Breaux Vineyards opened the spring wine-tasting season this year with a supply of 2,000 high-end crystal wineglasses manufactured by Riedel. The popular winery in western Loudoun County has only about 200 of them left.
Customers are stealing them, company Vice President Jen Breaux said.
"It's disheartening, because we want to give an experience that matches the setting," she said. "And the public can make that kind of hard. You want people to taste out of a beautiful Riedel glass and have the full experience. But, quite frankly, losing 1,800 glasses is unacceptable."
Other Loudoun winemakers confirmed that theft by customers is a growing problem that cuts into their profits.
"This time of year, we routinely lose at least one case of  wineglasses every weekend," said Dave Greb, tasting room manager at North Gate Vineyard, near Purcellville. "There have been times when we're really busy when we've lost a whole case in one day."
Kathy Clough, who manages the tasting room at Breaux Vineyards, said she once observed a young woman leaving "with a sweater full of glasses."
"As she was drunkenly walking down the sidewalk, they were dropping out and breaking," Clough said, adding that "it's some of the larger groups that we have the issues with."
"If you have 30 people in a group, and they all steal a Riedel glass, any profit we made off the wine they purchased that day is gone," she said.
The problem isn't limited to wineglasses. Breaux said that customers routinely take cutting boards, bread knives and stainless steel ice buckets.
"I'm down to six ice buckets," she said. "I had 200 of them" a year ago.
Customers have even taken decorative items such as plastic pink flamingos and palm trees, Breaux said. This summer, she confronted two men who were walking off with a complete cornhole set — two boards and a box of bean bags used to play the popular lawn game.
"They said, 'We've purchased enough wine here. We feel like they're ours.'" Breaux said. "They truly felt entitled to take them. And they're lucky that they didn't leave in a police car."
The cornhole caper was the boiling point for Breaux, who vented her frustrations to Nancy Bauer, an Alexandria-based writer with expertise in Virginia wines. Breaux asked Bauer whether she would address the issue of thefts from wineries on her website, Virginia Wine in My Pocket.
Bauer said that her subsequent article received the most traffic of any story she had ever posted on her website. She attributed some of the thefts of wineglasses to confusion as to who owns them.
"It used to be the given that . . . you go to the winery, you taste the wine, they give you the glass," she said. "But now people don't want all those glasses, so they started turning down the glasses."
Breaux said that she and her staff have discussed whether to include the wineglasses in the cost of the tasting. But she doesn't think customers would see sufficient value in paying the higher cost.
"They'll steal the glass, but they don't want to pay for it," she said.
Breaux said that her staff has had to become more explicit with customers about what is included in the price of a tasting.
"If they buy a bottle, typically, we'll say something, tactfully, like, 'You can leave your glasses on your table or put them on one of the wine barrels at the bus stands at the end of your experience today,' to signal that the glasses aren't theirs to keep," she said.
She blames most of the thefts on customers' "sense of entitlement," coupled with their lowered inhibitions after drinking a few glasses of wine. "Some people will say, 'I've bought enough wine here. I've consumed enough wine for the value of the glass' — like that's an excuse," Breaux said.
Customers also have a misconception that the wineries can afford to take the loss, she said.
"Wineries are . . . beautiful, and there's a facade of luxury, but we are farms," she said. "It does hurt the bottom line. It hurts immensely.
"People don't realize that the profit margin on a bottle of wine is actually quite small," Breaux added. "If you're buying a bottle of wine for 19 dollars, and steal a six-dollar glass, that doesn't really leave a lot for me to keep my lights on."