Top 10 wine scandals
Scams and scandals, frauds and fakes, the wine trade is no stranger to a bit of dodgy practice.
In July’s edition of the drinks business, Tom Bruce-Gardyne, writing on wine fraud, said: “The sweet scent of deception permeates the wine trade from tip to toe.”
From the wrong wine in the right bottle, to dodgy labelling, to the addition of less than desirable ingredients, wine fraud and the scandal that inevitably follows it have never been far from centre-stage in the wine world.
Anything between £150 million and £200m is estimated to have been blown on dodgy drinks investments since 1993. It has even been suggested that more 1945 Bordeaux has been sold than was even made in that vintage.
Not that it’s a new phenomenon. Pliny the Elder is said to have complained that even the Roman aristocracy could never be entirely sure if the wine they were being served was true Falernian wine and not some cheap knock-off found round the back of the forum.
Meanwhile in medieval Germany, those convicted of wine fraud could be punished by branding, beating or even a grisly and protracted death by hanging.
But, while some of the following cases can perhaps be viewed as a bit of jolly skulduggery, with only some slightly out-of-pocket billionaires as collateral, quite a few have equally tipped over into a more unpleasant realm of knavery.
- 1. The Jefferson Bottles – 1985 – present
- 2. Brunello di Montalcino – 2008
- 3. Red Bicyclette – 2010
- 4. Georges Duboeuf – 2005
- 5. Austria and antifreeze – 1985
- 8. Italian methanol scandal – 1986
- 7. Dishonest blending practices in Bordeaux – 19th century
- 8. Champagne investment scam – 1997
- 9. Rhône producer accused by daughter – 2010
- 10. Fake Mont Tauch in China – 2007 – 2010
The Jefferson Bottles
The sale in 1985 of a bottle marked “Th. J.” – supposedly part of a cache found in Paris from the 1780s which once belonged to US president Thomas Jefferson – is probably the most infamous wine scandal of recent years.
Sold by Christie’s in London, the bottle sold for £105,000, a record that stood until only recently.
It was only in 2005 that US businessman Bill Koch arrived on the scene. He had purchased several other “Jefferson Bottles” in 1988 from the Chicago Wine Company and Farr Vintners, to the tune of over US$500,000.
Wishing them to be displayed at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Koch could only fall back on Michael Broadbent MW’s initial notes to use as authentication when asked for provenance by the museum.
The curators subsequently pronounced that they did not believe the bottles had belonged to Jefferson. So began the long-running feud and law-suits filed by Koch against Hardy Rodenstock, who had sourced the wines and put them up for auction.
Koch claimed (and continues to claim) that Rodenstock was a fraudster who had an on-going scheme to defraud wine collectors.
Rodenstock has since claimed to have “forgotten” who it was that sold him the wines, a regular occurrence when pressed where his wines come from.
In 2008 Benjamin Wallace wrote a book entitled “The Billionaire’s Vinegar” about the whole squalid episode in which he claimed that the initials carved into the bottles had in fact been made by a modern drill.
Broadbent was also swept up into the debate and successfully sued Random House, the publishers of the book for defamation of character, with reference to his relationship and dealings with Rodenstock.
The rights to the book have been bought by a Hollywood consortium and a film is apparently in the offing.
Caught red handed
In 2008 (a good year for wine fraud), Italy was hit by scandal when it emerged that producers in Montalcino were liberally adulterating their – supposedly pure – Sangiovese wines with the inferior Lancellota normally used for making Lambrusco.
The claim was first made by Italian journalist Gian Luca Mazzella. He also claimed that eminent consultant Carlo Ferrini, who consults for Casanova di Neri, was heavily involved in the practice.
Ferrini is still under investigation. Meanwhile, further probing found that one of the larger estates had been blending Merlot in with its Sangiovese for 25 years.
In total, 1.34 million litres of wine labelled as Brunello di Montalcino DOCG had to be declassified into the distinctly less grand Rosso di Toscana IGT.
The US market banned the wine for a large chunk of 2008. Although it was soon back on sale, its reputation undoubtedly suffered.
Investigations are on-going and no one has, as yet, been punished for the crime of flouting the labelling laws.
Another Italian scandal hit the headlines in 2000 when police raided a warehouse packed with over 20,000 bottles of “1995 Sassicaia”.
The fake bottles of the famous Super Tuscan were being hawked from the boot of a Peugeot by the side of the road by the gang’s ringleader. He was arrested along with his crew.
When is Pinot Noir not Pinot Noir?
When it’s called Red Bicyclette and comes from the Languedoc, apparently.
In 2010 Gallo’s French Pinot Noir was, embarrassingly, proved to be anything but.
Capitalising on the “Pinot effect” of the 2004 film Sideways, Gallo began marketing Red Bicyclette made from grapes sourced and bottled in France by the Sieur d’Arques co-operative to placate the US market, which seemingly couldn’t get enough of the stuff.
