‘Those bastards stole the most special stuff’: the inside story of a €1.6m wine heist

In 2021, a mysterious couple sat down for dinner at the Michelin-starred Atrio in rural western Spain. When they left, 45 bottles of wine – including a priceless 1806 vintage – had vanished. Who were these thieves with such impeccable taste?

Wasn’t it a little odd, thought the night manager, that the woman in room 107 should be peckish so soon after finishing the hotel’s 14-course tasting menu, a paean to the pig featuring tuna belly with red lard, scallops and pig’s trotters, pork jowl pudding with caviar, and Iberian meatballs with cod tripe that had concluded, inevitably, with chocolate and coffee served with aged ham. In the eight years he had spent in the elegant gloom of Atrio, a luxury restaurant and hotel in Cáceres, three hours’ drive south-west of Madrid, the night manager could recall only two similar requests. “People sometimes ask for a herbal tea, or a coffee, or a glass of something,” he would recall in court later. “But asking for something to eat? That was very, very odd.”

The night manager said he was sorry, but the kitchen was closed. Three times the guest asked if he couldn’t rustle up a little something and three times he politely refused. “But then I thought: ‘This is a five-star hotel, I must serve her.’” The hungry woman accepted his offer of a salad and asked how long it would take. Fifteen minutes, he told her, then he left reception and went to the kitchen. It was 2.10am on Wednesday 27 October 2021.

What the manager did not know – and what would not become painfully evident until 12 hours later – was that the woman in 107 was not who she claimed to be. Nor was her dinner companion.

At the moment the manager was assembling the salad, the couple were engaged in a meticulously planned attempt to relieve one of the world’s finest restaurant cellars of its greatest treasures in a €1.6m wine theft that would make headlines around the world, trigger an international police operation and end, two months ago, with lengthy prison terms.

Top of the pair’s list that night was a rare and long-lived Château d’Yquem, a bottle whose pale gold tint had darkened to tawny in the two centuries since it was created in 1806, a year that began with Admiral Lord Nelson’s state funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral in London and ended with the premiere in Vienna of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major. While the woman distracted the night manager, the man slipped down to the empty reception desk, from where he took a keycard that, he hoped, would open Atrio’s 45,000-bottle cellar. When it did not, he rang his partner, telling her to buy him more time. The phone in reception rang again.

“It was her asking for pudding,” the night manager said. “I told her they were specially made and I wasn’t a cook, but offered her some cut-up fruit. She asked how long it would take. I said the same time as the salad.”

As the manager arranged the fruit on a small plate and took the order up to 107, the man crept back to reception and located one of the master keycards. With it, he opened the cellar door and helped himself.

All was quiet until about 5.30am, when the lift doors opened on reception level. Something had come up, the pair from 107 said, and they needed to check out early. They settled the bill and declined a taxi, asking instead which road would take them to Seville. The manager opened the front door and the pair strolled out into the pre-dawn silence. “That was the last I saw of them,” he said. “He had two big bags and a rucksack on his back.”

That, too, was odd. The woman had checked in with only a rucksack that weighed practically nothing. The man, who had arrived a few hours later, had no luggage at all and had not been registered as an overnight guest.

The cost of their stay became apparent at about 1.20pm that day when one of Atrio’s sommeliers noticed the cellar door was open and bottles were missing. The sommelier asked Toño Pérez, Atrio’s co-owner and chef, if they had been moved as part of recent works to replace the cellar’s lighting system. Immediately suspecting something was up, Pérez went down to see for himself. When he came back up, he told his partner, José Polo, to get off the video conference call he was on. The couple, who have been together since they were 16 and who opened Atrio in 1986, had been robbed.

Toño Perez (left) and José Polo (right) in the dining room of Atrio, a three Michelin-starred restaurant and hotel in Extremadura, Spain,  of which they are co-owners
‘Not everything is about money. The sommeliers’ sadness lasted for weeks’: Toño Perez (on left) and José Polo in the dining room of Atrio. Photograph: Ben Roberts/The Guardian

“I went down and I saw it,” Polo tells me at a table in Atrio’s tasteful, muted dining room. “Those bastards had stolen the most special stuff. I went to the Château d’Yquem and I saw seven bottles had gone.”

