Two former employees of Donkey & Goat will face charges in court Tuesday that they allegedly embezzled as much as $70,490 worth of wine from the Berkeley winery.
Zachary Gomber and Morgan Hall have been charged with embezzlement and receiving stolen property. A third former employee, Kate Sylvan, faces charges of receiving stolen property.
Police believe the trio was involved with the theft and sale of 138 cases with 1,644 bottles over an extended period of time in 2014, according to court documents.
Gomber and Sylvan, who were boyfriend and girlfriend, were arrested Dec. 23 after Berkeley police did a stakeout and observed the pair loading three cases of wine from Gomber’s Richmond home into a car, according to court documents. Sylvan drove off with the wine and was arrested a few blocks away. Police recovered 33 bottles from her car, worth $1,320, and another seven bottles from under Gomber’s bed at a home on Santa Cruz Avenue in Richmond, according to a police affidavit. The wine was from Donkey & Goat.
Police also found some wine stolen from Donkey & Goat at a house in the 100 block of Tamalpais Road in Berkeley that had been rented by Sylvan and Hall, according to court documents.
The trio is no longer in custody, but is set to appear for a pretrial hearing Tuesday morning at the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse in downtown Oakland. They were charged by the Alameda County district attorney’s office in December.
All three had worked at the winery on Fifth Street in West Berkeley and were at one time trusted employees, according to Tracey Brandt, who co-owns the company with her winemaker husband, Jared Brandt.
Gomber first came to Donkey & Goat as a harvest intern in August 2011. He left, but was hired full-time as a cellar hand in August 2012. Gomber was Donkey & Goat’s first full-time employee, said Tracey Brandt. Previously the couple had handled most of the winery’s tasks themselves.
“Becoming our first full-time employee was like coming into our family,” she said. “Did we suspect anything? No.”
Hall also first came to work at the winery as an intern in 2013 and was hired full-time in November 2013, said Brandt. She managed the tasting room and worked as a bookkeeper. Sylvan was hired in 2014 to work the Sunday shift at the tasting room. The Brandts would occasionally leave the winery on trips to sell wine, leaving Gomber in charge, said Brandt.
By the summer of 2014, the Brandts realized that cases of wine were missing. The Brandts installed a video system with five cameras in the winery to see if they could note any unusual activity. Eventually, the Brandts spent almost 80 hours reviewing the footage and turned over what appeared to be suspicious activity to the police. Police identified two occasions on which they could see Gomber and Hall ferreting wine out of the winery, according to court documents.
Finding out that Gomber was allegedly stealing was tough, said Tracey Brandt.
“It was very shocking and hard to wrap our heads around,” she said. “We were hurt, angry and felt violated.”
The Brandts fired all three employees on the same day in late September 2014. By that time they were talking to the Berkeley police.
The Brandts don’t know where Gomber, who is originally from Oregon, and the others might have sold the wine. But wine embezzlement from restaurants, wineries and wine storage facilities has become a growing problem in recent years. The internet has made it easy to dispose of stolen wine.
For example, in 2015, Jose Pina of Vacaville was convicted of burglary for his role in stealing about 350 cases of fine wine worth about $400,000 from his employer, the Valley Wine Warehouse in Napa County. Pina snuck cases of wine out of a storage facility and sold some of the wine to a wine broker, who then resold it to a BevMo! in Washington state and a wine retail store in San Carlos, according to Detective Kyle Eddleman of the Napa County Sheriff’s Department.
The stolen wine included bottles from many well-respected wineries, including Plump Jack, Stag’s Leap, Continuum, Cask 23 and Alpha Omega, said Eddleman. Deputies recovered $73,150 from Pina’s home which they suspected came from wine that Pina had sold. The money was returned to the warehouse, he said.
On Christmas Day, thieves broke into the cellar of the French Laundry restaurant in Yountville and made off with dozens of bottles of rare and expensive French wine worth about $300,000. The wine was eventually recovered in North Carolina.
Around the same time, thieves tried to break into John Rittmaster’s Walnut Creek restaurant, Prima. They pried open a skylight, but the alarm went off and they scurried away. But two years earlier, some thieves did manage to get in the same way and steal bottles from the cellar, Rittmaster said.
In February, about five months after he was fired, Gomber filed a complaint against the Brandts and Donkey & Goat claiming they had not paid him minimum wage or overtime. In the complaint, Gomber said he was not paid during the time he was a harvest intern. The Brandts hired him on a salary in August 2012, but should have been paying him an hourly wage with overtime, according to the complaint.
Gomber also contends that he was fired Sept. 28, 2014 “after he objected to ‘unlawful surveillance.’” He also contends that the Brandts made up a reason to let him go. “The reasons offered for the termination… are contrived or untrue,” the complaint contends.
Grape harvest comes to Berkeley at Donkey & Goat (10.01.12)
A natural approach: Berkeley’s Donkey & Goat winery (06.02.11)
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