From January 2006 to March 2008, 18 million bottles were sold in the US and no one guessed that anything was up.
In fact it was the French authorities that spotted the deception, when they realised that Red Bicyclette made use of a third more Pinot Noir than was produced in the whole of the Languedoc.
Instead it was found that most of the grapes and resulting wine were Merlot and Syrah, with only a thin veil of Pinot for appearance’s sake.
Naturally questions were asked of Gallo’s control board. Could they not smell it wasn’t Pinot? Didn’t the unnaturally deep colour give it away? Apparently not.
The funny thing was, as scandals go it might as well never have happened, as no one appeared to care very much.
The French thought it frightfully amusing and themselves very clever for having hoodwinked the gullible Americans (if indeed they had been hoodwinked) and consumers were so apathetic it rather took the fun out of the whole affair.
Nevertheless, having netted €7m from the wheeze, the growers and members of Sieur d’Arques were given hefty fines and the odd jail sentence to boot.
Beaujolais has managed to alter its image quite successfully of late but it has known the odd scandal or two in its time.
One of the region’s and indeed France’s wine icons, Georges Duboeuf, was embroiled in a scandal in 2005 when he was accused of blending lower-grade wine in with finer crus to stretch the patchy 2004 harvest a little further.
Duboeuf denied responsibility and blamed human error. He pointed out that fewer than 200,000 litres of his company’s 270 million litre production was affected and none of it had been sold to consumers.
However, a court found that “fraud and attempted fraud concerning the origin and quality of wines” had indeed been committed. Duboeuf was fined.
The manager directly responsible for that part of production subsequently admitted his guilt and resigned.
Beaujolais was caught up in scandal again in 2007, when roughly 50 growers were also fined for chaptalisation and exceeding volume quotas between 2004 and 2006.
They were caught out when officials wondered why winegrowers needed 100 tonnes of sugar for use in their winemaking.
Austria and antifreeze
The celebrated “antifreeze scandal” (the wine trade has, thankfully, refrained from fixing “gate” to every case of wrong-doing in its history, unlike the mainstream media) of 1985 saw Austrian producers mixing diethylene glycol to increase their wines’ sweetness.
A limited number of Austrian wineries, mostly committed to bulk wine production, hit upon the idea of using the chemical in their wines to boost its sweetness before it was sent to Germany to be bottled, either as Austrian wine or, on occasion, mixed in with bulk German wine.
The ruse was discovered when one of the producers claimed for unusually large quantities of the stuff on his tax return bills and its presence was also confirmed by German laboratory tests.
The news made headlines around the world especially as diethylene glycol is often used in antifreeze.
Long-term consumption of the chemical is indeed very dangerous but the quantities involved in this particular case would have necessitated the uninterrupted drinking of dozens of bottles over several days to achieve lethal results.
Only one bottle, a Welschriesling Beerenauslese from Burgenland, exceeded the 40 grams needed for such an eventuality.
Still, Austrian wine exports crashed overnight from 45 million litres a year to just 4.4m and some countries banned imports altogether.
As an example of how a bad thing can lead to good, however, Austria’s years in the wilderness forced it to clean up its act, focus on winemaking and cut down on bulk wine.
Stricter wine laws were introduced and its re-emergence in recent years with the likes of Grüner Veltliner is an example to all.
Following the antifreeze scandal on a more serious note, in 1986 a fraudulent winemaker in Italy mixed methanol into his wine with tragic results.
Twenty-three people died and over 90 were hospitalised after being poisoned with the wood alcohol, which was used to increase the alcohol content in what had been a rather thin product.
The wine affected was Odore Barbera and the dose of 5.7% far exceeded the legally permitted limits of just 0.3%.
Eight people died initially and 30 were hospitalised apparently from one batch, but the scandal spread with another hospitalisation when a woman drank from a bottle of Fraris Dolcetto del Piemonte, which was tainted with methyl alcohol.
The initial culprits, identified by police as distributor Giovanni Cirvegna and his son Daniele, were soon charged with multiple accounts of manslaughter.
As the scandal threatened to rock the $953 million Italian wine industry, the government strove to contain it.
Three-hundred labels, mostly low-grade, were listed as suspect and 12 growers were arrested on charges of manslaughter, grievous bodily harm or illegal adulteration of food.
Quite a lot of Italian wine was seized in France and West Germany and destroyed and Denmark even enforced a ban on all Italian-made drinks after discovering that a large consignment of vermouth was similarly tainted.
Like Austria though, the Italian industry used the episode to tighten up its act and enforce much stricter control measures.
A sleight of hand
Although not a scandal as such, the 18th and 19th centuries were full of practices guaranteed to earn a strong rebuke if carried out in this day and age.
Perhaps the most well known practice was the blending of Bordeaux with stronger wines from Spain, the Rhône or the Languedoc to improve the strength and colour of the wines, particularly if bound for the UK.
Not that this blending was completely disallowed but it was only meant to be to a certain point. How often that point was crossed without anyone knowing is another matter.
