It was my Invisible Paris counterpart Adam who spotted this 1973 Paris Match cover in a museum display case. Headline news alongside Jacqu...

Winegate: the scandal which shook Bordeaux in 1973

It was my Invisible Paris counterpart Adam who spotted this 1973 Paris Match cover in a museum display case. Headline news alongside Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the blue jean phenomenon and racism in France was the enigmatic announcement of a “Scandale à Bordeaux”. What scandal could this possibly be referring to? The answer is “Winegate”!

The story began at 124 Quai des Chartrons which, at the time, was the waterfront home of the prestigious wine trading and export company Cruse. On Thursday June 28th 1973, inspectors from the State tax department’s Brigade de Surveillance des Services Fiscaux descended on Cruse, possibly as the result of a tip-off, with the intention of carrying out a full audit and inventory.

They were forcibly ejected from the premises by director, Lionel Cruse, who claimed that the time was not right. He argued that the company was behind schedule on a number of orders and, with the holiday period coming up, they still had a lot of catching up to do. Instead, the inspectors considered that the establishment had something to hide but nevertheless retreated, noting that their operation had been hindered, filing a report marked “opposition à fonction”. They would return...

It's more peaceful today at 124, Quai des Chartrons.
More or less simultaneously, colleagues from another branch of the tax department, la Brigade Spéciale des Contributions Indirectes, uncovered a case of serious fraud. They had found out that a négociant (wine trader) from Saint-Germain-de-Graves, to the south-east of Bordeaux, had been purchasing wine in bulk from the Languedoc region, along with large amounts of cheap Bordeaux, before storing it in his casks, doctoring the associated paperwork, and selling it on under more expensive “appellation contrôlée” names such as Saint-Émilion, Pomerol and Médoc to distribution and export companies including Cruse.

Details began to emerge about the négociant at the heart of the affair, one Pierre Bert, who had a track record of shady dealings and failed business ventures. This time around he was looking to capitalise on the booming Bordeaux market by pocketing some handsome illicit profits from this act of peddling some 3 million bottles of mislabelled wine (at the time around 60 million bottles were shipped from Bordeaux each year). Was he acting alone, in which case he was deceiving his wine trade customers, or were the shipping companies aware of the fraud and playing along with it?

Lionel Cruse, the self-proclaimed
"Nixon of Bordeaux". Source: larvf.com
The response was swift: Lionel Cruse was adamant that he was innocent, going on to publicly compare his fate to that of Richard Nixon and referring to the scandal as “Winegate”. Nixon’s downfall was just around the corner… how would Cruse fare?

As suspicion continued to fill the Bordeaux air, investigative journalists also unearthed the use of illicit practices to upgrade stock wines, such as excessive sweetening, various undisclosed blends and the use of artificial colouring. Bert, who had already acknowledged his wine-switching acts, responded to the allegations by claiming that “90% of traders and 50% of producers behave fraudulently”, adding that there was no way he could be an isolated case: “200,000 or 300,000 hectolitres of Languedoc wine are delivered to Bordeaux every year, so it must end up somewhere!”

The story broke in late August 1973 with articles including a double-page spread in the Nouvel Observateur, followed by Le Canard Enchainé whose front-page headline was “All-out fraud in Bordeaux”. Le Canard Enchainé added a political dimension to the scandal: this was all good news for then-Finance minister Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, whose main fellow Right-Wing political rival for the 1976 presidential election was none other than Jacques Chaban-Delmas, mayor of Bordeaux and a long-term friend and ally of the disgraced Chartrons wine community. The Canard Enchainé piece signed off saying “Another point for Giscard! Poor Jacques!” And the satirical weekly was right: upon the April 1974 death of president Georges Pompidou, the election was brought forward to May of that year and Chaban-Delmas was easily brushed aside in the first round of voting, Giscard then edging past François Mitterrand to become president.

Le Nouvel Observateur, August 27th 1973 (available online here and here).
The Winegate court case opened in October 1974 and was widely covered as far afield as the UK, Canada, US and Japan. In the dock were no less than 18 defendants, including three members of the Cruse family and the infamous Pierre Bert, all on charges of illegal use of chemicals to upgrade products and mislabelling the wines. The trial went on for almost two months, resulting in a 240-page verdict and eight convictions.

Pierre Bert, who again in court admitted tampering with the wines, got the harshest sentence – a year’s imprisonment. He remained unrepentant though, even claiming that his blends were very similar to the taste of Bordeaux: “During all the time the fraud went on, I never received a complaint from a client on the quality”.  Lionel Cruse and his fellow director, cousin Yvan, were given a suspended sentence of one year plus a fine and three years’ probation. But they confessed to nothing worse than not tasting Bert’s wine carefully enough. 

Although the case was now closed, the fallout had only just begun. Prices tumbled across the region and exports slowed. US demand for Bordeaux wine dropped back to 1969 levels and only really recovered from 1982 onwards. Many château producers, who had played no part in the scandal but suffered the consequences, stopped dealing with négociants, most reverting to direct sales methods.

Perhaps the most notable effects of the scandal were the implementation of tighter regulations and the extra importance given to the phrase “mis en bouteille au château”, suggesting minimal intermediary involvement. (At the root of the scandal was the previous widespread practice of wine from small vineyards being sold in bulk to shippers who aged, bottled and distributed it.) However, many traders were drafted in-house to help with production as many châteaux lacked the knowledge and capital to handle in-house winemaking and bottling.

The Cruse family name is prominent
on Château Laujac's website homepage.
La Maison Cruse did slowly rebuild its reputation and today owns Château Laujac and Château d’Issan. Their renowned property Château Pontet-Canet did however have to be sold following the scandal, which is undoubtedly still an inconvenient chapter in the establishment’s past. So inconvenient, in fact, that it even appears to have been airbrushed out of history whenever possible.

For instance, I was surprised to see no mention of the scandal in Sud Ouest’s April 2013 obituary of Lionel Cruse. There is now little or no trace of what happened to Pierre Bert. The most complete accounts of the scandal I found were, bizarrely, in US newspaper archives. Finally, this was the first time that some of my searches have been met with the message “En réponse à une demande légale adressée à Google, nous avons retiré xx résultat(s) de cette page”.

But I do think the story deserved to be told, even though I don’t think Invisible Bordeaux will be getting a Christmas card from la Maison Cruse this year… I'll console myself by drinking a glass of wine from the Languedoc.

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