When the first tiny, immaculately presented dish in Atrio’s €195 tasting menu arrived at the table, the couple stared at their plates in frank bewilderment. ‘They did not seem familiar with this type of dining,’ says Carmina Márquez, manager of the twoMichelin-starred restaurant and boutique hotel in historic Cáceres, a beguiling cluster of palm trees, turrets and towers marooned amid the leathery plains of Extremadura in western Spain.
In truth, something had seemed slightly off ever since the 40-something pair walked into Atrio’s sleek, dark reception hall that afternoon, 26 October 2021, to book a table for dinner and a room for the night. It was the woman who stood out first. ‘I could see she was wearing a wig,’ remembers Márquez, ‘and she had only a small backpack. When her friend arrived, he had no luggage. He had short sleeves and big muscles. They spoke in English, but it was not too good.’ Yet after many years in the business, Márquez has learnt not to make judgments. ‘Someone dressed like a person who might take a €1 sandwich for lunch will come in and spend €6,000 on a bottle of wine.’ The pair checked in with Swiss passports, and while making small talk with Márquez, the woman mentioned that she was an architect. Atrio has attracted much interest from the building-design community – on account of the fact that it is a mighty old palace with a coolly modernist internal reinvention – but Márquez, an aficionado herself, was immediately sceptical. ‘I meet many architects. They all look at our building in a certain way, and she did not.’
Doubts redoubled when Atrio’s head chef and co-owner, Toño Perez, stopped at the couple’s table during his customary convivial rounds of the restaurant. ‘He talked with them about Jacques Herzog, the famous Swiss architect, but it was clear they had never heard this name.’ Still, Márquez says, it is not unusual for guests to concoct a story or two. Extramarital liaisons, for example, are a charter for low-level deceit, as well as a reason why a couple might turn up with little or no luggage.
Afterwards, the pair ate the parade of bijou courses in near silence. It was a fairly busy evening, with seven tables and six rooms booked; both the hotel and restaurant were around half full. At 11.30pm, they settled the sizeable dinner bill in cash, then accepted the establishment’s standard postprandial offer: a tour of Atrio’s fabled wine cellar, ranked among the greatest in the world, where 36,000 bottles, including some of the rarest vintages in existence, reside in a remarkable circular vault. Gabriel Ichin, the waiter who accompanied them, said later that it was an unusually brief visit. The couple seemed to have no interest in the wine or its impressive home, a subterranean dome of new wood and old stone, designed in homage to the Pantheon in Rome. Afterwards they went upstairs to their room.
At 12.50am, assistant sommelier Fabio Gritti finished writing up his ledger of the evening’s sales, turned off the cellar lights and went home. Forty minutes later, night receptionist José María Mostazo – by now the only member of staff on duty – took a call from the couple’s room: the woman was feeling peckish. Just two hours had passed since they’d finished dinner. Mostazo explained that the kitchen was closed, but offered to prepare a salad and some fruit. She accepted. This roomservice task removed Mostazo from the front desk, and its securitycamera monitors, for 10 to 15 minutes. He thought little more of it.
At 5.30am, the couple checked out, handing Mostazo a prepaid credit card to settle the room bill. The burly man was shouldering two bulging holdalls. The pair left on foot. It was not yet dawn, but their behaviour still raised no particular concerns. ‘I have to be observant in my job,’ says Márquez. ‘But even though we see 100 things that may seem strange, these are nothing we have not seen before.’
Just before 1pm the following afternoon, it became apparent that something was amiss. Gritti went down to the cellar to prepare for the lunch service and noticed that three wooden trays right by the entrance, previously home to 15 bottles of Domaine de la RomanéeConti grand cru, lay empty. ‘Fabio’s heart was in his throat,’ says his boss, head sommelier José Luis Paniagua, ‘but he believed there must be a good reason – [maybe] one of the owners borrowed the wines for some photos or something.’
Only when Gritti dashed round the circular walls to a tiny cylindrical chamber at the rear of the cellar, a place that has been called the Sistine Chapel of wine, did the full horror become apparent. He scanned the downlit shelves, detecting gap after ghastly gap.
The capilla houses the world’s greatest collection of Château d’Yquem, a Sauternes dessert wine of immense esteem: in 2011, a single bottle of the 1811 vintage was sold in London for £75,000, which remains the highest price ever paid for a bottle of white wine not bought at auction. The pride of Atrio’s cellar was an 1806 Yquem, acquired by the hotel’s owners at Christie’s in 2000 for the then-extravagant sum of £12,000, but now inventoried in the restaurant’s wine list at a distinctly more compelling price: £295,000. The 1806 had gone, along with all four of its 19th-century companions, and another two from 1900 and 1901.