Throughout several centuries it was common practice for winemakers to blend in wines from “the high country”, with those from Hermitage in the Rhône particularly prized.
Ironically it was the addition of wines from outside the region that spurred on Bordeaux’s popularity and the style of wine emanating from the wineries was very much at odds with the style that had initially made it popular abroad.
It was the lighter wines from the Gironde that initially found favour with the English, when that area of France was part of the domain of the King of England in the Middle Ages.
The name “claret” was an English bastardisation of the French “clairet”, which referred to what was in effect a very dark rosé now largely disappeared from production.
The ravages of phylloxera from 1869 worsened the adulteration and it became such a cause for concern that in 1901 the Syndicat des Grands Crus Classés du Médoc was founded, it’s chief goal being to crack down on such practices.
However, even as late as 1905 there were reports that whole barrels of dark and heady wine from North Africa and the Midi were being shipped out to the UK or elsewhere, proudly bearing the names of their respective châteaux and purporting to be pure Bordeaux.
Burgundy was just as culpable and remained so until after the Second World War in some sources.
The predilection there, as in Bordeaux, was for mixing in some of the robust North African reds from Algeria, Morocco or Tunisia to bulk out colour, concentration and alcohol.
We should of course be grateful that the Bordelais no longer produce wine designed to solely satisfy influential customers.
Who didn’t bring Champagne to the party?
The late 1990s, the eve of the Millennium, and the anguished call goes out that there isn’t enough Champagne left in the world to celebrate the “biggest party for a thousand years”.
Stepping, conveniently, into the breach came Craig Dean, Lee Rosser and Julian Blee. Running the “House of Delacroix”, their Paris-based Champagne investment business from 72 rue de Honoré, they claimed to be able to save the day.
They persuaded hundreds of people to buy the 1996 and 1997 vintages of Champagne Lantz for £30 a bottle.
Their sales team took over £4.5 million and they assured their clients that they could keep their Champagne in bond before selling them at pre-arranged auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s just before the Millennium, netting their clients a yearly increase of 35% on their original investment.
The catch was that no auctions had been arranged. The Champagne was worth distinctly less than claimed and no tax had been paid for it. Many investors collecting their Champagne in preparation for the “bespoke auction” found themselves paying an added £1,300 to get their purchases shipped over.
And then of course there was no profit to make at all.
The trio stopped “trading” in 1997 and, unsurprisingly, their claims that there wouldn’t be any Champagne for the Millennium was proven to be utterly false. Champagne houses had been hoarding stock especially for the event.
A police investigation also revealed that the company was based first of all out of Clarence Road in Wimbledon, home to Rosser’s then girlfriend and latterly from 433 Herrengracht in Amsterdam, not Paris.
All three were arrested and jailed by 2001, Dean for three years, Rosser for 18 months and Blee for 12 months.
The latter two had previous form in this type of deception, having met Dean while they were scamming people in Gibraltar into buying what they believed were expensive single malt whiskies.
As a result, Rosser was handed another seven-year term and Blee received another four.
Mudslinging in Dallas sur Rhône
Family in-fighting is never pretty. In January last year accusations began flying around as arguments over money and inheritance turned nasty.
Guy Arnaud, a producer in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, divided his 51-hectare estate between his three daughters. The 17ha they each received were valued at €500,000 per hectare and would be granted to them when he died.
Two daughters were happy with the arrangement but the third, Carole Perveyrie-Arnaud was not.
She wanted access to her plot immediately, not upon her father’s death. She and her husband sued Arnaud for €200,000 and when she still couldn’t get at her land she spread rumours that her father was breaking appellation laws and blending wines from other AOC into his Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The police were called in but no evidence of wrongdoing was discovered and the case was dropped.
The family met to resolve the situation and to appease Carole she was granted access to 8ha with a value of €3.5m.
However, she decided afterwards that the deal wasn’t good enough, “I came out the loser” she complained in a statement and threatened further legal action to get her hands on some of the buildings on the estate.
Fleecing the dragon
Although Asia has had the occasional case of a wrongly labelled Lafite or a Pétrus that actually came from Gaochang or Shandong Province, the biggest scam involved flooding the market with South American “Fitou”.
Between 2007 and 2010 it is estimated that 400,000 bottles of what appeared to be Mont Tauch Fitou AOC were imported.
The deception was rumbled when reports of Mont Tauch being sold at very low prices reached the ears of Mont Tauch’s sales team, the sole distributors of the brand in Asia.
Analysis of the wine suggested that it was probably bulk wine from South America in very well forged packaging.
The company stated that the incident had “in no way” dampened its desire to do business in China or the rest of the Far East.
And it’s not just within China that counterfeit bottles have appeared. Who can forget the influx of fake Jacob’s Creek that found its way onto shelves in the UK earlier this year?
The bottles were sold with a charming mistake on the back of the label that claimed that the wines really were from “Austrlia”.