Vintage Crime: Wine Fraud in Burgundy

Vintage Crime: Wine Fraud in Burgundy

This excerpt from Vintage Crime: A Short History of Wine Fraud delves into the lawless world of French wine in the late 19th and early 20th century, in which a splash of something vivid, ripe, and alcoholic from the warmer climes of the south of France or even Algeria could sort out the deficiencies of the latest crop of Volnay. This creative blending by merchants became an issue of national interest as honest wine producers from Champagne to Châteauneuf-du-Pape fought to protect their place names from abuse by others looking to make a quick buck. It culminated in the creation of the appellation system, in 1936, which has provided the rulebook for French wine ever since.

The source of the great Burgundy deception was the shortage of wine caused by the destructive force of phylloxera. It made its first appearance in France in the vineyards of the Rhône in 1863; Burgundians held out for more than a decade hoping that somehow they would not be touched by the devastation the louse was causing further south, but its journey north was inevitable. In 1874, Burgundy’s most southerly outpost, Beaujolais, received its first unwanted visitor, and four years later, a grower in the famed Côte d’Or village of Meursault had his summer ruined by the discovery of phylloxera in his vineyard. The military was called in to cordon off the area and apply toxic chemicals. The solution to phylloxera—grafting their noble grapes to the roots of what were perceived to be plebeian American varieties—was abhorrent to Burgundians, but one of the leading experts in phylloxera at the time, Jules-Émile Planchon, lambasted their baseless prejudices: “Burgundy hopes to defend itself by stifling, even at a very high price, the first outbreaks of evil. It shudders at the thought that American vines, even in a supporting role, would trespass on the vineyards that produce its finest wines.” Despite expensive and toxic interventions, the aphid’s spread could not be halted. Burgundians, like their counterparts in Champagne, were forced to slowly accept that their vines were sick and the prognosis was terminal. By 1911, Burgundy’s most prized wine producing area, the Côte d’Or, had lost more than one-quarter of its vineyard area compared with 1881.

In the years before phylloxera worked its way up to the vineyards of Burgundy, the best wines of the region became a must-pour in the glasses of the middle and upper classes not only in France but across Europe. The Canal de Bourgogne, the Burgundy canal, provided easy access to Paris when it opened in 1832, and the journey was made even quicker when the last railway tie was laid between the two cities in 1851. What’s more, when William Gladstone, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and future British prime minister, cut the duty on French wine in the government budget of 1860 and, a year later, allowed retailers to sell single bottles of wine to customers to take away, sales of French wine flourished in the United Kingdom.

During this so-called Golden Age for wine there was a thirst for knowledge, and a professor at the University of Dijon, the mustard-making city located directly north of the Côte d’Or, aimed to satisfy it. Jean Lavalle compiled one of the first comprehensive guides to the region’s vineyards, Histoire et statistique de la vigne et des grands vins de la côte-d’Or. Not only did it include intricate maps of this narrow strip of vines from the village of Santenay in the south through Beaune and up to Dijon, it classified them from the top tête du cuvée sites, equivalent to today’s grand cru vineyards, through to fourth-division generic Burgundy. His work provided the foundations of a quality hierarchy that endures today. It also opens a window to the fame of the area’s wines. In his preface, Lavalle explained, “All the world, in France or abroad, speaks about the wines of the Côte d’Or; everyone knows the most popular names; it is both the glory and wealth of our département and of the whole country; and yet there is no complete history of these great vineyards.” There was now.

Burgundy’s winemakers did not want to bid adieu to their prosperity when phylloxera slashed production levels. Instead, they began shipping barrels of wine from the south of France, southern Europe, and North Africa to make up for what nature was failing to provide. This wasn’t new: in 1855, almost a decade before the aphid had made landfall on French soil, Lavalle warned of an underground Burgundy scene that had nothing to do with the placement of the vines’ roots. He hoped his book would help customers that had never stepped foot in Burgundy by providing the tools they needed to buy genuine Burgundy wine. He claimed his work gave “any foreigner the tools to guard against a certain trade which, under the name of Burgundy, sells wine from anywhere and from anything.”

