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Wine Crime Watch: More Premier Cru Fallout, Fines in Bordeaux, Vandals Strike Italy, Lawsuit in California

A Premier Cru victim sues his insurer, Bordeaux's Bouscaut is fined for false invoices, $500,000 of wine destroyed in Lombardy, and Sonoma's Davis sues Napa's Davis
Photo by: iStock/premat
Crime never takes a vacation. Which is weird considering how many criminals seem to hang out in wine country.

Posted: December 15, 2016

Malik Hasan, a Colorado-based HMO titan, legal marijuana grower and wine collector who became one of bankrupt retailer Premier Cru's biggest victims, has had his insurance claim for those losses rejected by AIG. He asked the firm to cover the loss to him and his wife, Seeme, of 2,448 bottles of wine, purchased but never received from the California retailer. (Premier Cru cofounder John Fox was sentenced to more than six years in prison this week.) Now the Hasans have launched a lawsuit against AIG, claiming that their wine, the market value of which they put at $1.708 million, was specifically covered under their homeowner’s policy.

The Hasans pay a premium of $12,000 per year just for wine coverage. In rejecting the claim, AIG asserted that the couple did not “own or possess” the wine at issue. The insurer may argue, if the case goes before a jury, that ownership of the wine did not pass to the Hasans so long as the wine remained in Premier Cru’s warehouse. Malik was a thorn in the side of Premier Cru’s Chapter 7 Trustee this past summer, trying to block the sale of the impounded wine to benefit the 9,000 creditors left high and dry by the January bankruptcy filing. Title to the wine he purchased, Hasan argued, passed to him when his credit card was charged for it, and therefore the trustee had no right to sell it. That claim was tossed by bankruptcy judge William Lafferty. Most of the 79,000 bottles in Premier Cru’s warehouse, including the Hasans’, were sold to Spectrum, a wine auctioneer, for $3.67 million. The Hasans’ lawsuit, filed in a Denver federal court earlier this month, charges AIG with, among other things, breach of contract and acting in bad faith. In addition to recovery of the market value of their wine, the Hasans ask to be awarded trial expenses, interest, and “two times the covered benefit,” which would amount to just over $3.4 million.

Château Bouscaut's Lurton Family Found Guilty of Falsifying Invoice for Government Subsidies

Sophie Lurton and Laurent Cogombles, owners of Château Bouscaut, have been found guilty in Bordeaux's criminal court of using a false invoice to swindle the government out of a European subsidy. France-Agrimer disperses E.U. subsidies, a significant portion of which land in Bordeaux's vineyards. Those subsidies have come under close scrutiny by Bordeaux's judicial investigators.

Whiles the fines amounted to a slap on the wrist—Lurton was fined $2,100, her husband $5,300, with an additional $5,300 charged to the company—the prosecutor said the case was a matter of principle and morality rather than big money. Château Bouscaut is a classified-growth in Pessac-Léognan, acquired by Sophie Lurton's father, Lucien Lurton, in 1979. Cogombles is the president of the Pessac-Léognan wine syndicate. Sophie has run the estate for more than two decades, and in 2009, she and Cogombles began a major project that included the renovation of the original chais and the construction of an immense and stylish new cellar. Earlier this year, Lurton and Cogombles were forced to reimburse $277,000 in E.U. subsidies that they had received for the cellar project.

The fraud centers on a minor portion of the original subsidy. Investigators from the French National Customs Judicial Service (SNDJ) discovered that Lurton and Cogombles filed a false invoice for over $53,000 in electrical work from an independent contractor which made them eligible for more than $18,000 in subsidies. However, the electrician told investigators that Cogombles and Lurton requested a "double" invoice, which he understood to be with the intention of using the false invoice for the subsidy application.

Vandals Destroy $500,000 of Italian Wine

“This is a war.” That’s how Countess Ottavia Giorgi di Vistarino described an act of wine sabotage against her Conte Vistarino property to Corriere della Serra. A vandal—or vandals, as there are no suspects yet—scaled a fence in the middle of the night, broke into the winery and targeted tanks holding 14,000 gallons of fermenting 2016 vintage wine. Employees found the juice shining the cellar floors the next morning, an estimated $519,000 loss to the winery, according to Giorgi di Vistarino.

The historic estate boasts 440 acres of vineyard land, a lavish 19th-century villa and the distinction of being among the first—possibly the first—in Italy to cultivate Pinot Noir and make sparkling wine in the Champagne-style metodo classic. But more recent developments in its home region, Oltrepò Pavese in the Lombardy area, may have sparked the enmity behind the attack. (Nothing was stolen, suggesting the vandalism was an act of pure spite—not the first time we've seen this.) Hundreds of suspects are under investigation for a full buffet of fraud charges, mostly clustered around accusations of adulterating DOC wines with illegal levels of impermissible grapes. An investigation into what is suspected to be more than $20 million worth of fraud is underway, and organized crime is suspected. Giorgi di Vistarino, on the other hand, is a young vintner in a traditional region who has distinguished herself in recent years by investing in an ultramodern cellar, introducing new cuvées, stepping up marketing and not being suspected of fraud.

Sonoma's Davis Family Vineyards Files Suit Against Napa's Davis Estates

A pair of wine country Davises are bumping heads over their winery names. The Healdsburg, Calif.–based Davis Family Vineyards filed a lawsuit Dec. 14 for trademark infringement and unfair and deceptive trade practices against Napa Valley’s Davis Estates.

Davis Family Vineyards owner Guy Davis alleges that Davis Estates is "unjustly benefiting" from the use of its trademarked name, including everything from a tour company mistakenly sending guests to Davis Estates winery to consumer confusion to a Napa Valley Register article that mistakenly reported Davis Family was responsible for a plan by Davis Estates to clear-cut a 3,000-acre preserve on Howell Mountain.

Davis Family Vineyards was founded in 1996. “Davis Family Vineyards” was trademarked in 2006, according to the Trademark Electronic Search System. Michael and Sandy Davis purchased and restored a century-old estate winery near Calistoga in 2011, branding it Davis Estates.

Guy Davis charges in his statement that he tried to contact Michael Davis and his lawyers several times in person and through written correspondence to resolve the brand confusion, but Michael Davis told Unfiltered today that he offered to meet with Guy Davis in 2014 to discuss how both could use their common family surnames without conflict, and that Guy Davis rejected that meeting and then waited nearly two years to file this lawsuit. “It’s unfortunate that Guy Davis has chosen to file a lawsuit over this matter; I am confident we could have worked this out as gentlemen,” said Michael Davis, adding, “Since Guy Davis has chosen litigation, we have no choice but to aggressively defend Davis Estates in this lawsuit and the right to use our family name."

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