Among them was the caramel-coloured 1806 Yquem, bought at auction in London in 2000 and now valued at €350,000. Then there were 19 bottles of Romanée-Conti grand cru and several of Montrachet. All in all, 45 bottles had been stolen, with a total value, according to Atrio’s wine list, of €1,648,500. Polo began to cry.

“Our customers are wonderful – you never imagine people will come here and steal from you,” he says as he drinks a Campari and orange at a window table in Atrio’s dining room, the dregs of that shock still in his voice. “That 1806 Yquem is a part of us.” Although it was offered in the wine list, Polo insists he and Pérez would never have sold the bottle: “Not even for €1m.”

Polo, a dapper, solicitous man in his early 60s who addresses his staff politely and by name, tries to find the right word to describe how he felt. “Violated” is the closest fit. “I’ve spoken to people whose homes have been burgled and they used that word. They’d violated this space.” The loss of the bottles – especially the Yquem – was about far more than money. “I’m sick of all the talk about money,” Polo says. “Not everything is about that. You should have seen the sommeliers’ faces and felt the sadness that lasted for weeks.” Tours of the wine cellar are available to visitors and the sommelier who’d taken the pair round felt responsible. “But I said to him: ‘What could you have done, sweetie? How could you have known they were going to take it?’”

From time to time as we speak, faces loom out of the darkness as people peer through the window behind Polo, hoping for a glimpse of a five-star crime scene.

* * *

Word of the theft was quick to spread, the media unable to resist a crime involving a high-value theft, a glamorous couple on the run, a town in shock and an unsolved mystery. “The Atrio thieves: a story of love, expensive wine and prison sex,” panted one headline, while another talked of “The Atrio Bonnie and Clyde: a story of love, luxury and excess in the wake of a movie-style theft.” Part of the story’s allure lay in its setting. Despite its prestige – it was awarded a third Michelin star last November – Atrio is not your typical Spanish luxury restaurant, lying within the mighty gastronomic orbit of the Basque Country, or on a Barcelona boulevard, or a bluff overlooking the Med. It sits instead in Extremadura, the rugged south-western Spanish region known for its oak trees, cherries, ham, conquistador sons and, more recently, for providing the austere backdrops to Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon.

The hotel squats in an ancient cobbled square high in Cáceres’s old town. From a convent window on the other side of the plaza, cloistered nuns sell sweet delights for a few euros a dozen. Atrio’s food is a little fancier and its prices higher. Breakfast is €43 a head; dinner for two, with wine, costs €565. Both can be had with the tour of the wine cellar Polo and Pérez have built over decades.

While the couple could have settled anywhere in Spain, they preferred to remain rooted in their native soil. “We’re here because this is where we should be,” Polo says. “This is a place that’s always disdained. How come the conquistadors were from here? Because there wasn’t enough to eat and they had to go to the Americas. It’s always been a poor land. We wanted to do our bit.”

To that end, he and Pérez have set up a non-profit foundation that brings music into local schools and helps marginalised children and those with special needs. It also works to promote Extremadura’s heritage. The idea is to give back to Cáceres a little of what Cáceres has given Atrio since it opened 37 years ago. Back then, Polo knew so little about grapes and vintages that he asked a Spanish gourmet magazine for recommendations on what wines to buy. “I knew nothing,” he says. “My grandmother told me that during the civil war, there wasn’t much food so parents would dip their children’s dummies in wine and sugar to keep them quiet.”

Before long the neophyte became an evangelist. “I like wine,” he says with a degree of understatement. “Wine is marvellous.” Montrachet is his favourite, but Polo also has a soft spot for 1990s Bordeaux: “It’s like talking directly to God without going through St Peter.” Below us, in row on row and pile on pile, sit the bottles that make such divine dialogue possible. Despite its careful lighting and pale blond wood, there is something of the cathedral crypt about Atrio’s hallowed cellar, which lies beyond a door that will – post-theft – open only if a state-of-the-art scanner approves your face.

