WINE Fraud of the Vine

You can’t judge a wine by its label. It might be counterfeit.

The 1970’s saw some fine vintages for European wines, but they also brought us two major scandals involving the mislabeling of highly regarded French wine. Now, just a few months into the new decade, a new scam has been uncovered, this one involving nearly half a million cases of expensive white Burgundy. As reported by Frank Prial in The New York Times, the fraud involved shipping ordinary French white table wine to Holland for bottling and then to England for labeling, where it was reborn as Pouilly-Fuissé, a particularly popular wine in the American market. Some of the suspect wine eventually wound up in Dallas under the label Michelet, a name made up by its importer, Dennis & Huppert. Robert White, a vice president of Bacardi Imports, the parent company of D&H, expressed surprise at the allegations of fraud, though his shock seems a bit naive in light of the fact that his company was paying substantially less for Michelet Pouilly-Fuissé than were importers of other labels. Although the matter is still under investigation (and the Michelet only accounted for a small portion of the confiscated wine), it appears that consumers in Dallas and other cities have been paying $11 (and twice that in restaurants) for wine that began in France as nondescript, dollar-a-bottle “vin du pays.”

The most publicized instance of fraud occurred in 1973, when the esteemed shipping firm Cruse et Fils Fréres was convicted of selling wine labeled as Bordeaux that was actually produce of an inferior region, the Midi.

In 1979, just when the public was beginning to forget Winegate (as the Cruse affair was called), along came a new scandal, this time involving France’s other great wine region, Burgundy. Bernard Grivelet, owner of a small but well-known estate and shipping firm, was indicted for labeling red wines of dubious origin with such famous names as Chambertin and Chambolle-Musigny. Unlike the Cruse scheme, which was nipped in the bud, the wines of Grivelet had already saturated the American market, with Dallas wine drinkers possibly paying $25 for wines worth only $4.

In the Cruse, Grivelet, and Michelet scandals, there were certain common denominators, not least of which was the assumption that wine drinkers, particularly Americans, are ignorant. When French officials investigated the Cruse warehouse, they found one curious cask of wine labeled to “serve as Beaujolais for the American market.” Bernard Grivelet sent all 70,000 of his mislabeled wines to America at what appeared to be bargain prices; naturally they sold out quickly. (Grivelet’s antics, incidentally, have a history: He was jailed after World War II for selling wine to the enemy during the German occupation and returned to the wine trade only to become involved in a wine scandal in the late Fifties.) As for the Michelet affair, one of the key figures, a Dutch businessman named Bernard Kahn, has provided an explanation already destined to become a classic: “The Americans can’t tell the difference. They put it in the refrigerator and freeze it.”

Another disturbing thought concerning these incidents is that they are not necessarily isolated; they have simply caught the attention of the media. At the time the Michelet disclosures were made, Bernard Kahn was already facing charges in connection with allegedly fraudulent rose d’Anjou and sherry he was marketing. Furthermore, Michelet’s Pouilly-Fuissé isn’t the only wine of that appellation to be removed from the shelves in the last year: A Pouilly-Fuisé shipped under the Alfred Montigny label was also confiscated, but with little or no fanfare, despite the fact that its distribution was much wider than Michelet’s. By the time it was recalled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the Montigny wine had already wound its way through at least two Texas wholesalers – Estrada’s and Accent Wine & Spirits – neither of which seemed too eager to claim responsibility. What made the Montigny wine so attractive was its relatively low cost, With other Pouilly-Fuissés escalating to more than $100 a case, the Montigny seemed a steal at $60. It even found its way into such prestigious retail and restaurant markets as Marty’s and The Old Warsaw.

Most suspicious wines never receive the kind of official scrutiny that the Grivelet, Michelet, and Montigny wines have been subjected to, and even when they do, it’s difficult to halt their distribution. A case in point involves some German wines I reported on in the May 1979 issue of this magazine. A local wholesaler, Arwood Stowe, Inc., had received some samples of 1975 Mosel wines bearing such prestigious names as Wehlener Sonnenuhr and Zeltinger Schlossbert Spatlese. Arwood Stowe rejected the wines upon arrival because, in taste, they bore no resemblance to the varieties promised on the labels. (Once again, an unusually low price was the attractive feature.) The shipper, Eurowine Wineries, then sold the wines to Accent Wines & Spirits, which in turn distributed them to various retailers. According to Ron Poole of Arwood Stowe, however, the labels still claimed that the wines were imported by Stowe. The company threatened legal action unless its name was removed. (Eventually an Accent import sticker was pasted over the Stowe name on each bottle.) At about this same time, German winegrower Joachim Ehses-Hansen of Zeltingen was visiting Dallas. He was so outraged by the wines’ apparent fraudulence that he took a bottle back to Germany, where authorities concurred that it was a probable imposter. When they tried to locate Eurowine Wineries, the company had vanished, leaving no one to prosecute. Not surprisingly, the questionable wines can still be found in Dallas retail stores, including Sigel’s, A&A Vineyard, and Red Coleman’s; apparently, when a wine reaches the retail shelf, it’s home free. The Michelet Pouilly-Fuissé was ordered recalled by its importer, Dennis & Huppert, and a spokesman for the local distributor, Julius Schepps Wholesale Liquors, told me that this had been taken care of. Yet the first store I visited, a Warehouse Liquors outlet on Greenville Avenue, had the controversial wine prominently displayed and selling for $11.45 a bottle.