Some 45 bottles were absent, including 30 Domaine de la RomanéeConti Burgundies – known as DRCs – of enormous rarity and value, among them several magnums listed at £50,000 to £68,000 each. All told, Atrio had lost wines worth about £1.25 million. ‘I completely collapsed when I heard,’ says co-owner José Polo. ‘It is one thing if somebody takes your money, but this is so much worse.’
‘It felt as if something had been taken from our hearts,’ agrees Perez. ‘I was almost ashamed, almost guilty that we had been taken advantage of like this.’
Events unfolded with harrowing speed and deepening anguish after the theft was discovered: a scan of the footage recorded by a ceiling camera outside the cellar showed the ‘Swiss’ man opening both sets of doors with swift assurance, apparently using a key card or electronic device of some description – although, on police orders, the staff are unwilling to discuss this in detail. Nor are they keen to reveal precisely how long he was in the cellar.
Entering the couple’s room, they saw that the bed, though rumpled, had not been slept in – but noted that all the towels had vanished. One theory is that the pair used the four hours between robbery and departure to wrap the stolen bottles in towels on top of the bed, in order to prevent breakage and to deaden any telltale clinks when they were carried out in the holdalls.
The local police were soon supplanted by detectives from the Specialised and Violent Crime Unit in Madrid. This team would spend four days at the hotel, scouring the wine cellar and the couple’s room for DNA and fingerprints, examining CCTV footage and interviewing employees. The investigators will make no comment on the case, though the hotel staff allege that the prepaid credit card proved untraceable, and that the Swiss passports – photocopied in compliance with Spanish hotel regulations – were both false. They say they were also told that the police have not ruled out the theory that a third person may have been involved, perhaps waiting in a car close by.
Cáceres was one of the wealthiest towns in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, home to many of the conquistadors who brought back New World booty, then spent it on the towers and palaces that crowd the magnificent skyline. Proud as the citizenry are of this glorious past, the global repute of Atrio and its garlanded wine cellar has endowed them a glorious present.
‘These wines are like the crown jewels of Cáceres,’ says Perez. ‘They are part of this town’s patrimony.’
The day the news broke, he overheard two old ladies discussing the crime in tones of despair: ‘Did you hear? They’ve stolen our bottles!’
Co-owners Perez and Polo, a chef and a wine expert, are both born and bred locals. They met 43 years ago – they are partners in both business and life. Atrio opened in 1986, then gradually worked its way up the epicurean ladder, earning its second Michelin star after moving into its current premises in 2012.
The morning after the theft was discovered, Perez arrived at the hotel to find five TV news trucks parked in the gracious old plaza outside. His distress was compounded by being asked to recount to broadcasters what had happened. More painful still, says Polo, were whispers that the crime may not be quite what it seemed. ‘I have been cut into little dice by this. And now we have difficulties with evil people calling to insult us.’
The sheer heft of 45 wine bottles may be a contributory factor in these murmurings: a bottle typically weighs about 1.2kg, and with several magnums in the haul, those holdalls would have tipped the scales at over 60kg. ‘That amount of wine would be very heavy to carry and move, even when put into bags,’ one anonymous wine-fraud expert told Decanter magazine. ‘To think they just walked out of the hotel with 45 bottles is odd.’ On the face of it, perhaps, but 60kg is the rough equivalent of two sacks of potatoes – well within the remit of, say, a determined, big-biceped criminal.
Meanwhile, the hotel staff’s grief at the loss is deep and palpable. Paniagua – a sommelier at The Ritz in London for five years – wells up as he turns through his annotated copy of Atrio’s 300-page hardback wine list. Each missing vintage is struck through in pencil, with ‘robada’ – stolen – written beside it. Márquez says she couldn’t bear to watch the CCTV footage from the cellar. ‘I am still too angry, too shocked. I have not felt like this since the death of my mother.’
The absent 1806 Yquem is a bottle of wine with such rich history that it merits its own film script. ‘When José bought it at Christie’s, people said, “You’re crazy, for this money you could buy an apartment,”’ remembers Perez, with a sigh. One can only imagine Perez’s reaction when he and Polo unpacked their prized acquisition back in Cáceres, and saw that the bottle had cracked in transit.
