The first hint that something was awry, says Aubert de Villaine, codirector of Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, was when wine connoisseurs showed his staff suspicious-looking bottles of DRC Romanée-Conti. “Some people brought us bottles that had them wondering,” de Villaine told Wine Spectator. “We looked at the bottles. They looked legitimate, superficially, but we had a feeling. Once we began looking at the numbers on the bottles and other things, we knew they were fake.”
Those suspicions proved serious. On Oct. 16, police officers in multiple European countries swooped down on 20 houses and companies, seizing evidence and hauling in seven people for questioning. Two men—a father and son from Italy—were arrested and now face charges of fraud. Both work in the wine merchant business.
During the raid, police officers found packaging similar to what was used on the fake DRC in one of their homes. The two men are being held in Italy while awaiting extradition to France. If found guilty, they face a maximum of 10 years in prison.
In December 2012, DRC’s staff alerted gendarmes in Dijon, France, to their suspicions, sparking an investigation into suspicious bottles of Romanée-Conti seeping into the marketplace. The call set in motion a Europol crime sweep that spanned 10 countries and dismantled an international network involving forgery and smuggling. (Europol is the equivalent of Interpol but for Europe only.)
Investigators warn that the case is far from closed. “Now all the documents seized have to be analyzed,” said Chris Vansteenkiste, a Belgian police officer and Europol’s project manager for Intellectual Property Crime. “Generally speaking, this can eventually lead to other suspects.”
According to French prosecutor Marie-Christine Tarrare, “for the moment, other suspects have not yet been apprehended, but are sought in order to provide evidence of the entire counterfeiting chain.”
According to officials involved in the complex investigation, the criminal ring was focused solely on a lucrative trade in fake DRC wines. “It is not possible at this stage of the investigation to know the precise number of counterfeit bottles put on the market,” said Tarrare. However, evidence points to at least 400 bottles sold for a $2.8 million profit.
The first transactions involving the counterfeit wine took place in Italy, but bank accounts and other evidence revealed links to Russia, Hong Kong, Belize and Switzerland. The investigation also involved the Netherlands, Germany, Cyprus, the United Kingdom and France.
"It is remarkable,” said de Villaine. “We hope the investigation will lead to incarcerations and will show people that the French government is serious about protecting the great wines of France." His staff was suspicious of the bottles they saw because DRC only produces an average of 6,000 bottles each vintage of Romanée Conti, its most prestigious wine, made from a mythic 4.4-acre plot. Distribution is tightly controlled through 200 clients.
An initial sweep by French police officers found 69 bottles of fake DRC in France, some of which were close to home in Burgundy. The bottles, labels and capsules were revealed to be fake. A government lab in Montpellier confirmed that the bottles contained wine of various blends of dubious origin and “a very bad organoleptic quality.”
With the investigation still ongoing, Vansteenkiste was unable to disclose what details tipped off DRC’s owners that the bottles were fake. “We don’t want to make the criminals more intelligent than they are,” he said.
This is not the first time DRC has been the victim of criminal intent. In January 2010, another father-and-son team, Jacques and Cédric Soltys, were accused of threatening the vineyard with destruction in order to extort $1.4 million.
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