The wine world has been rocked by a series of seismic shocks in recent years. First there was Hardy Rodenstock, the charismatic collector accused of fabricating millions of dollars of rare wine. If you’ve read or seen The Billionaire’s Vinegar, you know the story. More recently we had the case of Rudy Kurwanian, who was arrested one month ago by the FBI for wine fraud. Kurwanian followed a pattern that has become all too familiar—filling bottles with undistinguished wine and labeling them as vintages that were collectible and priceless.
Now we have the alarming news that the directors of Labouré-Roi, a large Burgundy négociant, have been taken into custody in one of the most massive wine fraud cases in decades. Labouré-Roi is accused of doctoring 1.5 million bottles of Burgundy wine between 2006 and 2008. According to investigators, they sold wine as Nuits-St-Georges or Meursault that included lesser appellations or plain table wine, and also mislabeled the vintages on an additional 1.1 million bottles. If these allegations are true, the directors (Louis and Arman Cottin, 81 and 82 respectively), will surely go to prison. They will also destroy the reputation of Burgundy for years to come.
Historically, there has always been something suspicious about certain Burgundy négociants. Kermit Lynch, the famous Berkeley wine merchant, has described his early visits to the region in the 1960s, when négociants openly offered to label the wine as any vintage he wanted. Personally, I’m not shocked by this particular scandal, as I have attended tastings of Labouré-Roi where dozens of wines were offered that all tasted essentially the same.
Is there a difference between these situations? Unfortunately, yes. Rodenstock and Kurwanian were engaged in victimizing unsuspecting billionaires. Their crimes were interesting and amusing, but didn’t impact the average person. Labouré-Roi is a different matter. Most American consumers get their introduction to Burgundy through the wines of the négociants, and many of them probably concluded—rightly—that Burgundy was a hoax. What has been lost here is that most precious of commodities, trust, and it will take quite some time to get it back.