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Police Make Arrest in California Wine Theft Case

Tim Fish
Posted: May 4, 2001

It didn't take long for Eugene Harris to build a $40,000 wine collection stocked with top Cabernets from Caymus, Chateau Montelena, Jordan and other California wineries.

And yet you wouldn't call Harris a wine connoisseur. Sonoma County Sheriff's detective Mark Essick has another name for him: thief.

Harris, a 32-year-old chauffeur from Petaluma, Calif., was arrested on April 20 and is accused of stealing 81 cases of wine -- most of it Cabernet Sauvignon -- from about 20 wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties.

According to Essick, Harris was driving for a wine-country limousine service when he is believed to have pilfered the credit card numbers of at least 53 customers he chauffeured on winery tours.

Later, he allegedly used those credit card numbers to buy wine. As part of the scam, Essick said, Harris often ordered the wine over the phone and told wineries that a courier would pick it up. Harris would later arrive at the winery posing as the courier.

From February to early April this year, Harris allegedly swindled $7,000 worth of wine from Jordan, $3,500 from Ferrari-Carrano and about $3,000 from Rodney Strong -- all in Sonoma County. In addition to Caymus and Montelena in Napa Valley, Harris got wine from Pine Ridge, Silverado, Clos Du Val, Schramsberg, Lokoya and Cuvaison.

The buying spree ended when a credit card holder called Jordan to question a bill. The winery called authorities, who eventually tracked down Harris through a cellular phone number he left while purchasing wine.

When Harris was arrested at his Petaluma apartment, his bedroom was crammed with 39 cases. The rest was loaded in the back of his pickup truck. Essick speculates that Harris was in the process of moving the wine.

While Essick said that credit card fraud is increasing in the United States, the wineries he spoke with have reported few such problems in the past.

This isn't Harris' first run-in with the law. "Mr. Harris has a lengthy criminal record for auto theft, grand theft and possession of stolen property," Essick said.

Harris was on parole for a drug conviction when he was arrested, so he is being held without bail in the Sonoma County jail. His preliminary hearing is set for May 17.

Although Harris wouldn't tell authorities what he intended to do with the wine, Essick believes Harris wanted to sell it, not drink it. He found none of the usual wine collector paraphernalia, such as corkscrews, in the apartment -- except for two copies of Wine Spectator.

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