The Italian authorities dubbed it "Operation Dionysus." On Jan. 22, officers of the Carabinieri and financial police Guardia de Finanza made 28 raids across the country, confiscating evidence and arresting five people accused of taking part in a massive wine fraud scheme centered in Lombardy's Oltrepò Pavese appellation. According to the Guardia di Finanza di Pavia, a cooperative winery there had produced and sold more than 130,000 cases of counterfeit Oltrepò Pavese wine by combining cheaper wine with water and additives.
The apprehended suspects include Lombardy wine broker Claudio Rampini and Alberto Carini, head of Cantina Sociale di Canneto Pavese, the cooperative in question. Rampini, currently under house arrest, has denied the charges. Cantina executives could not be reached for comment.
According to the Guardia's public statement, over the course of the last year, wiretaps and video surveillance revealed that the winery was engaged in a massive fraud. The Cantina staff allegedly used altered invoices from its grapegrowers and released fraudulent declarations in order to suggest that it was producing 1.2 million liters more wine than it actually was. The Guardia report indicates that there were "compliant farmers" involved in this falsification process.
The winery then created an extra 1.2 million liters, according to the investigators, from wines that did not meet the official quality standards and wines made from grapes that had not been certified for use. This fraudulent wine was then bolstered with sugar, water and sometimes carbon dioxide to add effervescence. Aromatic additives were also mixed in, and the wines were labeled under several different Oltrepò Pavese appellations. Some were even labeled organic.
The Guardia estimates that the scheme allowed the suspects to "sell counterfeit wine for an economic value of several million euros."
"Our investigation enabled us to discover how the top management of the Cantina Canneto, together with entrusted winemakers, commercialized supposedly D.O.C. and P.G.I. wines that were actually counterfeited in terms of quality, quantity and origin," the Guardia said in a statement.
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While Cantina Sociale di Canneto Pavese is at the center of the investigation, other suspects include outside enologists. Two other regional winemakers are cooperating with the investigation, having allegedly had a relationship with the accused winery. The authorities say it appears the fake wines carried no health risks. It is not yet clear if any were intended for export.
Lombardy's wine community is viewing the situation with utmost concern. The Coldiretti Lombardia, a regional agricultural union, released a statement in response to the arrests that "it is necessary to clarify and punish any fraud perpetrators who discredit and jeopardize the development of the wine sector in Lombardy." The sting comes just six years after a previous fraud investigation in Oltrepò Pavese, in which multiple winemakers were found guilty of violating production rules.
Ottavia Giorgi di Vistarino, proprietor of Conte Vistarino, told Wine Spectator that the accused "are creating unimaginable damage to an entire territory. They destroy the hard and serious work of years of so many producers. What happened has no excuse and the perpetrators have to pay."