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Temecula Tasting Room Heist

Thieves nab art from Cougar Vineyard and Winery: Reward offered

by Jane Firstenfeld
cougar vineyards art
This 5-foot by 3-foot oil painting was stolen from the tasting room at Cougar Vineyard & Winery.
Temecula, Calif.—The theft of a large original painting from the Cougar Vineyard & Winery tasting room remains unsolved. Owners Rick and Jennifer Buffington are offering a reward and actively seeking the return of the canvas, a gift commissioned by Jennifer Buffington’s brother. The oil by Virginia artist Christopher Mize depicts bottles of Cougar wine, one clearly inscribed “Congratulations Rick and Jennifer.”

The Buffingtons left for a trip to Italy on June 9; upon their return some three weeks later, they realized the 5- x 3-foot painting was gone from its mounting above a door between the winery’s deli and restrooms. Consulting with staff, they narrowed down the time period it went missing to daytime hours June 10-11.

One employee reported, “A couple said they’d bought it,” Jennifer Buffington said. Previously, Buffington had spoken with a couple who loved it and wanted a copy. “We don’t have a lot of information,” she said. “I just can’t understand how someone could walk out the door with that thing in broad daylight,” Rick Buffington said.

They reported the theft to the Riverside County Sheriff’s department, but not yet to their insurer. “We’re still hoping to get it back,” Buffington told Wines & Vines. “We’re offering a $500 reward.” The couple has posted milk carton “missing” signs on winery property.

Riverside Sheriff Department deputy Julio Oseguera confirmed that the grand theft is a felony and said the department is using its normal methods of investigation for this type of property crime: Scouring pawn shop receipts, Craigslist and eBay listings as well as social media. Deputies questioned the winery cleaning crew.

“I suggest putting it out on the neighborhood watch. Network. We depend on networking help with community. In this type of case, the community is our eyes and ears.”

Buffington said she believes the painting was taken by someone who loves it and now has it on display at home. Oseguera agreed that it might very well show up on a Facebook page as background to a home wine tasting.

Talking with winery neighbors, Buffington said, tasting room pilferage is not too unusual. One winery took the step of screwing down small pieces of art in the bathrooms and placing signs warning of “bad karma” to those who might pry art off the walls.

“We heard of people stealing grape-decorated light switch plates,” she said. Cougar used to sell decorative trinkets, but they discontinued the practice after the items started disappearing.

Because the new Cougar tasting room was still under construction at the time of the theft, there were no alarm or surveillance cameras in place. “When we get the painting back, we’ll put an alarm on it,” Buffington said optimistically.

A life-size wooden cougar is on display in the tasting room now.  “Maybe we’ll put a sign on it: Filled with lead and bees,” Buffington said. The 4,500-case winery, named for Cougar Mountain near the Buffingtons’ former home in Bellevue, Wash., sells some 98% of its wine direct-to-consumer.

Keep your tasting room secure
Fortunately, grand theft art is not typical in winery tasting rooms, according to seasoned observers. Although tasting rooms are often full of pricey small objects, merchandise theft is not a major problem.

“It’s not a crime wave,” tasting room consultant Veronica Barclay confirmed. Art theft is unusual, she said. “Most winery theft investigations have involved tour groups or employees. A lot of wineries have video cameras on employees and tasting rooms. These prevent pricier things from walking out the door.”

Decorative, oversize, expensive wine bottles can be a target. “These are usually inside- or tour group jobs,” Barclay said. “Those are the ones that get to court. I’ve never heard of art walking off the walls.”

A few years ago, solar panels were a major target of vineyard/winery thefts. These days, Barclay said, “What we’re seeing is anything with copper.”

Due to its prime location between Los Angeles and San Diego, “Thousands and thousands of people visit Temecula wineries. It’s as busy as Highway 29,” Napa Valley’s main artery, said Craig Root, a tasting room consultant for 30-some years.

Root contends that pilferage is not as prevalent in tasting rooms as in, say, supermarkets. “It’s kind of a self-selecting crowd,” he noted.

He recalled his wine industry roots working in the tasting room at Beaulieu Vineyard in Oakville, Calif., right beside Highway 29. “We had two display bottles on a pedestal. Two or three times a year, one would go missing. When you’ve got hundreds of thousands of visitors, that’s not a crime wave.”

He agreed with Barclay that bigger crowds can distract employees, but said he hadn’t seen this kind of theft. “This is kind of an anomaly,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Buffingtons still hope to retrieve their special painting. Should you see it, contact them at the winery with details. 

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