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Wine Thefts Prompt Security Reviews

Suspects in custody following heist at Seattle wine-storage facility; B.C. ice wine robbery remains unsolved

by Peter Mitham
flash wine
One of the men suspected of stealing 200 cases of wine from Esquin Wine Merchants leased space from the facility.
Seattle, Wash.—The theft of $648,000 worth of wine from Esquin Wine Merchants on the south side of downtown Seattle has put security back on the minds of the Northwest wine industry.

On the night of Nov. 28—Thanksgiving, of all days—thieves made off with 200 cases of wine. In an elaborate plan to cover their tracks, motion sensors were disabled, security cameras blacked out and a gas line was cut—a risky move that could have destroyed the store and its underground storage vault if open flame had been present.

Two men—Luke Thesing, 35, and Samuel Harris, 34—have been jailed on charges associated with the heist, including attempted arson. The men worked together for a plumbing company that Harris owns.

Police have recovered most if not all the wine the duo allegedly stole, although each bottle is being documented as evidence in the case and identified prior to being returned to its rightful owners.

Security measures
Meanwhile at Esquin, a 40-year-old operation that claims to offer “the largest selection of wine in the Pacific Northwest,” owner Chuck LeFevre was coy about steps the company had taken since the heist, referring questions to Dan Miller of Curator PR.

“I don’t think it’s a smart business practice to talk about security issues in an open forum,” LeFevre told Wines & Vines. “I don’t think it’s good for me, and I don’t think it’s good for the industry. It’d be kind of like a jewelry store talking about the security they have.”

A security consultant has been hired, however, and Miller said a review has allowed Esquin to develop a more sophisticated layering of security technologies to thwart future heists from the temperature-controlled wine-storage facilities.

The evidence to date indicates that Harris had leased space from Esquin, giving him access to the storage lockers, while an adjacent building had been used as a staging area.

“It’s a pretty complicated thing that they did,” Miller said. “We’ve repaired anything that had been compromised. We are adding additional measures, but I won’t be able to share the specifics of what those are.”

Miller was quick to point out that Esquin’s security systems weren’t completely subverted; one camera was incompletely blacked out, allowing identification of a suspect—enough of a clue to pop the cork on the case.

Other victims of theft haven’t been so lucky.

Deep freeze
Authorities in Peachland, British Columbia, have yet to identify a suspect in the theft of $30,000 worth of ice wine from Deep Creek Wine Estate and Hainle Vineyards, including two bottles from 1983 and 1984 valued at $10,000 (Canadian) apiece.

The wine (and a laptop) was stolen the morning of Nov. 24, following a television broadcast a few days earlier in which winery owner Walter Huber had discussed the high valuation of Hainle ice wines. The winery’s founder, Walter Hainle, is credited with producing the first ice wine in Canada, and a bottle of the 1978 vintage is valued at $1 million (Canadian). (Just one bottle of the vintage remains; a second bottle was snaffled from Huber’s vehicle in 2007 and has never been located.)

Huber was unavailable for comment regarding the incident; the Kelowna detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reports that a second burglary Dec. 4 resulted in the winery being relieved of a quantity of “jug wine.” RCMP report no leads in either theft.

Similarly there has been no recovery of original artwork stolen last June from the tasting room of Cougar Vineyard and Winery in Temecula, Calif. (see “Temecula Tasting Room Heist”). A couple who visited the tasting room claimed to have purchased it, but their identity isn’t known.

Winery owners Rick and Jennifer Buffington continue to offer a $500 reward for return of the painting but are finding solace in the meantime that Virginia artist Christopher Mize will paint a similar painting for the winery.

Jennifer Buffington said items have walked off from the tasting room in the past—including some decoy bottles of wine, filled with colored water—but the painting’s theft remains beyond belief.

While a security camera was trained on the painting, its memory lasted only two weeks, and the theft was only identified when the owners returned from a three-week vacation.

Other notable thefts in recent years include the illicit harvest of grapes from bush-trained vines at Syncline Vineyard’s on Red Mountain in Washington (see “Stopping Vineyard Grinches,” while solar panels have been popular targets of green-minded thieves (search for “solar panel thefts”).

All victims say that beefing up security technology and tightening surveillance are the only ways to combat thieves.

While he keeps his cards close to his chest, LeFevre believes the steps Esquin has taken and will continue to develop will prevent a repeat of the recent heist.

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