Lost Masterpieces

The Mystery of Who Stole One of the World’s Finest Champagnes–And Where It Ended Up

The Jacques Selosse champagne brand is one of the most coveted in the world. In an audacious 2013 raid, a group of thieves stole $360,000-worth of it.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

As the minute hand ticks toward midnight on New Year’s Eve, people around the world will be poised to ring in 2018, thumbs pressed in popping position against corks and flutes of Champagne tipped toward mouths. With one sip of effervescent bubbles, they will cheers to all of their hopes and dreams for the new (and, please, please be better than 2017) year.

For a lucky—and rich—few, this bubbly New Year’s tradition will come courtesy of Jacques Selosse, a small-scale vigneron whose Champagne is considered by many to be the best in the world. It’s a designation that has garnered the producer something of a cult following, and the coveted bottles now command a similarly prestigious price.

While most of us have come to terms with the fact that we won’t be popping Selosse at the stroke of midnight, a group of thieves decided to take matters into their own hands in 2013 when they broke into the Selosse cellars in Avize, France, and made off with 300 cases of wine, worth around $360,000. The men have never been identified and their misbegotten booty has not yet been found.

On the night of March 21, the season’s wine allocations for the U.S. and Japan were sitting prepped and packed on pallets in the Selosse cellars, ready to be shipped out.

The thieves broke in and helped themselves to the eight pallets containing some 3,700 bottles of cuvée worth half a million dollars. But they didn’t stop there. They also filched 6,000 bottle labels, 12,000 neck labels, and 2,500 wine caps, a troubling discovery that indicated they may have planned to also produce fraudulent bottles to sell.

Despite a full investigation, no suspects were ever uncovered and no stolen bubbles have turned up

“They were pros,” Florence Thunevin, a Jacques Selosse representative, told Wine Spectator. “They erased traces of DNA with alcohol aerosols, removed fingerprints and palm prints with dishwashing fluid or car coolant, and systematically avoided the [security] sensors.”

Because of their precisely orchestrated crime, the authorities suspect that they may have had some inside help via a tip-off. But despite a full investigation, no suspects were ever uncovered and no stolen bubbles have turned up.

Selosse’s cuvées have scooped up awards and plenty of critical acclaim; but beyond being the top choice of tastemakers, they also represent the pioneering role of their maker, who transformed the production of Champagne and the storied history of the region that it’s made in.

For generations, farmers in the Champagne region of France harvested their grapes and sold them, either in solid or juice form, to larger brands like Moët & Chandon or Mumm Napa who produced big batches of Champagne.

While the Selosse family has been tending their vines for centuries, they started producing Champagne grapes in 1959, following in the tradition of the farmers before—and around—them.

But Anselme, the son of Jacques, who turned the family vineyard toward Champagne, had a different idea.

He left the region to attend school and apprentice in Burgundy, where the farmers also were the winemakers, making their own wine with an emphasis on viticulture and terroir. It wasn’t just about producing the greatest quantity of grapes to sell to larger houses; instead, they wanted to produce the best quality grapes that expressed their unique place of origin.

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Anselme brought these ideas back to Champagne when he took over the family business in 1974.

By that time, the family was making very small batches of their own wine, as was customary at the time; many farmers sold these inexpensive bottles “out the backdoor to British tourists,” according to Blake Murdock, the National Wholesale Director of The Rare Wine Co., the sole distributor of Jacques Selosse in the U.S. But most of the Selosse grapes were still earmarked to be sold to larger companies.

“I did not consume my wines,” Anselme told Tom Stevenson for The World of Fine Wine. “Then in 1976, my third year of winemaking, I was confronted with a great drought. I said to myself that the grapes were so ripe, I must produce less foam—just a half-mousse. So I put in less sugar, and by doing this I realized I had changed my approach. I discovered freedom.”

Today, largely in the wake of his creating the category, by far the hottest category in Champagne is these small growers, people who really farm their own grapes.

With that, he applied his education in viticulture and terroir to the production of Champagne, focusing on producing his own bottles of wine that showed off their distinct characteristics.

This move launched what is known as the grower movement in Champagne, as many other farmers-turned-winemakers slowly began to follow in his footsteps.

“Today, largely in the wake of his creating the category, by far the hottest category in Champagne is these small growers, people who really farm their own grapes,” Murdock tells The Daily Beast. “There are rabid cult followings for a couple dozen other growers [too], but [Anselme] is the one who created it, and he was a good ten or fifteen years ahead of anyone else.”

Beyond pioneering the grower movement, Anselme has also taken this new emphasis on Champagne terroir a step further. He is not just interested in the specific qualities of grapes from his vineyard; he is interested in expressing the specific quality of the grapes from the location of each parcel of those vines, what he thinks of as each village. Murdock explains his philosophy as “kind of a meta-terroir” in which he is trying to “emphasize an idea of wine, a certain idea of the place.”

“The idea of terroir exists all over the whole planet,” Selosse told Travel and Leisure in April 2017. “The United States, for example, has barbecue culture. I always tell Americans to think of barbecue as a way to explain what’s happening here in Champagne. Sunday barbecue has an ambience around it, a ceremonial aspect, a way of doing it.

“The sauces and the rubs and the methods of marinating or smoking differ from state to state and from region to region and even from producer to producer. The same thing applies with Champagne.”

The result of these innovative changes in thinking about the way Champagne is conceived and produced is that the smaller batches that growers in the region are producing themselves are some of the most highly sought after. But, in 2013, this new attention hadn’t quite trickled down to affect the way these producers managed their security.

It’s a wake-up call not just in Champagne but in much of France. The escalation in pricing on wines in the last 15 years is just so astonishing that it’s kind of hard to keep up.

The Selosse cellars had a security system the night of the theft, the first major robbery of its kind in Champagne, but it wasn’t as rigorous as it now is. “Selosse has become one of the most coveted wineries in the world, and I don’t think the mindset had caught up to that yet,” Murdock says. “It’s a wake-up call not just in Champagne but in much of France. The escalation in pricing on wines in the last 15 years is just so astonishing that it’s kind of hard to keep up if you’re paying attention to this evolution.”

As to where the stolen bottles of liquid gold ended up, Murdock has a few theories. The thieves could have sold them in the West through the parallel market—brokers, restaurateurs, or smaller distributors in Europe who find buyers in the U.S. and circumvent the official distribution channels.

But that would have been a difficult proposition. The bottles were packaged for export complete with U.S. and Japanese import labels, but they didn’t have French tax stamps on them. So the thieves would have had to find a way to strip these labels off without leaving any trace behind in order to try to sell them in any sort of legitimate way.

More likely, says Murdock, is that they were sold in Eastern Europe or Russia where “there is an obscene collectors market for Anselme’s wine now. They trade up in price very quickly.”

So far, the resolution of this mystery remains elusive. So this New Year’s Eve, the question remains: while you’re sipping on your, let’s face it, sub-par bubbles, who is out there enjoying the best, ill-begotten glass of Champagne in the world?