A French court has acquitted Etienne Bizot, scion of the family that owns Bollinger Champagne, from any wrongdoing in the case of the scandal-ridden Burgundy house Chanson Père & Fils, which Bollinger's parent company bought from the Marion family in 1999. But former Chanson executives François and Philippe Marion each received a one-year suspended prison sentence and were fined 40,000 euros.
At the trial in Dijon on Oct. 13, the Marion brothers pled guilty to charges that, between 1998 and 2000, they illegally blended Burgundies with wine from other appellations, which is a crime under France's strict Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée laws. Chanson's cellar master, Marc Cugney, was sentenced to an eight-month suspended prison term, but was not fined. He had explained in court how his bosses had asked him to make the illegal wines, and how he complied without denouncing them or resigning.
Bizot, who was charged with knowingly selling the Marions' fraudulent wines after taking over management of Chanson, adamantly proclaimed his innocence during the trial, breaking down in tears after his integrity was questioned. After the verdict was read in court on Dec. 8, Bizot celebrated with a 1996 Bollinger Champagne Grande Année. "Justice has been made, but it has been a difficult time," said Bizot, 42, Chanson's nonexecutive chairman.
The verdict was supposed to be announced on Nov. 17, but the court delayed it until this week. A Burgundy trade organization, the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne (BIVB), had asked for a postponement so that the fraud case, which is viewed as one of the worst in Bugundy's history, wouldn't be a source of negative publicity before the region's annual Hospices de Beaune auction. That event, which was held on Nov. 21, attracts French and international media.
The Marion brothers had supervised Chanson's winemaking for 34 years. For many vintages, starting in 1966, they said, they ignored French laws by blending wine types and appellations, which they argued improved quality.
The Marions' lawyer, Olivier Morice, argued in court that these practices, which included adding Alicante from southern France to deepen the color of the reds sold as "Burgundies," were in line with the winemaking techniques used at other Burgundy shippers. He asked the three judges to show clemency toward his septuagenarian clients.
The prosecution had asked for the Marions to be sentenced to one year in jail and fined 30,000 euros each. Given that the maximum fine for similar crimes is 37,000 euros, the court made clear its displeasure with the brothers by imposing a heavier penalty. There was never any doubt that the men would escape spending time in prison, given their ages and the white-collar nature of their crime, lawyers said.
The Marions left the Beaune-based winery in 2000, when Société Jacques Bollinger and its representative, Bizot, took full charge. Bizot set out to improve the wines at Chanson, which is a négociant firm but also owns vineyards in several of Beaune's premiers crus. Since the 2001 vintage, Chanson has dramatically improved the quality of its wines.
Bizot said he learned of the Marions' deceptive winemaking techniques in late 2000, and a couple of months later he denounced the brothers to police in Dijon and authorities in Paris and Beaune. A police investigation found that Chanson's cellar contained more than 700,000 bottles of illegal "Burgundies."
However, Bizot became a target of the investigation as well. He was a director on Chanson's board, and then its CEO, in 1999 and 2000. Bizot told investigators that he was unaware that, during that time, Chanson had been selling some fraudulent wines to unsuspecting buyers. The Marions accused Bizot and Bollinger of hypocrisy, charging that the Champenois knew perfectly well what was going on at Chanson and in Burgundy in general. Eventually, prosecutors brought charges against Bizot this past summer.
Although the full text of the reasoning behind their judgment has not yet been made public, the judges apparently believed Bizot more than the Dijon prosecutor, Jean-Claude Dumarets.
"This was a painful period for Etienne, but he is innocent, that much is clear with this decision," said one of his lawyers, Gilles Boisséson. "Bollinger's actions were perfectly transparent."
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