Like most venerable wines, it had been wrapped in cling film to preserve the label, meaning just a tiny amount of precious wine had escaped. After a mercy dash to Château d’Yquem in Bordeaux – owned by the Louis Vuitton empire – the wine was painstakingly rebottled in period glass, with an inch of Swarovski glass beads added to account for the missing fluid. ‘The oldest wine in Yquem’s own cellar is 1863,’ says Paniagua, ‘so for them this was a very emotional moment.’ The relationship was cemented with a bespoke Louis Vuitton two-bottle carrying case, made to accommodate the original broken bottle and its substitute, which Paniagua forlornly unzips. He has now filled every fateful gap in the cellar with a replacement bottle, except one. The 1806’s shelf in the capilla will remain forever vacant. Unless it is found.
José Polo, who manages the wine side of the restaurants he and Perez have run together since the 1980s, began assembling his peerless cellar at a time when you could snap up Yquems and DRCs for a tiny fraction of their current prices. Bolstered by serious Chinese investment at the top end, values are still on the up: the Liv-ex Fine Wine 100, the market’s accepted barometer, has trebled over the past 15 years. Paniagua has to revise his list prices constantly, keeping a close eye on auctions around the world.
Atrio’s full wine list is published on its website, and the hotel regularly receives calls and emails from suspected collectors and dealers posing as guests, asking to buy particular bottles. ‘Expert people sometimes notice we have a wine that is too cheap, that is less than the market price.’
Atrio’s cellar – as with those in many restaurants in its bracket around the world – is now worth untold millions, vastly more valuable than the entire establishment it sits beneath. ‘Fine wine has become more than a liquid to be drunk,’ says Paniagua. ‘It is now like fine art.’ He is cagey about how many Atrio diners buy the most expensive wines, but Márquez later suggests it is no more than half a dozen a year, and then only in the high-four-figure price bracket.
But Polo and Perez have never intended to sell their exalted, five-figure ‘crown jewels’. Rather, they see themselves as collectors and custodians, proud to show and tell. Their wine list’s big-ticket superstars, and the museum-like cellar that houses them, are part of what Paniagua describes as ‘the emotional experience of our establishment’.
‘When you go to the National Gallery, you do not expect to buy the paintings. You admire and respect these rare and desirable objects, and you go away as a better person.’ And yet the unfortunate reality is that security in fine-wine restaurants and chateaux has not kept pace with the exorbitant and ratcheting value of their cellars.
In the case of Atrio, the wine cellar lies behind two doors that are opened with a standard-issue hotel key card. Only a few authorised staff have the card to open them, but there are also master cards that open every door in the hotel. Such systems can be vulnerable: as plenty of YouTube videos demonstrate, some cards can be effectively cloned with little more than a mobile phone.
‘In a perfect world, highend wine cellars should include lots of cameras, as well as key cards with ID verification for entry and, when locked out of hours, internal motion detectors,’ says Maureen Downey of winefraud.com. In her view, it is also a mistake for restaurants to post their wine lists online. ‘These have been, and will continue to be, used to create steal-to-order lists by the burglars and their bosses.
‘People don’t think twice about protecting hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of jewels or art – but for some reason, people just don’t take the same care with wine.’
However, Perez and Paniagua point out the practical challenges of increasing security to this level in a busy, working restaurant, and do not have plans to close their cellar to visitors in the future. ‘I would rather sell up and retire than employ armed guards,’ says Perez. In any case, Paniagua insists that Fort Knoxgrade security is incompatible with a ‘working’ cellar such as Atrio’s: ‘When a customer orders a bottle of wine, he expects it on the table in under a minute.’
Wine crime is on the rise, and it goes right down to the bottom of the barrel. Earlier this year, 41 bottles of counterfeit Yellow Tail – an Australian brand that retails at about £7 – turned up in a West Midlands supermarket, part of a huge shipment believed to have originated in China. ‘That’s the epicentre of fake wine,’ says industry expert Ewan Lacey. ‘They bottle another country’s wine that they’ve bought for a dollar.’
Up at the other end of the fraud scale, in 2014 an LA-based Indonesian man named Rudy Kurniawan was sentenced to 10 years after selling $30 million of fake rare-vintage wines to unsuspecting restaurants and collectors, printing bogus labels in his basement. Across the board, wine fraud is estimated to have cost buyers and producers about £400 billion over the past two decades.