All manner of relics are displayed on its densely stacked shelves: here a 1935 Château Ausone, there a 1945 Château Latour and an 1891 González Byass sherry. It is little wonder Atrio’s wine list – an immaculately bound work of art that can be bought as a souvenir for €85 – weighs in, according to my kitchen scales, at 2.2kg.

The main chamber of the wine cellar at Atrio, a three Michelin-starrred restaurant and hotel in Extremadura, Spain
The wine cellar at Atrio, from which 45 bottles were stolen … Photograph: Ben Roberts/The Guardian
An empty space in the cellar of Atrio restaurant marks the spot that used to be occupied by a rare bottle of Château d’Yquem 1806 that was stolen from the restaurant in October 2021
… including the 1806 Yquem that once lay on this empty shelf. Photographs: Ben Roberts/The Guardian Photograph: Ben Roberts/The Guardian

One corner of the cellar holds the Yquems, a vertical row of bottles at whose very top is an old, broken one wrapped in plastic. Beneath it is the empty shelf that once held the 1806 Yquem, a void that has the poignancy of the grownup child’s abandoned room in the family home. Its absence still haunts Polo. “What else has man created that’s still alive after two hundred years? Is there anything else? How do you put a value on that?”

* * *

Lot 264 of the sale of “finest and rarest wines, whisky and cigars” held at Christie’s in London on 7 December 2000 was described by the auction house as a “rare 19th-century Yquem” from a “superb family cellar”. Polo was jubilant when he managed to buy it for £6,380, a little under its lower estimate. Early the next month, he flew to London to pick it up, along with 23 other bottles he had bought at the sale. After swaddling them in bubble wrap and placing them in two Benetton bags, he carefully stowed them in the overhead bins of the plane home. Once safely back in Spain, the bottles were wrapped in clingfilm to protect their labels.

One day towards the end of January 2001, when Polo was on the phone to his insurers, an Atrio sommelier asked if he could put the newly purchased bottles to rest in a wooden box. Had he not been engrossed in the call, Polo would have said he’d see to it himself. “But I carried on talking, then someone came up from the cellar saying: ‘No way! A bottle’s been broken. How did this happen?’ I told the insurance company I’d call back … It wasn’t any bottle that had been broken: it was the bottle.”

The hand-blown neck of the 1806 Yquem bottle was a little longer than the others and had become wedged in the box. When the sommelier tried to free it, the neck snapped. As did something inside Polo. “I just wanted to die. It was as if all the lights had been switched off.”

In tears, he rang a wine dealer friend called François Passaga, who also began to cry – but then asked how much of the wine had been lost. “I said I didn’t know. ‘Well, shit, go and find out,’ he said.” When Polo saw the break was only in the neck and that the clingfilm had kept almost all the wine in the bottle, Passaga suggested they call Château d’Yquem for advice. By 4pm that day, they had precise instructions: empty out another bottle of sauternes; wash it well; put in the Yquem; don’t let the wine lie down and touch the new cork; and keep it cold.

The following day, Polo and Passaga drove to Bordeaux and, “with an enormous sense of shame”, approached the chateau. “‘Hello,’ we said in French. ‘It’s the Spaniards with the broken bottle of Château d’Yquem.’”

After checking the bottle’s provenance, the chateau’s then manager, Count Alexandre de Lur Saluces, and head wine-maker, Sandrine Garbay, set about rescuing the wine. A quick tasting revealed the contents of the bottle had survived their first contact with air in more than two centuries. A replacement bottle was sourced from the cellars, then filled with glass beads to raise the liquid level and reduce the amount of oxygen. The 1806 was decanted into the new bottle and a new label produced, which read: “Reconditioned by Yquem in 2001, following an accident.” It was signed by Garbay.

