July 4 was a bad day for the king of Beaujolais. A French court convicted Les Vins Georges Duboeuf, the wine company founded by vintner Georges Duboeuf, of fraud and attempted fraud for improperly blending grapes from Cru Beaujolais vineyards with grapes from lesser Beaujolais-Villages vineyards.
Magistrate Nelly Pradel fined the company $38,000 and ordered it to pay additional fines to the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, the government organization that oversees appellations.
"I deeply insist that the mistake was due to the careless error of the winemaker," said Duboeuf. "And I can only remind you that none of the incriminated wine was bottled or sold under the wrong classification."
Duboeuf told Wine Spectator that he's considering an appeal of the verdict, which could have been worse: Prosecutor Francis Battut had called for a $192,000 fine, to send a warning to other winemakers.
The case involves 54,000 gallons--the equivalent of 200,000 bottles, less than 16,700 cases--out of the 2 million cases Duboeuf produced from the difficult 2004 vintage, which resulted in lean, austere wines. The court found that in September of that year, Sylvain Doury, winemaking director at Duboeuf's Lancié vinification facility, combined Gamay grapes from several Cru Beaujolais sites in Brouilly, Cotes de Brouilly and Moulin-à-Vent with Gamay from Beaujolais-Villages sites. French laws forbid Cru wines from containing grapes from lesser vineyards, such as Villages.
When officials from France's consumer protection agency, Direction Générale de la Concurrence de la Consommation et de la Repression des Fraudes (DGCCRF), conducted a routine audit in January 2005, they found computer entries listing the mixed grapes. Some tanks were labeled Villages and some were labeled Cru, but all were a mix of both, meaning the Cru wine was technically inferior.
After the problem was discovered, Duboeuf fired Doury and began implementing new safeguards at all his facilities. Duboeuf maintains that he had no knowledge of the improper blending, and that Doury acted on his own. Once the DGCCRF completed its investigation in July, Duboeuf reclassified the wines as Beaujolais Villages. In December, he began selling some of it in bulk with the INAO's approval. Battut opened a criminal investigation in August, and the case went to trial in May 2006.
The court convicted Doury, who admitted during the hearings that he may have made mistakes due to exhaustion, fined him $3,800 and gave him a suspended three-month jail sentence. But the court found Duboeuf's company guilty as well, stating that the blending was an effort to ensure consistent quality in all the wines.
The biggest casualty could be Duboeuf's reputation and the image of Beaujolais. His name is synonymous with Beaujolais; he began selling wine by bicycle at age 18 and now produces 20 percent of the appellation's wines, three-quarters of which are exported. He has also been the driving force behind the popularity of Beaujolais Nouveau, the inexpensive drink-now version of the wine that is released every November.
Questions about quality are the last thing Beaujolais needs as the union of producers tries to court new wine drinkers. A year ago, InterBeaujolais launched a $5 million marketing campaign in major U.S. cities in an attempt to brand Beaujolais as a fruity, inexpensive wine for casual enjoyment.
Still, Duboeuf and his allies insist that the conviction will do little to hurt sales. "A few distributors called me," said Bill Deutsch, whose firm, W.J. Deutsch & Sons, is Duboeuf's partner in the United States. "But this doesn't mean a thing to the average American consumer."
One factor in Duboeuf's favor is the 2005 vintage on store shelves now, one of the best for Beaujolais in years. Though Wine Spectator has yet to rate these wines, the scores for 2005 Nouveau and Villages Nouveau were higher than those from the two previous vintages.
"It is possible that some consumers will be more hesitant about the wines of Beaujolais," said Duboeuf. "They only need to taste a bottle to allay their concerns."