Stranger than Fiction, 5 of the Most Bizarre Wine Heists in Recent Years

From thieves drilling through walls in the dark catacombs of Paris, to one highly motivated shopper in Russia with a tank, we take a look at five of the strangest wine heists in the past few years.
Collage by Julia Lea / Getty

After the breakout success of HBO’s The Jinx, FX’s The People v. O. J. Simpson and even Netflix’s tongue-in-cheek American Vandal, the public’s true-crime obsession shows no signs of slowing. And there’s no shortage of it in the wine world, either.

Case in point: 19 Crimes, a wine brand that uses augmented-reality labels on their bottles to tell true crime stories. Using their phone’s camera and a smartphone app to view the label, consumers can make the characters on each bottle come to life and tell the real-life story of an 18th-century British prisoner shipped to Australia as a sentence for their crimes.

However, as the true crime genre has shown us, truth is sometimes more interesting than fiction. Here’s a look at five of the most interesting wine heists in recent times.

The dark catacombs of Paris, France
These catacombs stretch for more than 150 miles below the streets of Paris / Getty

The Catacombs of Paris

This robbery has all the hallmarks of a big-budget Hollywood heist. A network of hidden tunnels beneath the streets of a major city? Bandits who drill through basement walls under the cover of night to break into a wealthy wine collector’s private cellar? This actually happened last summer, when thieves in Paris absconded with more than 300 bottles of rare wine valued at approximately $300,000.

The sprawling subterranean web of catacombs extend for more than 150 miles below the streets of Paris, and criminals used them to raid the cellar of a private collector. The catacombs are so vast that in June of last year, two teenagers became lost underground for three days until rescuers were able to locate them. Authorities believe that the heist’s masterminds had specialized knowledge of the location that helped them figure out exactly which wall to penetrate in the dark caves in order to gain access to the collector’s stash.

Think crime doesn’t pay? Police have yet to apprehend anyone, and no suspects have been named.

The Italian Job

What’s the point of pulling off a wine heist if you don’t have something delicious to pair with your loot? The result is the most comically stereotypical Italian robbery ever: nearly $200,000 worth of cheese and wine.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is a surprisingly common target for thieves in Italy. Wheels of this prized cheese fetch a high price, are easy to transport and even easier to sell on the black market. The wheels are so highly valued, some Italian banks accept them as loan collateral.

In a series of break-ins that began in 2015, a highly organized crime ring pilfered 168 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano and roughly 16,000 bottles of wine before the majority of its members were captured by authorities in northern Italy last year.

The Goldman Sachs booth on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange / Photo by Chris Hondros, Getty Images)
The Goldman Sachs booth on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange / Photo by Chris Hondros, Getty Images)

The Robin Hood of Goldman Sachs

Nick Meyer spent plenty of time in the proximity of luxury as a personal assistant to Goldman Sachs president David Solomon. Eventually, the 40-year-old decided he wanted a taste of the good life himself. Using ambition as his guide, Meyer reached out and took it.

The problem? He took it from someone else.

Tasked with transporting rare wine from his boss’s Manhattan apartment to a house in Long Island’s tony Hamptons enclave, Meyer instead hit the highway, selling the bottles to a North Carolina dealer and fleeing the country. From there, the fugitive traveled the world, with banking records showing time spent in Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Morocco and Switzerland.

How You Can Spot Fake Wines

Though the heist could be seen as an act of impulse, Meyer seemed to put quite a bit of thought into his con. He sold the wines under pseudonym “Mark Miller,” the name of a renowned New York vintner who died in 2008. Other false identities seemed concerned with cultivating an appearance of wealth and pedigree: Nicolas de-Meyer, Nickola Demeyer and Nickolas Von Meyer, for example.

How has the news influenced opinions on Meyer in his hometown of Findlay, Ohio? According to some locals, he’s regarded as a Robin Hood-style folk hero. One family friend told The Weekly Standard, “This kid raised up, a lot of his raising up was out in the country—literally on a farm, where his grandparents lived. Here’s this small-town kid from flyover country, he goes into the big city and snookers the big-time guy.”

Police finally apprehended Meyer in January 2018, and he currently awaits arraignment in federal court.

Armored personnel carrier after crashing through the front of a Russian wine shop

I’ll Take That Bottle to Go

While it may pale in comparison to some of the bigger heists in terms of payoff, this thief earns his place on the list for knowing how to make an entrance.

We all know what it’s like. You get off a long day at work, and all you want is to have a glass of wine and relax. But you’ve killed your last bottle and no shops are open. That didn’t stop one man in Apatity, Russia (inside the Arctic Circle, near Finland’s border), from coming up with a creative solution.

Desperate for a nightcap, this anonymous hero broke into a nearby motorsports training facility and hijacked a military-style armored personnel carrier. He flattened an innocent Daewoo before smashing through the front of a local liquor store to steal his bounty.

The total haul for this modern-day Thomas Crown? One single bottle of wine, which the perpetrator was found with when apprehended.

New vineyard plantings in Bordeaux
New vineyard plantings in Bordeaux / Getty

The Grape Escape

Most of these heists involve finished bottles of rare, high-end wine (along with whatever the guy stole from that shop in Russia). But last fall, thieves in Bordeaux decided to go straight to the source, as they pilfered at least seven metric tons of grapes from vineyards around the region under the cover of night.

Perhaps the theft isn’t all that surprising. Grape yields were terrible last year, caused by months of bad weather. The grapes that survived, however, are expected by many to create a fantastic vintage. What’s unique is that the thieves are suspected to be professional vintners.

Of the 6.5 metric tons stolen from a vineyard in Génissac, near St-Émilion, owner Denis Barraud told The Telegraph, “The grapes were picked by hand in an isolated part of our land. There’s nothing left. It’s been stripped bare.” Meanwhile, in Montagne, thieves dug up 500 vines, stealing whole plants right down to the rootstock.

According to Philippe Bardet of the Bordeaux Wine Council, “The harvest is dire…so given the shortage of grapes, the temptation to help yourself from the vineyard next door is very strong. Everyone’s in distress and in some places, there’s a poisonous atmosphere of envy and jealousy.”

Published on March 19, 2018
Topics: Wine Crime
About the Author
Dylan Garret
Associate Digital Editor

A veteran of New York City’s bar and restaurant scene, Garret has lived, breathed and sweated spirits for more than a decade, working as a bartender and beverage director at establishments ranging from Michelin-starred eateries to local Brooklyn pubs. Joining Wine Enthusiast in 2015, he has very strong opinions on proper cocktail garnish.
Email: dgarret@wineenthusiast.net
Instagram: @dillinisillin




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