Bordeaux's criminal tribunal found the wine négociant Vincent Lataste guilty of fraud concerning more than 10,000 cases worth of wine on June 6, sentencing him to six months of prison and a €30,000 fine, with €20,000 of that suspended. His company, Sequoia, was fined €150,000 (€100,000 suspended).
The court found that Lataste committed deception, falsification and fraudulent use of appellations. The crimes, which the judge characterized as "serious," took place between 2014 and 2016 in Lataste’s cellars in Cadillac.
In an email to Wine Spectator, Lataste wrote that as company director, he assumed responsibility for the errors, but protested, "being condemned personally like a bandit and a dishonest person." He added, “I am reproached for things that are only speculations, my enologist testified under oath before the court that I never asked him to do dishonest things.”
The case began four years ago when abnormally high sulfur levels were detected in wines the Sequoia company was shipping to China, prompting an audit of the cellars by French authorities in March 2015. Investigators from the Direction Régionale des Entreprises, de la Concurrence, de la Consommation, du Travail et de l’Emploi (DIRECCTE), France's anti-fraud agency, found that some wines were fraudulently labeled with appellations like Graves and Côtes de Bourg, that wines of different appellations were mixed and some were cut with water.
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Lataste blames the non-compliant paperwork and labels on a mix-up due to his enologist having been on vacation, and says there was water in his vats from recently rinsed filters.
But Lataste is not unknown to the court. The same prosecutor and judge oversaw an earlier case of massive fraud involving over a million bottles trafficked between 2011 and 2012, masterminded by François-Marie Marret, in an operation dubbed Vin de Lune, or "Moon Wine," because the illicit wines were transported at night. Lataste played a small role as an intermediary in the scam, and received a suspended 18-month prison sentence and fine in November 2016.
Lataste moved to the U.S. five years ago, "not to flee but to rebuild,” he claims, and was not present in court last week. Still, he felt his prior brush with the judge and prosecutor influenced this case. "I was not judged impartially," he told Wine Spectator. His defense lawyer Eric Grosselle called the conviction and sentence "excessively astonishing and quite incomprehensible,” and indicated that his client would appeal.