A Bordeaux judicial tribunal is weighing the fates of eight men accused of trying to pass off more than 1 million bottles of cheap plonk as more expensive Bordeaux from top appellations. In a recent hearing, French prosecutor Nathalie Queran called for punishments ranging from a six-month suspended sentence to two years in prison and over $6.5 million in fines for the alleged culprits. A decision is expected on Nov. 3.
In late 2012, French customs agents seized nearly 820,000 liters of wine—the equivalent of more than 91,000 cases—from cellars owned by François-Marie Marret, in an operation dubbed Vin de Lune, or "moon wine." The scion of a wealthy family that owned Marne et Champagne, Marret inherited a handful of Bordeaux estates from his uncle. His holdings include Divin, a négociant, and the individual estates Châteaus des Tours in Montagne-St.-Emilion, Le Couvent in St.-Emilion, Moulin à Vent in Lalande-de-Pomerol and Fourcas Loubaney in Listrac-Médoc.
In addition to Marret, the defendants include négociant Vincent Lataste, wine brokers Christophe Lucas and Marc Dubedout, a truck driver, and three winegrowers from modest appellations: Bruno Ballet, Marie-Chantal Boucher, and Sebastien Ninaud. The INAO (France's governing body for wine appellations) and the Bordeaux Wine Council (CIVB) are both plaintiffs in the case.
According to investigators, under Marret's management, the magnificent 14th-century castle at Château des Tours and the historic Ursuline convent in St.-Emilion have fallen into disrepair. His crops also suffered. "In five years, the yields from the estates plummeted," presiding judge Carline Barret told the tribunal.
Lataste allegedly sourced wine in both 2011 and 2012 from the three growers through contact made by the brokers and supplied the wine to Marret's operation. Some of the wine was of such poor quality it was destined for distillation. Marret's company then allegedly packaged the wine as having originated in the prestigious appellations of his properties and sold it. Some of his clients included supermarket chains Auchan and Intermarché.
Investigators say the contraband wine was transported at night to escape detection and taxation. "Vin de lune" is a term that originated in the Middle Ages for wine made by peasants from grapes secretly harvested at night in order to pay less taxes. The charges range from the transportation of wine without proper documents, accounting irregularities, falsification of documents, non-compliant declarations regarding the stock of wine and must in their cellars, and deception on the nature, quality, origin or quantity of goods.
Marret's defense lawyer would not comment on the case, but told Wine Spectator that numerous reports in the French media were "shameful." Lataste's attorney would only say that he had argued for the dismissal of charges. He added, "My client was only trying to help out. He didn't know what the wine was being used for."
The prosecutors asked the court to sentence Marret to two years of prison and prohibition of professional activity related to the infraction for 10 years. He also faces more than $6.5 million in fines demanded by customs and plaintiffs.
Lataste could face an 18-month, suspended prison term and $5,500 fine, and the courtiers a one-year suspended prison term. Both could be banned from working in a related professional activity for five years.