Relieved and overwhelmed, Polo and Passaga returned to Spain with the reconditioned 1806 and its broken bottle. “It was an emotional rollercoaster,” Polo says. “I cried all the way there and all the way back.”

Jane Anson, a wine expert and author of the 700-page Inside Bordeaux guide, is not surprised at the fuss over the ill-fated bottle, even if, according to the broker house records from the early 19th century, it wasn’t a fine vintage. “It definitely isn’t that this is a great year because their summing up was that 1806 was an ordinary harvest and a poor year,” Anson says. “People are not buying that Château d’Yquem expecting the greatest vintage ever bottled – it goes way beyond that.”

Given the momentous events of 1806, Anson, like Polo, can understand “the pure excitement of having a wine made when that history was happening”. But there are other, less lofty considerations. “If you’re going to pick any 220-year-old wine that might still taste OK, this is probably the single possibility because it’s sweet and sweet wines last,” Anson says. “If they’re good quality, made in the way Yquem is, they have a good chance of going a century without even worrying about it – so you have a slight chance that two centuries on it can still give some pleasure, even if it’s not a great vintage.”

How do you put a price on such a bottle? “There is no price because how many bottles of this are out there? You’ve got a ton of forged wines of that age, but it seems this was an actual real bottle. It’s just so rare, and it’s worth what somebody is prepared to pay for it. ”

* * *

The question of value came up often during the short trial that began in court eight of Cáceres’s huge, modern Palace of Justice at the end of February. Before the three judges sat Priscila Lara Guevara, 29, a former beauty pageant contestant from Mexico, and her partner, Constantin Gabriel Dumitru, 47, a Romanian-Dutch man whose eye for fine wines, it would turn out, was matched only by his longstanding aversion to paying for them.

According to reports in the Spanish press, the couple met on a Barcelona beach in 2017, when she was studying drama and he was cleaning the windows of some of Madrid’s more vertiginous buildings. The pair, who were captured on CCTV as they left Atrio on 27 October 2021, travelled through the Netherlands and Slovenia before Croatian police acting on a European arrest warrant detained them at the Karasovići border crossing between Croatia and Montenegro on 18 July last year.

Spain’s Policía Nacional had been on their trail after phone records showed the mobile number Guevara had put on her registration form at Atrio – and had used to make the reservation – had received a call from another mobile at the exact time of the theft. That call came from a phone belonging to Dumitru; both mobiles were registered to him, albeit under an alias.

Geolocation put the two phones in the hotel in the early hours of that Wednesday morning, while DNA samples from the bathroom of room 107 were matches for Guevara and Dumitru. Police also ran his fingerprints through a shared European law enforcement database. Someone with the same prints had been arrested for theft in Portugal in March 2008.

Both pleaded not guilty to theft and declined to testify, leaving the judges to rely on the evidence of Atrio staff, police, forensic experts and the insurance company’s loss adjuster.

Polo, who had chatted to the “very nice” couple briefly as they dined, remembered a woman in black-framed glasses and a wig, and a strong-looking man with light brown hair. Looking at the defendants, he saw a woman in white with blond, wavy hair and a bespectacled man whose shaved head shone under the courtroom lights. Were they the same people? “Erm, he had hair then,” Polo said. “I can’t be 100% sure. It could be them.”

The defendants’ counsel was a cool, combative lawyer called Sylvia Córdoba, who frequently irked the presiding judge with her persistence on her clients’ behalf, even as the circumstantial evidence piled up: the witness identifications, the CCTV footage, the DNA, the phone activity, the discovery of a getaway car and the phone conversations with an apparent middleman in which Dumitru spoke of his difficulty in shifting the bottles and broached the possibility of swapping some for a Mercedes GLS. Again and again, Córdoba insisted there was no single piece of damning evidence against her clients. She said the DNA could have been transferred to room 107 from elsewhere, questioned the reliability of some witness testimony and accused police of cherrypicking evidence and violating her clients’ fundamental rights.

