Napa winemaker guilty of wildlife trafficking

A Napa Valley vintner has pleaded guilty to illegally trafficking parts of endangered animals in to the US, including sea turtle shells and whale bones.


Michael Polenske, founder of Blackbird Winery. Credit: Wikipedia

Michael Polenske, founder of Blackbird Vineyards in Napa, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to traffic wildlife and wildlife trafficking in violation of the Endangered Species Act at a US District Court in San Francisco on Tuesday, according to reports in the local press.

Polenske bought a 10-acre Merlot vineyard in the Oak Knoll AVA of Napa in 2003 and began producing wines under the Blackbird Vineyards label.

According to reports by SFGate Polenske, who also owns an art and design gallery named Ma(i)sonry, hired Hedley’s Humpers, a London shipping company, to illegally ship 26 protected wildlife items to the US between 2006 and 2014 under false labels. Valued at around US$81,000, one package contained two sea turtle shells which was marked as containing a leather armchair.

The company later pleaded guilty to wildlife smuggling based on false labelling and was placed on three years’ of probation and paid a $75,000 fine.

A subsequent investigation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was launched after Ma(i)sonry listed for sale 12 whale vertebrae, two Orca whale jawbones and a sea turtle shell.

Posing as collectors, undercover agents paid $4,025 for the Orca jaws in 2011, later buying two whale vertebrae for $1,928. All whale parts are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Polenske’s lawyer, McGregor Scott, told SFGate that his client did “not appreciate the laws” prohibiting the trafficking of certain wildlife, adding that he has been extremely co-operative through the process and accepts full responsibility.

Polenske has agreed to pay a $63,000 fine, and could face a spell in jail. He is due to be sentenced on 13 November.

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