At a time when the natural wine craze reflects a growing desire for original, unadulterated, terroir-based products, this short history of wine fraud is sure to prove authenticity lovers right.
It's all about counterfeiting. Very often label fraud, sometimes a little more imaginative, wine scams all have one thing in common: they profoundly damage the image of the regions they defraud. Taking advantage of the magic of wine, a product of the earth that matures and evolves according to laws that, because they don't exist, escape all geometrical thinking, the crooks damage the authentic beauty of a nectar whose tasting remains eminently ineffable and subjective. Whatever Dr. Conti, whose official name is Rudy Kurniawan, may say, trying to compare fake blends with grands crus is childish business, and reveals the torments of a language of petty calculations deaf to emotion, which alone can measure the value of a cuvée, which has little to do with monetary arbitrariness. To put an end to any would-be fraudsters, here's a look back at five stories that have shaken the wine world in recent years.
1 - The Christophe Robert affair
He's a former footballer who was destined to end up in limbo. Life got in the way, and by a twist of fate, his fortune found itself at the heart of two cases that helped compensate for his low footballing profile. He was implicated in the OM-Valenciennes affair in 1993 - the one we were right to keep under the Tapie name last May, as we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the European trophy won by the Phocaean club, when it was under the presidency of the inimitable owner of Adidas. It seems that crossing paths with the politically-inclined entrepreneur, whose fame is as immortal as his reputation as a crook is ingrained in his body, doesn't always bring good luck.
After his sporting career, Christophe Robert reconverted to wine trading. Between June 2017 and March 2018, the neo-broker attempted to resell 598 magnums and bottles of counterfeit grands crus to wine merchants. Gruaud Larose, Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Beychevelle: nothing less than the finest from the Left Bank. The fraud, discovered by one of the former footballer's clients, was immediately brought to court. The man who thought he'd said goodbye to referees discovered the judges. In front of them, he proclaimed his innocence and claimed to have thought that the wines he had bought from intermediaries for resale were genuine. He admits to having had doubts when he saw the crates, which were clearly not original. But his inexperience got the better of him. If, in principle, a lack of experience is not conducive to realizing capital gains, it seems that Christophe Robert benefited from beginner's luck, until more seasoned dealers confused him. At the trial held in 2018, Philippe Blanc, director of Château Beychevelle, sat on the plaintiff's bench. He sums up, not without humor, the defendant's fraudulent little business. "Everything is different from a real bottle except perhaps the prices".
At the end of the trial, his trading company was deregistered and Christophe Robert was sentenced to a one-year suspended prison sentence and a 50,000 euro fine. From soccer to wine, or from Charybdis to Scylla, Christophe Robert's laborious professional life justifies any retirement.
2 - Rosé from Spain sold under the Vin de France label
We've never talked so much about rosé, and with good reason: this summer icon can also withstand the early hours of the morning. While the vineyards of Provence vie for ambassadors with a strategic aura, French rosé is also a victim of its own success. In 2017, the results of an investigation by the Direction Générale de la Concurrence, de la Consommation et de la Répression des Fraudes (DGCCRF) revealed the extent of fraud at four wine merchants importing Spanish wines. On the face of it, importing Iberian wines is not forbidden. Reselling them under the Vin de France label is a little trickier. A designation designed to free French winegrowers from the shackles of an appellation, certification, however free it may be, still knows its geography. Only wines made from grapes harvested within the borders of France and Corsica can be marketed as Vin de France. With its growing reputation, the label is a magnet for covetousness and usurpation.
According to Alexandre Chevallier, Deputy Chief of Staff at the DGCCRF, "cases of francisation concern over 70,000 hectolitres of wine", the equivalent of 10 million bottles of rosé. While the most chauvinistic will see this as a mark of French supremacy, whose wines, all colors taken together, are reputed to be the best, the most pragmatic will detect, beneath the qualitative strategy, a greedy motivation. In 2016, Spanish bulk wine was worth €0.34/liter, French bulk wine between €0.75 and €0.90/liter. It doesn't take long to do the math, and the resale profits for wine merchants justify a few misleading impressions. So, while fraud is primarily to be found on the label, we mustn't forget that it also exists on cards and slates. Lovers of authenticity, tired of trendy addresses without soul, be warned that not every bistro, however friendly it may be, is perfectly honest. And behind the owner's glibness, there's sometimes a Spanish rosé in bulk, served like an IGP Côtes-de-Provence, in those famous balloon glasses that will bring back many memories, but certainly not those of the lavender fields of southeastern France.