But the explosion in fine-wine prices has also lured career thieves who are just following the money. When the ringleader of a French gang responsible for a spate of Bordeaux vineyard robberies that netted €1 million worth of fine wine was arrested in 2014, police found that he had previously served 15 years for a series of jewellery heists.
The two largest UK wine heists have been attributed to experienced professionals, though both remain unsolved. In 2011, a gang stole more than £1 million of fine wine from a Balls Brothers storage facility in east London, most of it the property of private investors. Four years later, thieves made off with almost £1.5 million of top-end Bordeaux from the Berry Bros & Rudd warehouse in Basingstoke, celebrating their success on the spot with bottles of handily available Moët & Chandon.
By and large, big-ticket wine thefts fall into two categories. Most French robberies appear to be speculative: a gang will steal from chateau cellars or fine-wine warehouses, then set about selling off the haul. There are two main drawbacks to this approach. The challenging economics of fencing stolen goods guarantee you will end up with a fraction of the wine’s market value. (The jewel-thief gang are thought to have made a profit of only €350,000 from their €1 million haul.) Also, you are far more likely to get caught if you’re found touting vast amounts of stolen wine piecemeal to restaurateurs, wine dealers and private collectors. Over the past six years, French police have broken up four gangs who operated on this basis, responsible for more than 25 large-scale robberies between them.
None of these caveats apply to the second type of wine heist. Frank Martell, fine-wine senior director at US-based Heritage Auctions, believes that the small-volume, high-value Atrio job was likely a stolen-to-order robbery, perhaps planned with the input of a wine expert. ‘These thefts are organised by individuals familiar not only with the collection, but also with the physical cellar itself. The thief has to know not only that the wine is there, but which bottles are most valuable and where they can be found in the cellar.’ In light of their demeanour and apparent ignorance, if the couple under suspicion indeed carried out the theft, they may have been acting on a detailed brief provided by a well-informed wine dealer or trader, someone who knows their vintages and had visited Atrio in advance. As Atrio publishes its full list online and welcomes visitors into its cellar, this ‘research’ would hardly attract suspicion.
‘One must assume that a knowledgeable crook already knows where he is going to sell the wine,’ Martell adds. This task is made significantly more challenging with wines in numbered bottles – as is the case with all DRCs. Given this, and the fame and rarity of the stolen Yquems, Martell says the haul would be almost impossible to sell through legitimate public channels. ‘It is far more likely that the [thief ] has private buyers. The overriding thread is the fact that the criminal has almost certainly been in the wine business in order to have the knowledge and contacts to pinch and distribute.’
Paniagua outlines a more detailed theory along the same lines, informed by his years at The Ritz. ‘In London I meet people who work in the City – they have money and some are really crazy about wine. They buy their fine wine in specialist shops, and maybe they ask for this or that special wine [and are told], “We don’t have it, but maybe we can find someone who has…”’ He describes a supply chain with many links, each of diminishing scrupulousness. ‘At the end, the person who buys the stolen bottles, he is a good person, he doesn’t know they are stolen.’
Both Paniagua and Martell suspect that the Atrio wine is destined for a private collection; neither has time for the urban myth – also attached to some art robberies – that stolen fine wines are employed as collateral in dealings between criminal syndicates, or as status symbols by gangland bosses.
What is certain is that finely targeted micro-heists are increasing – and criminals are getting away with them. In 2019, Lime Wood, a luxury New Forest hotel owned by billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, had 80 bottles with a value of £67,000 stolen during the small hours. Last year, thieves in Denmark smashed through a wall to access wine worth £170,000 from a restaurant cellar. Most pertinently, after the Atrio robbery was publicised, superstar chef David Muñoz revealed that his three-Michelin-starred Diverxo restaurant in Madrid had fallen victim to a similar crime just before lockdown, when discerning thieves made away with more than 30 bottles of high-end fine wine, valued at about €50,000. The common denominator in these robberies? Not one person has been charged.
Perez and Paniagua agree that the prospect of solving the crime seems bleak. If there is hope, it rests in that 1806 Yquem: a bottle whose storied, conspicuous singularity might yet prove the thieves’ undoing. ‘It has a history that goes around the world,’ says Paniagua. ‘Maybe this will be the link to reach the people responsible.’
Now Perez says that his greatest hope is that whoever has the 1806 Yquem truly treasures it. ‘This is a bottle to be cherished and loved. It should never be drunk.’ A little smile breaks across his face. ‘Of course it’s crazy that these wines are worth what they are, but this one has a real human value. An incredible history that deserves another chapter.’