Winegate Revisited – 23rd May 2024

On 28th June 1973, ten tax inspectors arrived at 124 Quai des Chartrons, Bordeaux, then the HQ of the highly respected Cruse family. Someone had tipped them off about illegal activity on this prime historic building across the road from the mighty River Garonne. They were refused entry and forcibly and angrily sent packing by Lionel Cruse!

The family had been producing and exporting fine wines from the prestigious Bordeaux region of France since the 19th century. By 1973, the family business known as Cruse & Fils Frères was being run by two brothers, Hermann and Lionel together with Yvan, a cousin.

Like gold and fine artworks, wine had become an investible and much speculated commodity. The price of Grand Cru wines from this region had been rocketing to perhaps 16 times greater than a decade earlier – to the enormous profits of the wine producers and négociants in this region. Buyers had become attracted to the great vintages as an investment, confident of ever-rising values of wines stored in cellars or in bond.

The Bordeaux négociants were merchants / wholesalers responsible for turning the humble or noble grape into magnificent wines – often (but not invariably) bottled at the grand Châteaux they owned.

Supply could not keep up with demand.

Pierre Bert

Enter Pierre Bert, a négociant with the solution for the Cruse family:

• Fill the bottles with cheap wines from Algeria or from other less renowned parts of France such as the Languedoc.
• Use the same labels as for the genuine bottles.
• Falsify the supporting paperwork.
• Sell at top dollar prices to satisfy the demand, especially from the USA.

Three Million Bottles

With help from Monsieur Bert, some three million bottles of dishonest wine were created and sold by the Cruse family business – at enormous profit.

Although the tax inspectors had been refused entry, investigators from another division of Government, again raided the premises in August 1973 and were not to be denied. The whole rotten edifice collapsed. Besides applying false labels, dirty tricks of sweetening wine and adding chemicals, to include colouring, were uncovered.

In October 1974, 18 defendants stood trial. Hermann Cruse could not cope with the scandal and threw himself off a bridge into the river. The two surviving brothers never admitted wrongdoing. They only received suspended sentences and the company was fined the equivalent of $8 million dollars – today approaching $60 million.

The rascally Monsieur Bert proclaimed he had never had complaints about the quality of the fake wine and that, after all, what have I done wrong when 90% of the traders and 50% of the producers in the region are doing the same thing. Whether his assertion was true to an extent or a gross exaggeration is unknown. His comment inflicted enormous damage on other entirely reputable wine producers. Bert was jailed for one year.

Why Winegate?

This took place at the same time as US President Nixon was being hammered over the bugging over the Democratic HQ in the Watergate Building in Washington DC. Since then, the scandal which had originally been called L’Affaire Cruse, had the word Gate added to become known as Winegate. The Cruse family had also protested that there had been a political element to the attention they had received. A prominent French politician, the Mayor of Bordeaux was a candidate for the French Presidency. He was a good friend of the family and supporter of the Chartrons community – and the scandal did him no good.

The Consequences

Although other Grand Cru wines from the region had not been involved in the scandal, a question-mark hung over every bottle of Grand Cru wine from Bordeaux. The prices crashed and it was some ten years before confidence in the market was restored. To pay the fine, the Cruse family had to sell what had previously been their flagship brand and premises of Château Pontet- Canet. Today, however, the Cruse name lives on – in particular with their renowned Château d’Issan and Château Laujac wines.

My Interest

I was gripped by the scandal at the time and this led to me to investigate a series of other frauds in France, Austria and Italy in particular. This resulted in me writing Cellars’ Market, my successful crime thriller then published in the Collins Crime Club series and now once again available on Amazon Books.

23rd May 2024

Douglas Stewart

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