Seven years after a French co-operative based in the north eastern province of Champagne-Ardenne was accused of selling fake vintage bubbly, the perpetrators – three former managers of the Esterlin Champagne co-operative have finally been sentenced, reports Decanter.com.
Between 2002 and 2005, the co-operative’s former president, commercial director and chef de cave had sold 426,000 bottles of non-vintage Champagne to the French discount chain Ed, owned by Europe’s largest retailer, Carrefour, claiming that they were vintage cuvées. The men, whose fraudulent activities were discovered when two former Esterlin employees tipped off the authorities, were given eight-month suspended prison sentences and €2,000 fines. In addition, the co-operative has to pay a fine of €20,000 and the court further levied a €2.841 million fine payable to French customs and excise.
Of course, this isn’t an isolated case of unscrupulous dealings, as illustrated quite spectacularly below in our carefully curated Wine Scandal Hall of Fame. The world of wine, some fine, some well, less so, has been riddled with scams, gambits and crooked schemes since the days of the Roman Empire when swindlers doctored wines with various substances, including lead, to make them taste sweeter. That victims could (and did) die from a swig too many was clearly not enough of a deterrent.
Wine Scandal Hall of Fame
1. 16 Million Bottle of Sour Grapes – France/ US , 2010
Whilst we mere mortals might not be equipped with the olfactory tackle to distinguish the voluptuous chocolate and dark cherry notes of Merlot from the ethereal strawberry and violet perfume of Pinot Noir without the assistance of a label, you’d think that US wine giant E&J Gallo might just have someone on staff who could do just that.
Well, it appears not.
After sniffing around for year and perhaps quaffing a glass or two of vino, French authorities charged 13 defendants including several wine co-operatives, executives from two wineries and the conglomerate Sieur d’Arques with selling Gallo wine which was labeled Pinot Noir, but was really the aromatic grape cut with far less expensive Merlot and Syrah. The quantity involved is a spectacular 3.57 million gallons worth nearly $5.5 million. That would be enough to fill 16 million bottles, or 460 oil tankers.
Winemakers Gallo who’ve been dealing with grape juice for nearly 80 years they really should have been tipped off by some not-too-elusive clues. The amount of Pinot Noir that was exported from the Languedoc-Roussillon region in Southern France between 2006-2008, the window of deception, far exceeded the amount of previous years. In fact, this really was a case of wily Frenchmen turning water into wine. Though Sieur d’Arques’ suppliers produce a total of 15,000 hectoliters of Pinot Noir annually, 135,000 hectoliters were sold to the gullible Americans for its Red Bicyclette brand.
2. Death By Tainted Wine – Italy, 1986
At least 20 people died and Italy, the motherland of the Bacchanalian beverage, was forced to temporarily freeze all wine exports when cheap tipple was adulterated with methyl, or wood, alcohol to raise the wine’s alcohol content to the average 12 percent. The contamination only affected low grade booze that was sold to neighboring European countries to mix with their own local wines and the locally drunk, unpedigreed Vino di Tavolo that was sold at such low prices that only adulterated incarnations could be profitable.
3. Not-So-Sweet, Sweet White – Austria 1985
An odorless chemical found in anti-freeze, diethylene glycol, was used by some white wine producers in Austria to sweeten their booze and upgrade the quality of drier whites to more expensive, fuller bodied, fruity offerings. Why not just add sugar, you ask? Well, that would be a pretty crass con as the addition of sugar is highly detectable. In small doses diethylene glycol is somewhat harmless and the amount used in the scam was low enough not to have any detrimental effect on drinkers. You would have to chug 28 of those adulterated bottles every day for two weeks to notice any effects, and by then you’d be long dead of alcohol poisoning. Still, anything that belongs in anti-freeze should stay in anti-freeze.
4. Coloring Clarets – France 1973
Three wine merchants in the posh Bordeaux wine region “manufactured” some typically deep red claret which didn’t contain any of the world famous red at all. The conniving trio mixed mediocre white wine with dark red wine to create 1.45 million liters of the perfectly colored concoction. Allegedly several old Bordeaux families who literally had the red stuff flowing through their veins they had been dealing with wine for so long, had bought the adulterated wine and re-sold it in bottles bearing prestigious Bordeaux labels.
5. Oops, I Accidentally Made Me Some Tipple – US, Prohibition
A wine scam of the most unique varietal occurred during the prohibition when wine production was illegal. Grape growers would sell bricks of grape concentrate together with a packet of yeast. A warning label accompanying the curious duo would advise against combining the concentrate and yeast with water and sugar in a sealed pot and letting the mixture sit for seven days lest “an illegal alcoholic beverage” would result.