Bordeaux's Right Bank is buzzing with news of the latest lawsuit to challenge the controversial rankings of St.-Emilion's châteaus.
St.-Emilion's 2012 classification is under renewed attack, with three châteaus filing separate criminal complaints with the public prosecutor April 15, demanding an investigation into illegal interference by people involved with the classification.
"The classification was rigged," declared Francois de Contencin, lawyer for the plaintiffs—Châteaus Corbin Michotte, La Tour du Pin Figeac and Croque-Michotte. The same three châteaus filed individual appeals to Bordeaux’s Administrative Tribunal Jan. 4, demanding the classification’s annulment.
Two prominent winegrowers are singled out in the complaints as examples of alleged influence peddling: Hubert de Boüard, co-owner of Château Angélus and president of the regional committee and member of the national committee of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO), and Philippe Castéja, CEO of his family's négociant firm Borie Manoux as well as Château Trotte Vieille and member of the regional and national committees of the INAO. The INAO is the French agency that oversees appellations.
“Both are members of the national committee of the INAO,” said de Contencin. “In this position, they had, at the same time, administrative power, supervisory power and approval over operations in the classification. And to our knowledge, they never abstained from participating in essential deliberations. The national committee even chose the jury for the classification.”
The charges are harsh. A guilty verdict for prise illegal d’intérèt, loosely translated as taking illegal interest, carries a maximum 5-year prison term and €75,000 fine. Private business owners and employees who have taken on public roles must walk a particularly straight line. The definition of "interest" is sufficiently broad to include direct or indirect financial, political or moral gain. It includes missions in which one might prepare, propose or present reports or advice that will be used by others making decisions.
De Contencin noted that Angélus was promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classé A, the summit of the classification, and the seven estates that are de Boüard’s clients as a consultant were either promoted or retained their ranking. Trotte Vieille retained its Premier Grand Cru Classé B status despite having integrated Château Bergat, previously only a Grand Cru Classé.
According to the lawyer, the classification was inexplicably weighted in favor of the Premiers Grands Crus—the tasting component only counted for 30 percent of the final grade for the Premier Grands Crus, yet counted for 50 percent of the final grade for the Grand Cru Classé châteaus.
The allegations won’t stop with de Boüard and Casteja, according to de Contencin. "An investigation will likely reveal more names,” he said.
De Boüard, currently traveling in Asia, was unavailable for comment, however, his daughter Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal told Wine Spectator that she expected her father to respond to the charges upon his return. Philippe Casteja, also in Asia, was likewise unavailable, but expected to respond.
In an e-mail to Wine Spectator, INAO director Jean-Luc Dairien said the lawsuits must follow their course. “It seems to me that due diligence was done with respect to the [classification],” he wrote.
The INAO, which is under the authority of the Minister of Agriculture, strictly forbids anyone from participating in debate or voting on any decision in which they have a financial interest.
Franck Binard, director of the Conseil des Vins de St.-Emilion, defended the classification. “We don’t want to enter into a polemic. Justice will follow its course,” he said.
However, emotions run high following this latest blow. “It’s insulting to the work done by the estates that succeeded in the classification,” said Binard. "It’s also insulting for the many people who worked hard to make the classification possible, and insulting for the INAO itself. It’s intolerable.”