Grapevine: The Dark Side of Dealing in Food and Wine Products

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

The 2008 recession has financially impacted a number of individuals and families. Some are still feeling the effects of unemployment while others are grappling with devastated budgets for the basic necessities of life. For those still struggling, saving a few dollars on purchases of food can have a significant impact on their lifestyles.

Conversely, the recession created financial opportunities for other Americans. From depressed values for real estate to a proliferation of black market goods, those with available funds scored bargains not otherwise readily available.

In the midst of these polarized worlds, there are entrepreneurs seeking to profit financially from the effects of the recession. During and after the recession, a number of crimes have been perpetrated as a means for personal gain. One in particular caught my attention–a wine heist in Seattle last month. My research revealed a number of other crimes aimed at consumer products, but this wine crime was carried out with much forethought and targeted a very specific audience.

Here are a few of the oversized food commodity thefts that were aimed at a broad market during the recession: $120,000 of Hershey’s chocolates; 11,000 pounds of Nutella; $100,000 of hamburger patties; 21 tons of cheese (unrelated to the hamburger heist); and $65,000 of chicken wings. It isn’t clear which of these crimes were solved, but it is fairly certain the evidence has disappeared into the black market of bargain-hunters perhaps seeking to maximize their food dollars.

The tale of the wine heist is a bit more intricate and the victims are high-end wine collectors. It proves, however, that financial status is not immune to loss of property.

On Thanksgiving Day, intruders broke into a secure wine storage facility in Seattle that caters to dozens of high-end wine collectors. Their methods were quite exacting, from their detailed preparations, to their marketing plan for the stolen wines, to their cover-up plan. In all, they stole over 200 cases of wine valued at $648,000, a lofty average of $259 per bottle.

The thieves worked for 13 hours and made nine trips to remove the wine. What about security during that time? The security cameras were spray-painted and the motion sensors covered by the thieves to disable them (all except one camera); security personnel had the day off.

The one operating security camera was the thieves’ downfall. Captured on film, two local plumbers were arrested within 72 hours and the wine was fully recovered. The ensuing investigation revealed a well-laid out plan: 1) one of the thieves had opened an account at the storage facility several months earlier in order to get the lay of the land. To do so he provided personal information, which led police straight to his home. 2) A detailed 88-page journal was found, outlining the plan for the heist. 3) police believe that the thieves may have perpetrated a trial-run theft. Last March, $100,000 of high-end wines were stolen from a San Francisco storage facility and successfully sold to a local dealer. Similar M.O., different outcome.

The cover-up was simple. The thieves cut two gas lines in the storage facility, believing the ensuing fire would destroy all potential evidence. To their dismay, the gas leak was detected and corrected before any sparks set off the cover-up fire.

The thieves’ motivation was clear. They were selective in which wines were stolen. Specific wines were sought out in individually identified lockers; other wines in the same lockers were left behind. The thieves stored the stolen wines in a rented temperature-controlled storage facility in the neighborhood. These factors have led investigators to believe the thieves may have had discerning clients, who were also concerned with potential spoilage if the wines were not stored under ideal conditions.

A willing marketplace produces willing risk-takers, be it for basic subsistence or egotistical pleasure. And the allure for criminals never wanes.

Nick Antonaccio is a 35-year Pleasantville resident. For over 15 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.


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