Silicon Valley Oenophiles on Alert after Brazen Wine Heist

Silicon Valley oenophiles are on alert after a brazen robbery Jan. 4, when thieves broke into a posh home here and stole more than 150 bottles of wine. Estimated value: $500,000.

The heist — thought to be one of the largest of its kind — was the handiwork of seasoned connoisseurs: Investigators say the criminals removed few lesser-valued bottles and focused on “cult wines” made in limited numbers, often signed by vintners.

Their booty included a magnum of 1959 Petrus worth as much as $6,000 and a difficult-to-assemble set of Bordeaux wines representing an unbroken line of more than 20 years of French harvests.

Few residents with extensive wine cellars will talk on the record about their concerns; they don’t want to publicize their name and become targets themselves. But the theft — and smaller ones in the past couple years — has rattled collectors in and around Atherton, a well-heeled suburb south of San Francisco where the average household income in 2000 was more than $200,000 and the average home sold for more than $1 million.

“Thefts from storage facilities and wineries are relatively frequent,” said Theresa Lawless of Fireman’s Fund Insurance, a Novato-based company with 50 years’ experience insuring wines and wineries.

The theft comes as Americans purchase and consume more high-end wine. In 2006, sales reached $2.5 billion for wines priced at $25 and up.

Fireman’s Fund, which insures one private wine collection in the Northeast worth $20 million, estimates at least 1 million Americans own wine collections of significant value.

Although an Italian company is experimenting embedded microchips into bottles, the vast majority of wines have few identification marks that might allow an owner to identify and reclaim stolen bottles. But even that technology is aimed at deterring counterfeiters — not stopping thieves who plunder private caves and cellars.

One of the most common targets of thieves is wine from Bordeaux, which produces some of most sublime red wine in the world. Bordeaux wines generally have a long shelf life; even a mid-priced bottle will age well and appreciate if stored in the proper conditions for a decade or more.

“They fetch high prices at auction,” said Alan Duran, chief editor and president of East Taunton, Mass.-based The Classic Bordeaux Preservation Society. “I can see why there’s theft going on.”