Nosh Pit

The Nosh Pit: Wine security a concern after Napa theft

Wines valued at roughly $300,000 were stolen from the French Laundry at Christmas and have been recovered.
Wines valued at roughly $300,000 were stolen from the French Laundry at Christmas and have been recovered. French Laundry

Mario Ortiz cradles a bottle of 2005 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tache in a recent photo shoot with Sacramento Magazine. At $7,400, this rare Burgundy ranks as the most expensive bottle in the cellar that Ortiz oversees as the long-running wine director at The Firehouse in Old Sacramento.

The La Tache is so coveted and pricey that it can even bring out the criminal in a person. A similar bottle of 2005 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti La Tache was among those stolen in one of the wine world’s most brazen heists, a robbery on Christmas Day at The French Laundry that depleted the famed Napa Valley restaurant of some of its most prized wines. Seventy-six bottles were nabbed, primarily grand cru Burgundy and Screaming Eagle, one of Napa’s ultimate trophy wines with a cost that’s like a mortgage payment in a bottle. The total value of the haul was roughly $300,000.

Lucky for The French Laundry, the bulk of the wines were recovered in North Carolina on Jan. 19, though no arrests have been made.

But this wine theft still spooks Sacramento wine professionals such as Ortiz. The Firehouse is home to more than 15,000 bottles of wine, including some from the same prized estates that were targeted by thieves at The French Laundry: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Échézeaux, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg, plus three vintages of Screaming Eagle that cost more than $4,000 each.

“Now, we have to be very careful,” said Ortiz. “I think we have to take some (security) steps that we haven’t done before.”

The Firehouse uses three separate cellars for storing wines, with each requiring its own key. In the past, some privileged diners have been offered private tours to see some of the restaurant’s famed bottles. That idea now gives Ortiz a bit of pause.

“We’re fortunate to have a secure underground cellar that only certain people can access,” said Ortiz. “Of course, when you take guests in there, anything can happen. There are thousands of bottles in front of you, and one person can be a bad individual, but you’ll never know until it’s inventory time.”

Ortiz says that he’s never experienced significant wine theft during his four decades at the restaurant. But given what happened at The French Laundry, he’s mulling various “what if?” scenarios. Among them: How would they work out the losses with an insurance company?

“Is it (valued) on how it’s priced on the wine list, or the going rate in the market?” said Ortiz. “If you go to Southern California, and go to Nevada, there’s different prices for a certain wine. It’s a wild wine world out there.”

Albert Villanueva, an account executive with the business insurer Restaurant Programs of America, suggests that restaurants with an extensive wine list carry a specialized plan, one that treats rare bottles more like a painting than a typical pinot noir. Otherwise, damaged or stolen wines are valued at their original price.

“Like fine art and other collectibles, the value of your wine may appreciate over time,” said Villanueva. “This creates a serious challenge when trying to properly insure it, especially for agents and brokers who do not specialize in serving restaurants.”

Ortiz takes a little comfort in knowing that technology could help in case of a theft. Some high-end wineries are embedding bottles with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and encrypted codes to track wines for security and anti-counterfeit measures. Though investigators have not divulged how the wines stolen from The French Laundry were traced to North Carolina, Ortiz believes tracking devices may have helped crack the case.

“There are tracking tags that a winery can put on a label, or in the capsule on top,” said Ortiz. “I know some of the high-end ‘cult’ wines do that. I have five or six (bottles in The Firehouse wine cellar) that if it was opened somewhere, it can tell you exactly who bought it. It’s kind of neat.”

Ortiz still hopes he doesn’t have to track down a stolen bottle some day. Like most restaurants that emphasize fine wine, bottles at The Firehouse are kept in temperature-controlled cellars to optimize their quality. But if a rogue bottle finds it way out of the cellar, just one hot afternoon in the trunk of a car can turn a $4,000 bottle of wine into stewy grape juice that’ll taste terrible upon return.

“Security is a subject we’re talking about,” said Ortiz. “It’s amazing what happened (at The French Laundry). Hopefully it’s not a trend.”

Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.