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FRANCE: Is Bordeaux Blushing?

4 minute read

Overenthusiastic French vignerons have a weakness for declaring their latest vintage to be “the wine of the century.” Thus when 18 Bordeaux wine merchants and brokers, plus one laboratory chemist, went on trial late last month on charges of selling fraudulently labeled wine, the scandal was inevitably pronounced “the wine trial of the century.” That may be a slightly extravagant claim; commenting on the scandal, a London Sunday Times cartoon showed a more restrained British wine-taster savoring the events and declaring, “not a great trial but an interesting one.” Nonetheless, the episode has proved an embarrassment to France’s wine industry, which is proud of its supposedly fraud-proof control standards.

The most celebrated of the defendants was Lionel Cruse, head of the 155-year-old firm of Cruse et Fils Freres. When the scandal broke in June 1973, it was quickly dubbed the “Winegate” affair by French papers. Protesting his innocence, Cruse shot back in righteous anger: “You’ll see, I’ll be the Nixon of Bordeaux.” That prediction turned out to be more accurate than he could have possibly wished. Last week, in a criminal court, Cruse, his cousin Yvan, a freewheeling wine broker named Pierre Bert and 15 lesser merchants were on trial, charged with falsifying labels, tampering with official documents, and trying to sell doctored wine.

According to a bill of particulars filed by four inspectors, the scandal began when Broker Bert bought up huge quantities of cheap red wine from the Midi in 1973, when prices for Bordeaux reds had soared in a speculative binge. He also bought quantities of Bordeaux whites, whose prices were not rising. One odd loophole in the government’s appellation controlée regulations was that official papers for wines were marked by region of origin but not by color. Bert was accused of switching the papers for the two batches of wines by stamping blanc on the Midi documents and rouge on those for the Bordeaux. This meant that he had to sell the Bordeaux white wines as even cheaper Midi whites. But he could also peddle his dirt-cheap Midi reds as more expensive Bordeaux red, at profits averaging almost $100 per bbl. Total windfall on 8,000 to 9,000 bbl.: some $800,000.

Not Legal. Moreover, on the first day of the trial, Bert admitted to doctoring inferior Bordeaux reds to improve their taste—and price. He said that he never received a single complaint from any of his customers. Bert conceded that he had mixed white wines with red, because “a little white wine does not harm the quality when there is too much tannin in the red.” “Yes, but it’s not legal,” said the presiding judge, resplendent in a black robe trimmed with artificial ermine. “No, but it’s good,” answered Bert.

Later in the trial, a government fraud inspector testified that the house of Cruse had also stretched real Bordeaux by mixing it with low-class Midi red. A truck driver who frequently drove from Bert’s warehouse to the Cruse cellars admitted that he had switched papers to disguise the origin of the cheap red Midi wine. Still another witness was a lawyer for le fisc (the French income tax office), who asked that the court fine the defendants $18 million for cheating the government.

In all, the defendants were accused of mislabeling about 1.8 million bottles of Bordeaux wines with the intention of selling them. Cruse claims that all the wine was confiscated by inspectors, and the chances are that none of it ever went on sale. Nonetheless, a number of Bordeaux merchants are worried about adverse publicity. After all, there are fresh memories of the notorious Vino Ferrari scandal of 1968, when Italian inspectors discovered that millions of quarts of red wine had been made from banana paste, tar acid, seaweed and other strange ingredients. It took the Italians five years to recover from that public relations disaster, and the Bordeaux wine industry is anxious. According to one story circulating in France, the Japanese are now producing Bordeaux-type wines and labeling them with a warning: BEWARE OF FRENCH IMITATIONS.

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