Grand Theft Vino

When I saw the owner of the bar the day after the heist he was in an unusually chipper mood. Drink in hand, a manic grin, he leaned against the bar. “That cocksucker’s going away for a long time. We’re gonna hit him with grand larceny.”

That “cocksucker” was, the night before, a patron at the owner’s fine dining restaurant. He had spent the evening eating oysters and escargot, drinking wine and $20 cocktails, celebrating his upcoming wedding with family, friends and his very pregnant fiance. Now he was a wanted man.

For the owner to want to lock up an expectant father, to guarantee a child spend their first years with pa in the pokey -- this monster must have committed unspeakable acts, ripped the place off for thousands, tens of thousands, he must of endangered the safety of staff, conned his way to the safe, assaulted someone, brandished a weapon…

Or he just helped himself, drunkenly, to a bottle of wine and walked out with it.

Not exactly John Dillinger, this guy.

So why was the owner so downright giddy to press charges? Why put a soon-to-be husband and father in jail for stolen wine? Was this the mindset of a sociopath? Or a successful restaurateur? Is there a difference?

As far as I could gather, the details of the crime were as follows. After settling the bill, the man excused himself to the restroom which happens to be in an isolated corner of the restaurant which happens to also house the “wine cellar.” (In actuality the “cellar” is little more than a humidity controlled walk-in refrigerator, and apparently is left unlocked during service so waitstaff can quickly access bottles for guests) It seems the man was emboldened, perhaps by a feeling of destiny and purpose -- he would soon father a child with his beautiful wife, life was going as planned -- or perhaps by whatever outrageous sum of money he had just spent at this fine establishment, to open up the wine cellar and help himself to one of the many bottles. He stashed the bottle in his coat, went back to his table, gathered his party and left.

And he would have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for a few meddling details. For one, the bottle he lifted ending up being a $400 bottle. Maybe he was a connoisseur and knew exactly what he was stealing, maybe it was dumb luck, but this bottle would be missed, it’s absence would be noticed. What was almost certainly dumb luck however, what could not have been more poorly planned, was where they decided to go next with that $400 bottle.

He and the fiance and the rest of their party decided to carry on down the road for a nightcap. They walked 2 blocks to a busy bar, got a table and asked the server to uncork the fine bottle of wine they had accrued. This is where the trouble sprung.

You see, this bar, that server, they were both under the employ of that fine dining place -- the man had made the mistake of stealing from one establishment and strolling carelessly down to the road to its sister restaurant, both of which were managed by the same woman.

The server asked the manager if she could uncork the wine. The manager immediately recognized the bottle, recognized the guests, put two and two together and called the police.    

When the manager confronted the party, the bride-to-be burst into to tears. She offered to pay for the bottle. The man, piss-drunk by now, apparently made a run for the door, leaving his fiance and the rest of the party to sort through the mess. Not John Dillinger, not exactly John Wayne either.

By the next morning, charges were pressed. The owner of the restaurant had consulted his lawyer and determined that he could charge the man with grand larceny. In New York State, for a crime to qualify as grand larceny, the value of the stolen goods must exceed $1000. The bottle was $400. How did the owner figure this?

“It’s a private business, I can charge whatever I want for a bottle of wine. That night, the bottle cost $1000. He’s going to jail.”

So not only had the owner refused to accept payment for the bottle, opting to press charges instead, now he had artificially inflated the value of the wine so as to hit the burglar with the hardest charge possible.

Again, when he told me all this he was positively beaming with excitement. Thrilled with himself. The hero of his own movie.

There’s a well known list of careers populated by the most socio/psychopaths and chef’s come in at number 9 on the list. Lacking empathy, impulsive behavior, egocentricity, high stress tolerance, coldheartedness -- pretty much sums up the inner workings of a chef. The question is, do these anti-social tendencies actually create the perfect personality to run a restaurant? Is that level of ruthlessness necessary to survive in the industry? Does it have to be this way?

This particular owner is a successful, well established restaurateur and obviously knows more than me about what it takes. It’s even possible the Dad-to-be won’t even serve any time, that the owner was simply gloating, playing up the whole thing to impress his employees. Whether an act or not, his glee made me think about empathy, how it plays into the experience of eating out. The very people planning your experience -- how you’d like the lighting to be, the music, the wine, the food -- may have zero ability whatsoever to actually empathize, to imagine what your true experience of the place will be.

Perhaps they only intend to give you what they want, perhaps it’s nothing more than an extension of their ego, and perhaps that’s what we find so enjoyable. We give up control, let someone else dictate the night. We put our lives for those few hours in someone else’s hands and they may very well be the hands of a sociopath. And like Daddio learned that night, you don't take from the hands of a sociopath.