Almost 300 cases of the finest wine, and it evaporated like morning mist. Five-hundred-dollar bottles. Thousand-dollar bottles. The French Bordeaux from his children's birth years, which he planned to uncork at their weddings. The 1966 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild he wanted to share one day with his brother.
The only vintage that remained in his ransacked office, Doug Eisinger said, was a single bottle of 1990 Dom Perignon. "I plan on drinking that on the day of my divorce," he said.
FOR THE RECORD - An article Sunday paper about disputes in divorce cases over custody of wine incorrectly said at least one divorce involving a six-figure wine cellar was en route to the Baltimore courts. It should have said the case was en route through the Baltimore courts.
The Sun regrets the errors.
Eisinger, 37, who lives in Sherwood Forest in Anne Arundel County, claims that his estranged wife, Elizabeth, absconded with his $200,000 wine collection in November, breaking into the Arnold office of his construction company where the wine was hidden and then loading about 3,500 bottles into a Thrifty rental truck.
Elizabeth Eisinger's attorney says that she had her own key to the office, that she took much less wine and that she made nowhere near $200,000 upon selling it wholesale (and not through a ritzy Washington auction house, as her husband contends).
Who gets to keep the money won't be sorted out until the divorce -- a particularly messy one filled with charges and counter-charges -- is settled, probably in the summer. Until then, all that both sides can agree on is that the wine itself is gone for good.
The Eisinger saga is more dramatic than most, but custody disputes over huge, vastly expensive wine collections are bubbling up in a growing number of divorce cases in Maryland and across the country, lawyers say, as some Americans' cellars age better than their marriages.
"It's really been in the last decade," said Sheila Sachs, a Baltimore divorce lawyer who specializes in high-net-worth divorces. "People are spending a lot on wine. It's almost more of an asset of influence now than jewelry."
At least one divorce involving a six-figure cellar is en route to the Baltimore courts system now, local lawyers say, although an attorney involved in the case declined to discuss it. While these disputes are often settled amicably, they can also turn as vicious as bar brawls -- and not just because wine is difficult to appraise and evenly divide.
"People have an emotional relationship with their wine cellars," Sachs said.
And Americans are becoming more infatuated than ever with their Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc. Last year for the first time, wine surpassed beer as the country's alcoholic beverage of choice; in 2005, we swilled an estimated 712 million gallons, according to San Francisco's Wine Institute.
As the nation's palate grows more refined, consumer tastes become more expensive and sizable cellars are increasingly common: Wine Spectator magazine reports that about 200,000 American aficionados have collections of 500 bottles or more. These racks can cost tens, and even hundreds, of thousands of dollars, and they represent an investment in future gains as serious as a stock portfolio.
Moreover, as a shared asset, wine carries a greater emotional charge than stocks and bonds. Wine can be an element in courtship, and cellars can mark milestones in a marriage: wedding night whites, Valentine reds.
"Wine is incredibly central to people's relationships throughout marriage, and even in the years before," said Alder Yarrow, the founder of Vineography, a wine blog. "Food and wine have been the sort of centerpieces in romantic relationships as far back as cave paintings. People fall in love under the influence."
Take, for instance, the wine-stained liaison of Love By the Glass, the romantic memoir co-written by The Wall Street Journal's wine columnists.
But then again, there's The Cask of Amontillado, Edgar Allan Poe's classic tale of inebriation and revenge, which suggests the elixir for love can swiftly turn to vinegar.
Tony Foreman has never actually seen violence at the private wine lockers of his Baltimore restaurant Charleston, but he remembers some fairly grisly dismemberments of wine collections. Sometimes the precious vintages are sold off out of financial necessity; other times for pure spite. Almost always, though, divorce is the driving force, he said.
Foreman recalled one particularly unpleasant incident a few years ago when a woman showed up on a Saturday morning and brightly demanded her husband's cases, allegedly for use at a party. Five minutes later, Foreman fielded a frantic call from the husband.
"Don't let her touch what's in the locker!" the man pleaded.
But it was too late. Foreman -- who also co-owns Bin 604, the Harbor East wine shop -- gets indignant just thinking about it.
"If my wife were to do something like that, I can't tell you what would happen," he said. "There's no reasonable thought that crosses my mind."
Actually, it's fairly common for feuding spouses to poach at least a few bottles in advance of a divorce settlement to sell over the Internet or elsewhere, said Steve Bachman, CEO of Vinfolio, a California-based wine collectors services company.