfilling orders for specific wines. The names of the châteaus have not been released.
The arrested suspects, all men and French nationals, included five alleged "professional thieves," ages 18 to 55, and 15 "fences" allegedly in charge of reselling the stolen wine. All 20 are currently being held for questioning, awaiting formal charges. Fifteen are from the Bordeaux area. According to investigators, some have already begun giving information under interrogation.
The targeted châteaus had previously estimated their losses at $1.36 million, but Réty said that the liquid loot the gendarmes found was worth far more, backing up their suspicions that the criminals were guilty of numerous thefts. The officers seized tens of thousands of euros in cash and hundreds of bottles of wine. "We are still estimating the value." The gendarmes also seized stolen cars and weapons, including handguns and rifles.
Réty explained that detectives got their first break last June when they noticed that several wine heists shared similarities. In each case, the criminals first stole a sport utility vehicle by entering a house while masked and forcing the owner to hand over the keys. They then drove to a château cellar, passing by tight security systems with surprising ease. After loading up the wine, usually in cases ready for shipment, the thieves made their getaway. Within a few hours of the heist, they wiped down the vehicle with bleach and typically set it ablaze, destroying any trace of DNA.
The detectives created a special unit to investigate the crimes and, using surveillance, pieced together a highly methodical operation. They are still unraveling how the merchandise was resold. The known buyers include restaurants, private individuals and other dealers, in France and abroad. "It was like a giant tentacle," said Réty.
Bordeaux was the primary target. Detectives also found Champagne and other still wines, the latter most likely stolen with the Bordeaux or from the wine collections of private individuals. As the investigation continues more suspects could be implicated. At this point, it’s unclear whether buyers knew they were purchasing stolen goods, but the below-market prices should have raised suspicions.
Bernard Farges, president of the local wine trade group CIVB, congratulated the detectives on their work. He said the arrests were reassuring, and hoped they would dissuade other criminals from targeting Bordeaux.