French prosecutors have accused a leading Bordeaux négociant and bulk wine bottler with "flagrant" wine fraud. On March 15, Bordeaux's criminal tribunal heard the charges against Grands Vins de Gironde (GVG), which is owned by the Castéja family. Investigators allege that GVG illegally blended wines from prestigious appellations with table wine, and mixed appellation wines, vintages and châteaus.
Reading from a thick case file, Judge Caroline Baret declared that the investigation revealed that at least 611,900 liters of wine (the equivalent of 68,000 cases) worth $1.6 million were mislabeled during a period from Jan. 1, 2014, to Dec. 31, 2015. The prosecutor argued for a $614,000 fine for GVG and a $12,000 fine for codefendant Eric Marin, GVG's former director of purchasing.
"It's a question of trust," prosecutor Anne Kayanakis told Wine Spectator after several hours of testimony and arguments, declaring that the illicit blends tarnished the image of Bordeaux, its négociants and its wineries.
Investigators were alerted to the alleged fraud during a routine audit of GVG's massive cellar in St.-Loubès on Bordeaux's Right Bank in 2014. They found that Borie Manoux, a négociant firm also owned by the Castéja family that uses the GVG cellar, was missing 200,000 liters of wine, while GVG had mysteriously gained 220,000 liters.
Marin, 59, told the court that he had warned the inspectors that the vats at GVG weren't labeled correctly that day. He said the cellar staff was too busy to relabel the vats with each delivery and only changed the labels twice a week. The cellars received several tanker trucks a day, some from as far away as Spain.
But this anomaly set in motion an investigation that involved France's anti-fraud agency (DGCCRF) and the police crime squad. Their report alleges more than a problem with vat labels. The investigators claim that vats were topped off with different wines or outright mislabeled. Among the alleged examples: French table wines were re-baptized Pays d'Oc IGP; Languedoc wines were blended into vats of Bordeaux, including wines from St.-Estèphe; a Bordeaux 2011 was sold as a Bordeaux 2012.
The prosecution recounted how GVG's cellarmaster confessed to the police that he could no longer sleep at night due to the stress from the illicit activity in the cellar. He said the vats needed to be kept full in order to protect the wine from oxidation, so they added wines from other origins and vintages.
In his defense, Marin said that he'd been overwhelmed by the demands of managing the vast cellar, which produced more than 180 different labels. "In 2014, we received [20 million liters] and shipped [19.9 million liters]—that means moving [18,000 cases] a day," said Marin.
Marin is not accused of profiting personally from the fraud and remains on the payroll at GVG. He was the only person from the defense to take the stand—GVG's owners weren't present—and he told the court that upper management was not aware of the fraud.
But prosecutor Kayanakis dismissed his claim. "I doubt that the hierarchy wasn't aware of these practices," she said. "But let's suppose it wasn't aware …. They covered their eyes. I don't imagine for a second that the company was not concerned by quality, compliance with regulations and the adaptation of a new purchasing director and cellar manager to his post."
GVG is controlled by a holding company, Borie Castéja Animation Participation, which also controls two historic négociant houses, Borie Manoux and Mähler-Besse. The director of the Castéja family holding is Philippe Castéja. The Castéjas acquired GVG in 2011.
Multiple plaintiffs joined the French government’s case against GVG, including the INAO, which oversees wine appellations, the Bordeaux Wine Council, the Fédération des Grands Vins de Bordeaux, the Fédération des Négociants de Bordeaux et Libourne and the Confédération Paysanne de Gironde.
The judge is expected to deliver her verdict April 5.
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