Caught Red-Handed?

The wine world is no stranger to scandal, but this time, it’s a sparkling example of Champagne fraud.


Published:

As people who follow the wine world know, fraud cases seem to pop up every few years — and most commonly they involve red wines.

In France, in the 1950s there was a scandal involving Burgundy’s Domaine Grivelet, where the wines were doctored with less noble pinot noir juice. 

In Bordeaux, there was “Winegate,” so named because it happened in 1973 during the Watergate scandal that embroiled President Richard Nixon. The house of Cruse, a family-run  exporter of exclusive Bordeaux wine, saw its reputation tank when it was accused of cutting its wines with cheap juice from the Languedoc area of southern France. 

Here at home, there was the California saga of Rudy Kurniawan, the fraudster who sold millions of dollars of fake high-end wines, got caught, and is now sitting in jail. 

Kurniawan’s alleged victims, to whom a judge ordered him to pay $28 million in restitution, included billionaire Bill Koch, who with his brothers fund conservative causes. Among the gems Koch thought he had bought were a 1947 Petrus, a 1945 Vogüé Musigny Cuvée Vieilles Vignes, and two bottles of 1934 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Koch sued and settled out of court for $3 million in damages. 

Kurniawan tripped himself up when he bottled a magnum of Domaine Ponsot, a highly desirable Burgundy. The only problem was, Ponsot didn’t bottle the vintage that Kurniawan was trying to pass off. The scheme began to unravel when a Ponsot family member received an inquiry. The Kurniawan matter closed in late 2013 with a 10-year jail sentence.

Reuters news service recently reported another scandal, this one is in Italy, where Italian fiscal officials seized 9,000 bottles of fake Moët & Chandon Champagne in a workshop near Padua, Italy. 

The seizure, announced in February, also netted eight people charged by police with bottling inexpensive Italian sparkling wine, prosecco, and passing it off as real French Moët & Chandon. The Champagne sells for about $40 a bottle, compared to prosecco at $5 to $10. 

The tipoff for an eagle-eyed police officer was that the bottles lacked any serial numbers, which all real Champagnes must have. When police ran a lab test they found that the Moët was indeed just local prosecco. 

At the raided Padua business, Italian fiscal police also found a machine that wraps the bottles in Moët & Chandon packaging, and 40,000 very good copies of Moët & Chandon labels. 

The street value of the seized fakes was estimated to be nearly $400,000.

“We think these bottles were destined for the markets of Northern Europe, such as Germany,” Lt. Col. Luca Lettere of the Guardia di Finanza di Padova told a press conference. 

There’s no indication that any of it has reached the Detroit area. 

“The system was very detailed and specialized,” Lettere said. “They chose Champagne because it can be sold for such a high profit. 

“Buying prosecco for one or two euros, they can put it on the market for 35 or 40 euros.”

A spokesperson at Moët & Chandon told decanter.com: “We recognize the excellent work of the authorities who seize the counterfeit products and we do not hesitate to engage in prosecution.”

Italian police said the contraband Moët & Chandon was donated by police to wine cooperatives in the Veneto area, where prosecco is made, to use in their wines.

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