Wine thieves Priscila Guevara and Constantin Dumitru in court in Caceres, Spain, February 2023
Priscila Guevara and Constantin Dumitru in court in February. Photograph: Europa Press News/Getty Images

She quizzed the loss adjuster on his knowledge of wine prices, and argued that the 45 stolen bottles, wrapped in Atrio towels to stop them clinking, could not have fitted into three bags, as purportedly shown in the hotel CCTV footage. “I’ve done tests,” she said, “and you can’t get 45 bottles in two sports bags and a rucksack. It’s impossible.” It was an experiment she chose not to replicate in court.

In her closing speech, Córdoba implored the judges to look beyond the headlines and focus on the facts. “My clients aren’t Bonnie and Clyde. They’re Constantín and Priscila, a happy couple who were travelling through Europe when they were arrested in Croatia last year.”

A few minutes later came the moment everyone had been waiting for: Dumitru addressed the judges as the trial ended, his words strangely defiant. “After all that’s happened, I wanted to say I can’t get my head around the fact that a man with a five-star, two Michelin-star hotel – and a cellar with historic wines – doesn’t have a camera inside it. I don’t need to talk about what happened in there. If an insurance guy comes to your house, he’ll say you need a camera here and here so you can get back what’s taken. But there was none of that.”

Dumitru insisted there was nothing to link him directly with the theft and also asked where the bottles were, “because if I was the thief, I’d want to know”. His co-defendant, perhaps wisely, chose not to speak.

Neither this speech nor their lawyer’s perseverance persuaded the judges: they found the pair guilty of theft, sentencing Dumitru to four and a half years in prison and Guevara to four. They were also ordered to pay back the €753,454,46 the insurance company had compensated Atrio. The judges, who “harboured not the slightest doubt as to the authorship of the crime”, noted that Dumitru had lived in a wealthy part of Madrid despite “not having any paid work” and had been arrested 18 times in Spain and once in Portugal. Between 2017 and 2021, Spanish courts had convicted him of four counts of theft and one of domestic violence.

Of particular significance, the judges added, was that Dumitru had been arrested in Madrid on 14 October 2021 – less than two weeks before the Atrio robbery – in connection with the theft from an upmarket restaurant and wine shop of two bottles of Romanée-Conti with an estimated value of €40,000. Given that 19 bottles of the same wine had been taken from Atrio, “he had a clear preference for this label”. According to witnesses, he had been accompanied that day by a “woman of Latin origin, with dark skin, who was younger than him”.

* * *

Three days after the Cáceres verdict , I visit another of Dumitru’s old haunts. The central Madrid barrio of Salamanca, a neighbourhood of cashmere, weimaraners and Maseratis, has a definite whiff of Knightsbridge about it. As well as galleries and designer furniture stores, it is home to Lavinia, a cavernous wine shop sandwiched between Valentino and Celine, and three doors down from Chanel. At 3.55pm on Tuesday 7 May 2019, a regular customer wearing a long-sleeved shirt, gilet and woollen cap – despite Madrid being 22.9C – entered and greeted staff. After being shown to Cava 14, a temperature-controlled area accessible only by a scanner programmed with staff fingerprints, Dumitru asked a sommelier to look up a few wines on Lavinia’s database before choosing a €50 bottle of French white, ambling around the shop for a while before paying. It was only later that staff noticed the €5,250 bottle of Balvenie 40-year-old whisky had disappeared.

“That bottle was the only one to reach Madrid and we hadn’t had it long,” branch manager Juan Antonio Herrero tells me over coffee in Lavinia’s bar. “We started looking through the camera footage and that’s when we saw him. The bottle was there and then it wasn’t.” Closer examination showed Dumitru had tried to move the camera trained on the bottle while the sommelier was out of sight looking up wines on the computer.

Herrero’s colleague Mónica Velasco, who had served Dumitru at least three times and recalled his fondness for €60 bottles of Condrieu La Loye, couldn’t believe the thief was the friendly, courteous foreign gentleman who looked “a bit like Brad Pitt”.