Why is the authenticity of wine treated so cavalierly? Actually, it’s not, but since the taste of wine is subjective, proof of origin is very difficult to establish. In each of the instances of alleged fraud mentioned, the whistle was blown not because of questionable quality, but because of irregularities in paperwork. The Michelet scheme was discovered when a British inspector noticed that the forged customs seals had Dutch Queen Juliana’s profile facing the wrong way. The Cruse, Montigny, and Grivelet cases were likewise investigated on grounds of dubious documentation, not actual judgment that the wine was fake. Incredibly, the public bought and drank the wines without ever raising an official protest. The most unusual case of accidental discovery of fraud occurred in Germany, where an enterprising fellow was selling wine made in his home by mixing water with a concentrate. He was nabbed only after water inspectors became curious about his remarkably high water consumption.

Can consumers really tell the difference? This was the question posed by the Cruse family in their defense in 1974. They claimed, with experts corroborating, that the cheap Midi wines they sold as Bordeaux were actually better than the real thing. Indeed, it’s difficult to prove that a wine is fraudulent when it may actually be just a poor representation of its type. Considering the enormous quantity of wine imported to this country, the notion of having experts test everything for taste is unrealistic. According to Harry J. Adler, chief of field operations for the local Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, all his agency can do is verify a wine’s paperwork and determine if label information (such as liquid quantity) is correct. Confirming the validity of the product is the responsibility of United States Customs.

This leaves us with the question of consumer protection. From the point of view of most wine merchants, public discussion of fraud is “bad for business.” Yet it seems inconceivable that merchants with years of experience can’t detect fakery in certain instances, at the very least when wines are offered to them at suspiciously low prices.

It would be unfair to the many dedicated merchants of the wine world to suggest that there is widespread cause for alarm regarding authenticity of wine; only a small portion is actually involved. The culprit is rarely a noble, world-famous wine of precious breed – these are uniquely packaged and have too discerning a following to be counterfeited. The wines most preyed upon are those of mass, commercial appeal; the consumers of these wines rarely have the time or interest to learn the details necessary for protection against possible fraud. Following is a region-by-region discussion of the wines most susceptible to fraud and what to look out for:

France. Burgundy (including Beaujolais and Chablis) is by far the biggest victim of corruption. Violations and indiscretions are so widespread that many merchants are afraid to put faith in any but the most trusted names. Importers such as Frederick Wild-man, Kobrand, Dreyfus Ashby, Warren Strauss, and Austin Nichols only market wines of impeccable credentials. At the other end of the spectrum, however, comes a melange of unknown, nondescript names (our old friends Michelet and Montigny fall into this category) that have nothing to offer but familiarity and a low price. When Americans mysteriously took to a second-rate white Burgundy called Pouilly-Fuissé, many shrewd operators saw the chance to capitalize on the wine’s favor in this country. Every merchant must surely know that more wine called Pouilly-Fuissé is sold than could ever be legally produced. Bordeaux is essentially immune to fraud these days, partly because of post-Cruse vigilance, but chiefly due to the healthy supply of wines produced in this abundant region. Also, the Bordeaux package is hard to falsify. Most quality Bordeaux are chateau-bottled and cork-branded with name and vintage. I never seriously inspected the information on the cork until I drank a disappointing bottle of Burgundy labeled “Corton 1969,” which had a cork that read”Pommard 1970″ – you can change the label but not the cork. Champagne is another difficult wine to tamper with. Once again, the cork is your clue: Authentic French bubbly will always have the word “Champagne” on the stopper.

Germany. After Pouilly-Fuissé, Pies-porter (specifically from the Goldtropfchen vineyard) is the most abused name in wine. Once again, it’s the American penchant for a pleasant but mediocre wine that encourages fraud. German winegrower Ehses-Hansen, quoted earlier, expressed amazement at the number of Piesporters on the market: “I live only a few miles from Piesport, and I know how much wine they can produce. There is more Piesporter in Texas than is made there, so what of the rest of the States? Also, the price. Every year I go to the auction to buy Piesporter. When I see the prices wholesalers ask in Texas for this wine, I cannot believe it because it is too low to be real Piesporter. It costs less to buy from a wholesaler here than from a grower in the village, and that is not correct. The wines are probably from other sites on the Mosel River which can sell easier if called Piesporter.” Another wine to avoid is the cheap blend that is German only in appearance. This type of wine technically follows the law, so it can’t be called fraudulent; it is certainly misleading, though. A good example found in Dallas is called Keller-Geister, billed as Germany’s “largest single selling brand.” Packaged in the familiar green Mosel bottle and claiming to be “produce of Germany,” it is really cheap wine from another Common Market country, probably Italy. Since it is bottled in Germany, it is entitled to sell as German wine, thereby gaining a higher price tag.

California. We Americans can be proud not only of the increasing quality of our wines, but also of the fact that we’re virtually scandal-free. The most important consideration is to be certain that a varietal actually contains the proper percentage of the grape variety stated on the label. The BATF makes regular checks on wineries to be sure they grow enough grapes to correspond with what they produce as wine. So far, everything seems to be working well, and a new appellation controllée-type law will provide even more insurance.


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