Twenty men suspected of stealing more than a million euros ($1.35 million) of Bordeaux wine were arrested in France on Monday, following an extensive police operation in both the Paris region and the country’s southwest.
Bordeaux has long been renowned for its excellent wines. Home to such prestigious chateaux as Lafite, Latour and Margaux, a great bottle of Bordeaux can easily sell for around 1,000 euros ($1,300), while older, rarer vintages go for many times that.
The thefts first began in June of last year and generally all followed the same pattern. Every two weeks or so, the thieves would select a new target, usually a winery. They used stolen vehicles for transportation, wiping down any traces of their presence at the scene with bleach. Once the haul was complete, they would then abandon the vehicle they had used, torched.
A total of 13 different chateaux and two warehouses were hit over the eight months the thieves were active.
An unprecedented scale
More than 300 police officers were deployed as part of the operation to arrest the thieves, during which they recovered several hundred bottles of wine, tens of thousands of euros in cash, stolen vehicles and a number of guns.
A police spokesman described the group as “very structured” and “professional,” noting that their modus operandi demonstrated that they were well-versed in their trade.
Five of the men arrested, who range from age 18 to 55 years old, are believed to have been at the heart of the operation, while the others are thought to have moved the wine on to buyers. Several of them were already known to the authorities. Because all 20 are suspected of belonging to a criminal organisation, they can be held for up to 96 hours without charge.
Bernard Farge, president of the Bordeaux wine board, said that he was relieved the suspects had been arrested.
“There have been thefts like this before but never in these proportions,” he told the AFP. “Stealing top wines is tempting because they are high-value products that can be easily sold, one bottle at a time if necessary.”
Wineries are also extremely wary that stolen bottles could be counterfeited, which can undermine their product’s value.
While investigators believe that the group exclusively targeted Bordeaux’s finest chateaux, they have not said which specific ones were hit.