“I saw the footage and went: ‘Oof! I can’t believe it! How could it be that guy, who was so nice?’ Obviously thefts happen, and later you realise you saw the thief on the way in, or someone saw them on the way out. But shit! I’d spoken to him.”

Herrero was struck by the thief’s insouciance, in particular the manner in which he had left Lavinia. “He got to the till, paid in cash and was given the receipt and a bag. But as he was leaving, he saw someone coming in and went out exactly as they arrived. Why? I figured it’s because he’s a total professional. He did it in case the bottle in his coat beeped. That way he had two excuses: one, the person coming in could have set off the alarm; two, he had his bottle, bag and receipt. But there was no beep and he left with no problems.”

If you or I were attempting to exit a shop with a very pricy bottle of whisky hidden about our person, Herrero adds, “we’d be wanting to get out, sweating, dying of nerves. You wouldn’t take a little stroll around and chit-chat with the sommelier. He’s very cool-headed and analytical, keeping an ace up his sleeve just in case it went sideways. I haven’t seen any other thief do that.”

That same sang-froid, however, would prove to be Dumitru’s undoing. Three months later, in August 2019, he returned to Lavinia, affable as ever, and asked to be shown into Cava 14. Velasco saw him and followed him into the secure area, passing her colleague a note on which she had hastily scrawled: “It’s the guy who’s stealing from us. Stay calm and try to keep him there.” She called the police, who arrived just as he was leaving with the €30 bottle of Portuguese wine he had bought.

On 28 October 2022 – while he was awaiting trial for the Atrio theft – a Madrid court found Dumitru guilty of stealing the Balvenie, sentenced him to a year in prison and ordered him to pay Lavinia and an insurance company damages totalling €5,250. The judge said the sentence was imposed “because this was not a simple, opportunistic theft. The accused had frequented the establishment, inducing the employee to open the door of the Cava with the aim of taking a high-value bottle. This planning calls for a greater penal punishment.”

Not long after the Cáceres trial had ended, I emailed Sylvia Córdoba to ask after her clients and their legal plans. “They’re a little downhearted,” she said, “but still optimistic … We’re going to appeal in the hope of securing an acquittal, or at least a reduced sentence.”

That appeal, however, was rejected. On 11 May, Extremadura’s high court upheld the sentences, siding with the original judges and concluding there was “sufficient direct evidence of the two appellants’ participation in the events”.

The Balvenie has never turned up and nor have Atrio’s 45 bottles. Anson suspects the 1806 Yquem has gone for good. As the bottle is too famous ever to come up for auction, she guesses it is sitting in a private collection – or has already been drunk. “The great shame with wine is it’s pretty easy to hide the evidence. I expect whoever’s got it won’t have thrown away the bottle, though. So maybe one day we’ll find out where it went.”

Until then, the empty shelf in Atrio’s cellar will continue to ache. Polo knows his beloved Yquem will probably never return. Like Anson, he believes it may already have been drunk by someone far more powerful and rich than either Guevara or Dumitru. “Right from the beginning, I’ve thought they were hired to do it,” he told me before the trial began. “The dangerous ones are the ones who hired them. If they say nothing and end up in prison, I think that’ll prove I’m right. If they speak and cut a deal to return the bottles to get a reduced sentence, then I’m wrong.” It appears he is not wrong.

As service begins and Atrio’s dining room fills, Polo says he and Pérez have moved on from the theft and all it brought in its wake. These days, they are focusing on what they have accomplished rather than what they have lost. “We’ve achieved our life’s dream,” he says. “If you were to ask me whether I’d prefer the three stars or the bottle back, then, fuck, I don’t know. But we’ve got the three stars now and the story of the bottle is ours.”

Once again, he tells me he would never have parted with that venerable bottle made in France, bought in England, broken in Spain, resuscitated in its homeland, then taken – in all likelihood never to be seen again – from a cellar in Extremadura. “It would still be down there,” he says. “In a way, it’s almost like it still is.”


Sam Jones

The GuardianTramp

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