An investigating magistrate in Bordeaux has placed two well-known wine figures, Philippe Castéja, a négociant and owner of Château Trotte Vieille, and Hubert de Boüard, the former co-owner of Château Angélus and a consulting winemaker, under formal investigation for "prise illégale d'intérêt," which translates roughly as unlawfully taking an interest. The two men are under suspicion of having used their public roles in the organizations responsible for the 2012 St.-Emilion Classification for personal gain. The case threatens to up-end the classification, calling into question Angélus' status as one of the four Premier Grand Cru Classé A wineries in the Right Bank appellation.
The St.-Emilion ranking was made official in the 1950s and, unlike the more famous Left Bank classification system, is revised every 10 years. The 2006 ranking was annulled after bitter lawsuits by châteaus whose owners felt the rankings were unfair and biased. The 2012 ranking—which includes 82 châteaus in the St.-Emilion Grand Cru appellation—was painstakingly designed to be lawsuit-proof. It drew headlines when Angélus and Château Pavie were promoted to join Ausone and Cheval-Blanc in the top rung.
Conflict of interest or sour grapes?
The current investigation stems from a criminal complaint lodged in early 2013 by the owners of three châteaus—Corbin Michotte, Croque-Michotte and La Tour-du-Pin-Figeac—who failed to make the 2012 ranking. They have objected to the criteria used in the rankings and have alleged that the judges had conflicts of interest.
Under French law, it is a crime for officials to use their position in a public body for profit or to take part in decisions in which they have a personal interest. In the case of St.-Emilion, the ranking falls under the auspices of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO), the national body that oversees wine appellations. Both de Boüard and Castéja have long held influential posts within the INAO's wine section. De Boüard was also the president of the St.-Emilion Grands Crus, the association at the heart of the classification.
Both men deny playing any part in the rankings, however. Speaking for her father, Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal, co-owner of Château Angélus, told Wine Spectator, "this is an additional investigation with the presumption of innocence."
"This is a stage in the judicial process, but they haven't been found guilty," said Franck Binard, director of the St.-Emilion Wine Council. "We'll let justice do its job."
A serious allegation
While they have not been charged and no court date has been set, the move by Bordeaux magistrate Clémentine Chauvin is a serious development for two reasons. First, it means that the gendarme investigators and magistrate believe they have enough evidence to potentially take the case to court. If found guilty, the two men face prison sentences and heavy fines.
As an example of how the law has been used recently in France, the former mayor of the massively popular tourist destination Mont-St.-Michel was found guilty and fined $57,600 for taking an illegal interest while in office when he stationed tourist shuttle stops in front of his businesses. A great deal more money is in play in St.-Emilion: The wine rankings add millions of euros to land values alone, not to mention how much châteaus can charge for their wines.
De Boüard is a consultant, estate owner and former co-owner of Château Angélus (he sold his shares to his daughter in 2016). Castéja is a major négociant and co-owner of several estates with his family, including Château Trotte Vieille, a Premier Grand Cru Classé B. With the 2012 ranking, Trotte Vieille was allowed to absorb the 10-acre Château Bergat, previously an ordinary classified growth.
Both men maintain that they absented themselves from decision-making related to the ranking. They have asked the Bordeaux court to dismiss the investigation.
The second reason that this criminal investigation is so serious revolves around a lawsuit the plaintiffs filed in Bordeaux's Administrative Tribunal in 2013, challenging the validity of the classification. They lost, and the case is on appeal. A decision is expected by the end of the year.
Pierre Carle, owner of Croque-Michotte, a 33-acre estate, told Wine Spectator that he felt the criminal case would put pressure on the Administrative Tribunal. "They will be prudent when it comes to validating the classification."
The legal fracas has left the St.-Emilion Wine Council in limbo, even as it should be preparing for the 2022 ranking. Should the classification come through this latest round of lawsuits unscathed, Binard feels confident they could quickly swing into action, and more important, he believes the classification would stand the test of time.
"It'll have been through the fires of justice," said Binard.
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