More than 58,000 gallons of red wine and Georges Duboeuf's reputation are in limbo as a French prosecutor investigates a case of improper blending at one of the Beaujolais giant's winemaking facilities.
French officials discovered in January that wines aging in tanks, some of which were labeled with the names of various crus, were actually a blend of cru Beaujolais and lesser Beaujolais-Villages. Company founder Duboeuf insists the fault lies with one manager, who has since been fired. The investigation is in its preliminary stages as French attorneys interview both Duboeuf and the manager, whose name cannot be revealed due to French labor laws.
"I was completely shocked. I'm sorry I hired this person because I never would have guessed he would have done something like this," said Duboeuf. "I feel like the victim, but I'm confident it's not me who will have problems with the French justice system, but this person."
The trouble began at Les Vins Georges Duboeuf's Lancié vinification facility during last year's harvest in September. According to Duboeuf spokeswoman Kathleen Talbert, the manager at the facility, which is one of several that Duboeuf operates in the region, mixed grapes from cru vineyards and Beaujolais-Villages vineyards in the same tanks. Some of the tanks were labeled as cru wines and others as Villages.
The problem was discovered when officials from France's consumer protection agency, Direction Générale de la Concurrence de la Consommation et de la Repression des Fraudes, conducted a routine audit in January and found computer entries listing the mixed grapes. The manager was fired soon afterward.
Blending grapes from different appellations and selling them under an incorrect name is considered fraud under France's appellation contrôlée laws. However, none of the improperly blended Duboeuf wine had been bottled and sold, and there appears to be no obvious profit motive for the grape switch, since the winery wasn't labeling all the wines as crus, for which it could charge a higher price. Nonetheless, the matter was referred to the local prosecutor in Villefranche-sur-Saône, who opened an investigation on Aug. 24.
"Everything was being mixed--Beaujolais with Beaujolais-Villages, cru wines with Beaujolais-Villages and so on," prosecutor Francis Battut announced in a public statement.
Even if Duboeuf is proven innocent, the investigation could cause substantial damage to his brand. Duboeuf's name is synonymous with Beaujolais; he began selling wine by bicycle at age 18 and now produces nearly 2.1 million cases a year, dominating the appellation. He has also been the driving force behind the popularity of Beaujolais Nouveau, the inexpensive drink-now version of the wine that arrives every November.
As with most French wines, sales of Beaujolais in the United States have slumped in the past few years. "Sales were dipping down around the Iraq war, but over the past 18 months our Beaujolais sales have been coming back," said Michael Aaron, chairman of Sherry-Lehmann Wines in New York, which sells more than 10,000 cases of Beaujolais a year, 90 percent of that made by Duboeuf. Aaron worries that the investigation could hurt sales of those wines.
Questions about quality are the last thing Beaujolais needs, as the union of producers tries to court new wine drinkers. In July, InterBeaujolais launched a $5 million marketing campaign in major U.S. cities in attempt to brand Beaujolais as a fruity, inexpensive wine for casual enjoyment.
Duboeuf's colleagues are presenting a united front. Both InterBeaujolais and the Federation of Burgundy Négociants quickly dispatched statements attesting to Duboeuf's reputation and stressing that the consumer protection system worked--the error was caught and the wines never bottled. "It's never something we like to hear," said Pierre-Henri Gagey, president of rival négociant Louis Jadot. "But it's clear that in France the rules are very strict, more strict than anywhere else in the world."
Duboeuf said he has implemented new quality controls for the 2005 harvest, hiring a company recommended by the DGCCRF to install new software that will more closely monitor which grapes go in which tanks.
As for the misblended wine--nearly 25,000 cases worth, which amounts to only about 1 percent of Duboeuf's production--it remains in the tanks while the investigation proceeds. Legally, it could be bottled and sold as Beaujolais-Villages, provided those are the lowest-ranked grapes in it. Duboeuf says he may do that, but he'll make no decision until the investigation is finished.
"I have spent 50 years working in Beaujolais," Duboeuf said. "It's my love, and I will do everything I can to regain consumers' trust."