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ROME (Reuters) - The great mystery of what may go down in wine annals as the crime of the century - the destruction of the equivalent of 80,000 bottles of choice Brunello di Montalcino - may have been solved.
Italian police have named a disgruntled former employee of the exclusive Soldera label at the Case Basse vineyard and estate in Tuscany as the suspected cantina culprit who dumped tens of thousands of liters of fine wine down the drain.
Police in the small Tuscan town which lends its name to the wine said 39-year old Andrea di Gisi broke into the Soldera family estate in the night between December 2 and 3.
He is accused of opening the taps of 10 huge barrels containing of the produce of the last six years and literally letting the wine pour down the drain.
The total amount lost, according to a Soldera family statement, was 62,600 liters (16,400 gallons), or the equivalent of some 80,000 bottles
Since a bottle of Soldera starts about 110 euros ($140) and the bottles are numbered as if they were gold bars, the act of vandalism travelled around the world wine community like news of an untimely frost or an unknown pestilence.
The damage done to the 23-hectare (56-acre) estate that uses Sangiovese Grosso vines to produce the famous wine, was estimated to be more than $6 million euros ($7.93 million).
Until di Gisi's arrest, it was a vintage whodunit worthy of the new genre of food mystery novels such as "Murder Uncorked" by Michele Stott and "The Merlot Murders," by Ellen Crosby.
So what was the motive?
Police say di Gisi, who had worked at the Soldera estate for five years, had several tiffs with the family patriarch, Gianfranco Soldera, 75, a former insurance broker from Milan who started the vineyard in 1972.
Soldera had chastised di Gisi for allegedly not taking care of the wine machinery properly and then last September, di Gisi felt slighted when the family gave an apartment on the estate to another employee, according to an investigating magistrate.
Investigators said that after di Gisi came under suspicion, they tapped his cell phone and heard him speaking about washing wine out of his clothes.
A pair of washed jeans have been sent to a police lab in Rome to check for traces of polyphenols, which are found in red wines.
When the cantina was vandalized, the ruthlessness of the crime made local officials fear the Mafia had moved into the idyllic area of rolling hills topped by centuries-old towns to start an extortion racket.
Fabrizio Bindocci, President of the trade consortium that groups some 250 Brunello producers, welcomed the end of the investigation, saying it had "restored serenity" to the area.
($1 = 0.7568 euros)
Additional reporting by Silvia Ognibene, editing by Paul Casciato