Bordeaux's Tribunal convicted eight people on Nov. 3 in a case of massive wine fraud and handed down harsh sentences. François-Marie Marret, owner of 20 châteaus across the Bordeaux region, received a two-year prison sentence and fines of $8.7 million. The judge ordered the destruction of more than 8,000 hectoliters—1.1 million bottles worth—of illicit wine that had been seized by French customs.
In an interview with Wine Spectator, vice procureur Nathalie Queran, a prosecutor in the finance and economic crimes division who pursued the case, underlined the "great magnitude" of the scam which authorities believe operated "for several years."
Marret's estates implicated in the fraud, which took place from at least 2011 to 2012, are Château Le Couvent in St.-Emilion, Château Moulin à Vent in Lalande-de-Pomerol and Château Fourcas-Loubaney in Listrac-Médoc.
Marret protested the unusually harsh sentence—it's rare to go to prison for wine crimes in France. "The severity of this judgment does not represent justice," he told Wine Spectator outside the courtroom. "I don't even know how they're coming up with 8,000 hectoliters. It's impossible, purely impossible."
Négociant Vincent Lataste received an 18-month suspended sentence and $56,000 in various fines. Broker Marc Dubedout received a one-year suspended prison sentence and five years prohibition from working in the wine trade.
Marret recounted the dismay he felt standing before the judge in the crowded courtroom as he heard the sentences and understood that he alone faced time behind bars. "I heard the judge say 'suspended' for Lataste, and I realized she hadn't said the same for me."
Queran said that the stiff sentences served as a warning. "It was a strong signal to professionals in the Bordeaux trade that justice will protect consumers and the quality of Bordeaux wine," she said.
Dubedout, who was not present in court, is a vice president of the Syndicat Régional des Courtiers de Vins et Spiritueux de Bordeaux, de la Gironde et du Sud-Ouest. He is also on the administrative council of Quali-Bordeaux, which acts on behalf of France's appellation authorities, the INAO, to make sure wine production follows regulations and meets quality standards for the appellation.
"The alleged offenses are contrary to all the rules. They seriously damage the image of our appellations, and that of all the winegrowers who make them renowned," said Hervé Grandeau, president of the Federation des Grands Vins de Bordeaux, which was a civil plaintiff in the case, along with the wine-trade group CIVB and the INAO. "We will show ourselves particularly intransigent in the future when faced with such practices."
Jean-François Galhaud, chairman of St.-Emilion Wines, agreed, "such attitudes have no place in our viticulture and must be eradicated."
The fraud involved sourcing low-quality wine—mainly press wine and excess wine destined for distillation—from struggling growers in modest appellations and passing it off as wine from more prestigious appellations. Enologist Cécile Ferret told authorities she had "seen things at Marret's never seen elsewhere" and admitted to using up to 3 percent of the illicit wine in the final blend. Marret blames the crimes on Lataste and a disgruntled, ex-employee. "I've never even met the growers or the brokers," he said.
For their part, the three growers earned a measly $160 to $221 per tonneau (900 liters) in the black-market operation. They received suspended six-month prison terms and suspended $5,600 fines.
A second broker, Christophe Lucas, received an eight-month suspended prison sentence. And the truck driver, an accomplice whose confession provided key information, received a four-month suspended sentence. He was crucial for identifying the supply chain for two of Marret's wineries. Lataste, Dubedout, Lucas and the growers were all part of this chain.
A second chain for provisioning Marret's Listrac estate Château Fourcas-Loubaney was never completely explained. But a cellar employee revealed that a truck would arrive at the end of day, park next to one of the cellars, and Marret and the driver would hook up hoses to drain the truck's cistern into the cellar vats. "The employees interviewed said this delivery circuit went back at least five years," noted the judge.
But Marret defended his winemaking operation. He told Wine Spectator he had recently bought an optical sorter to improve quality and had begun restoring his estates, including Château des Tours and Château Le Couvent. "Five years ago, I began replanting Le Couvent with 100 percent Cabernet Franc. We're doing whole-berry fermentation in the barrel. The wine is velvety, it's magnificent."
He was unsure whether he would appeal the conviction. If he does, he runs the risk of an even harsher sentence.