Grand theft wine strikes Sonoma Safeway

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On Jan. 7, while inventorying the wine shelves at the Sonoma Safeway, the stocking clerk noticed something strange: entire rows of certain expensive wines – the “top shelf” wines, with bottle prices around $80 and up – were empty.

Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon… Groth Reserve Cab… Hess, Pine Ridge, Daou: all cabernets, primarily from the Napa Valley. It was as if somebody was planning a big party and would spare no expense. But why entire rows?

Upstairs in the surveillance room, the security officer was reviewing recordings made throughout the day showing a slight Asian man repeatedlyfilling his shopping cart with top-shelf wines, then, as he went to other parts of the store, putting those wines in a wheeled luggage carrier. Then he’d leave the store, without paying.

And at about this same time, the 5-foot-2 inch man in question walked back into the store. Security called the Sonoma Police and had an employee follow him as he picked up a couple bottles of wine. But nervous at being followed, the man left the bottles in another part of the store and walked out – into the waiting arms of Sonoma’s finest.

Phuoc Huynh of San Francisco, 41, was arrested and booked for grand theft. Although he had no wine on him at the time of his arrest, there was more than enough surveillance evidence to charge him with felony grand theft, and he spent the night in jail. Bail was set at $5,000, and he went free the next day when somebody posted bail.

The stolen wine totaled 48 missing bottles with a retail value of about $4,000 – over $83 a bottle on average – lifted over several visits to Safeway that day. But none of it was recovered, which strongly suggests he had an accomplice waiting somewhere nearby who picked up his full-bodied booty and sent him back for more.

The local incident was part of a growing trend of wine theft – from restaurants, winemakers, collectors as well as supermarkets – that suggests an underground wine economy, based on stolen wines that might get top dollar being sold to presumably unsuspecting consumers, perhaps through “mom-and-pop” stores or perhaps online.

The most high-profile case in the area was the Christmas 2014 theft from Yountville’s French Laundry Restaurant, when still-unknown persons pried open a door on a wine storage closet and got away with 76 bottles of wine, worth an estimated $300,000.

Most of the wine turned up a year later in a North Carolina “collector’s” cellar; he voluntarily turned them back to the Napa restaurant when he realized what he had, and no charges were filed.

Other restaurants have also reported audacious wine theft – Prima in Walnut Grove, Redd also in Yountville, the Plumed Horse in Sausalito.

In addition, $2.5 million of wine was stolen from a warehouse in Irvine, and some the $650,000 worth of wine was stolen from a Seattle retailer in 2014.

The theft of expensive wine and its redistribution through other markets, public and private, is one aspect of the extraordinary value that collectors and connoisseurs put on certain labels – Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is probably the most sought-after, and expensive. (Several bottles of DRC were among the French Laundry haul.)

So far – despite the fact that $300,000 worth of wine from Napa County showed up in North Carolina – the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has not been tracking this issue.

“It’s very rare that we work alcohol cases anymore,” said Helen Dunkel of the BATF Bay Area office, “in fact this last year we had 26 of them. Unless its affecting interstate commerce, like sales across state lines, I don’t think we’d be involved.” Dunkel later confirmed that the BATF is not involved in any current alcohol investigation.

At the state Alcohol Beverage Control office in Santa Rosa, John Carr affirmed that his agency wasn’t pursuing cases like this either.

Safeway’s security office did not respond to several inquiries for comment.

The other side of the coin is wine fraud: bottling and corking a wine with false labeling, counterfeiting the product and selling it for a huge markup.

The prince of wine fraud was Rudy Kurniawan, estimated to have made roughly $130 million from 2002 until his arrest in 2012. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, ordered to forfeit $20 million and to pay $28.4 million to victims in 2014.

Among his customers were billionaire William Koch, who sued Kurniawan over approximately $2 million of wine he had purchased,

Apparently, not everyone can tell the difference between a $30 or $10 bottle of wine and a $3,000 bottle, if the labeling looks right.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sono manews.com

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