3 - Labouré Roi: label counterfeiting and appellation usurpation
In 2016, almost 10 years after the alleged offences were committed, the Cottin brothers appeared before the courts on suspicion of cutting and labeling fraud. According to the charges laid by the investigation, between 2005 and 2008, the brand would have blended appellations in proportions exceeding the 15% authorized for Burgundy wines. 500,000 bottles would have been sold under the Nuits-Saint-Georges, Meursault and Mâcon labels, thus usurping these appellations, whose specifications prohibit the use of more than 20% of grapes from another AOC.
At the trial, two men aged 81 and 82 took the stand and pleaded guilty, while denying any intent to defraud. There is talk of computer errors, of somewhat approximate recordings; in short, it was a certain casualness rather than an intention to deceive that led the owners of the trading house with annual sales of 35 million euros to break the law. A Burgundian institution founded in 1832, the indictment of Labouré Roi caused the company's share price to plummet. The company was singled out for criticism by industry players, who, through Michel Baldassini, deputy president of the Bureau interprofessionnel des vins de Bourgogne (BIVB), denounced practices that were damaging "the image of Burgundy wine".
Today, Labouré Roi continues to produce wines from over a dozen appellations in one of the world's most highly-rated regions. A trip to Canossa sometimes brings a return to the market.
4 - From one grape variety to another
At a time when global warming is prompting many appellations to rethink their specifications, grape varieties have perhaps never been so much in the news. In 2010, in a case involving a wine merchant and a retailer, it even emerged that they were being confused. Syrah is mistaken for Pinot Noir, Merlot for Gamay: it's all very confusing. It has to be said that, in the wine industry, the multiplication of intermediaries is a bit like the Arab telephone: there's a good chance that, in the end, the truth will get lost. And on the road between producer and consumer, it's not unusual for there to be a lot of traffic. While French wines cross the Atlantic quite well, the United States, the largest importer of French wines, might well have decided to stop receiving them there. In 2010, two companies were called to account for the damage inflicted on American merchants Gallo and Constellation Brands. While it's too late to wash away the affront suffered by the owners of Robert Mondavi wines, it's still time to render an account, and thus reveal the profits made by the perpetrators of the theft.
It all begins in Carcassonne, at the headquarters of the Ducasse trading company. After passing through the ramparts, the fraud inspectors knock on the door of a fortress that hides surprising volumes of Pinot Noir in a region that produces very little. Unsurprisingly, the trading company, far from having got its hands on a marly subsoil and Burgundian microclimate in the Languedoc, actually receives Merlot and Syrah in bulk, which it then resells as Pinot Noir to the Sieur d'Arques cooperative winery. Because there's a code of honor that binds the crooks together, the intermediary between the trading company and the American buyers knows all about deception. This isn't the Corleone family, but as in Scorsese, the most important thing is to present a united front, even if it means falling together. The two companies, after having had the audacity to appeal, were handed the same sentence: suspended prison sentences and six-figure fines: an American-style finale to a very French swindle.
5 - 1855.com: when online wine sales are a virtual thing
By its very nature, fantasy breaks free from reality. It's like deserting a country. Some riders, in the memory of Don Quixote, strive to return to Earth once the battle is over. Others plunge in, even if it means mistaking windmills for giants. Clearly, the two directors of 1855.com have not read Cervantes. After dreaming of a virtual platform to digitally embody the Place de Bordeaux, the two partners, who don't hesitate to compare their avant-garde initiative to that of Amazon, the behemoth of online book sales, forget the essential: wine.
In an excess of confidence, Emeric Sauty de Chalon and Fabien Hyon put up for sale vintages they don't own, confident that they'll find them when they're needed, i.e. once they've been purchased. Imagine a chef waiting for a customer's order before setting out to find the products needed to make the dish, which might still be waiting if the products were no longer available. In the investment world, we applaud the idea of short selling. The concept is simple: to sell online, at the prices set by the Place de Bordeaux during the primeurs, vintages that the company neither buys nor stocks. Now, having been floated on the stock market and backed by major shareholders - notably the Bettencourt-Meyers family - the visionary company is caught in its own trap: that of betting in a zero-sum game, which is by its very nature reversible. The expected drop in price between primeur and delivery prices never materializes. On the contrary, buying wine once it's been bottled is the prerogative of a small number of people, given the rarity and high price of the bottles. To avoid losing all credibility, the company delivers to a few customers, at the cost of incalculable losses: the bottles are then worth more than the estimated price. This led to cash-flow problems and complaints from customers waiting to be delivered. Founded in 1995, 1855.com is placed in liquidation twenty years later, having accumulated over 40 million in debts. If virtuality is paradise for the mind, it can also be hell when the mind forgets what it is committing itself to. A promise is never as expensive as when it's not kept.