In his closing statements he noted that any merchant would reveal the secret to huge profits: “By always selling Burgundy wine without ever harvesting or buying it.” The deceitful trading of “Burgundy” wines that didn’t contain anything grown in Burgundy was compounded by shortages caused by phylloxera. Instead of admitting there was a supply shortage and upping their prices accordingly, local négociants—even long-standing, reputable ones—started shipping in barrels of wine, whether the source was Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Spain, or Algeria. In the 1880s, some Burgundian wine merchants even bought vineyard land in North Africa to secure their own grape supplies. The volume of France’s wine imports shows the scale of outside sourcing. In the first half of the 1870s, just 42.5 million liters were imported into France; by the end of the 1880s, imports had risen to more than a billion liters. If the locals had few qualms about doctoring their own products, large-scale foreign wine merchants hundreds of miles away were even less concerned about provenance. At the turn of the twentieth century, millions of liters of wine would leave the ports of Hamburg and Rotterdam destined for markets that included the UK, US, and Scandinavia. A study of the Côte d’Or economy in the nineteenth century, written in 1909, revealed that large-scale merchants in Hamburg would blend wines not only to suit the tastes of their customers in northern Europe, but also to suit their wallets. Wines could be watered down or strengthened, and they might have their color deepened with vast quantities of blueberries imported from Norway. These wines would leave Hamburg harbor with labels bearing “Vougeot” or “Chambertin” but had little in common with the real wines.

In the two decades that followed the publication of that report, a series of laws was introduced to stamp out fraudulent activity, but it seemed to have little effect. Maurice Constantin-Weyer, a French writer and winner of France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, explained the seriousness of it in his 1932 ode to wine, L’âme du vin: “Of all the wine made in the Côte de Beaune, Pommard is the village that has the most recognition globally. And yet the world drinks more Pommard in a week than it can produce in ten years.” While Constantin-Weyer loved the sappy, ageworthy character of genuine Pommard and the aromatic, delicate reds from neighboring village Volnay, the problem was that the masses, and even high-rolling Burgundy drinkers, were no longer keen on these naturally light-in-body Pinot Noirs from the cool and variable climes of northern France. They now wanted buxom Burgundy, and that was a contradiction in terms.

It seemed that drinkers who had formerly paid a premium for genuine Burgundy had moved to the dark side, developing a taste for fake wine in the years of scarcity: “In the 1880s and 1890s, buyers of Burgundy became accustomed to strong, doctored wines. From then on, the natural wines, light in body and with variable quality from one year to the next because of the weather, became difficult to sell. Today, it is these natural wines that are treated as if they are the fakes. We have examples of Parisian families that have become used to drinking the concoctions made in [the wine traders’ warehouses in the Paris district of] Bercy, who are unable to enjoy drinking anything other than thick wines that have no sense of place.” The members of the wine trade who stuck to the rules were frustrated by these counterfeits, and yet this evidence gives the impression that the final consumer did not feel victimized. Were drinkers being duped by a Beaune from Bercy or a Chambertin containing a dollop of Châteauneuf? There was certainly the intent to deceive customers and to profit by blending wines sourced far from the origin on the bottle, but customers were often none the wiser and frequently more satisfied than they would have been with the real thing. Taste triumphed over integrity.

The Burgundians had shot themselves in the foot, and the news was spreading overseas as fast as phylloxera. In the United States, an Ivy League dropout was spreading the word. Following just a year at Princeton, a teenaged Frank Schoonmaker was disillusioned with college life. He decided he could educate himself just as well as his professors could and quit school to travel around Europe on a shoestring budget. The experience provided the basis for his first book, Through Europe on Two Dollars a Day. This guide, and his subsequent Come Travel with Me series, were published in French, German, and Italian editions and became the 1920s equivalent of Lonely Planet guides, directing Americans to the best places to see, stay, and be merry. The vineyards of Europe had yet to seduce this wandering writer; the nectar that would come to define his life in his roles as author, importer, and expert advisor was still a foreign world to him. But with the repeal of Prohibition on the cards, the scent of European wines was wafting over the Atlantic, creating an inquisitive readership that the editor of The New Yorker magazine asked Schoonmaker to address. Learning on the job by asking those in the know, Schoonmaker delivered a series of articles that set him up as the man on the ground who could be relied on for wise wine words, which led to the publication of The Complete Wine Book in 1934. It provided the American public with the most up-to-date information on the styles of wines produced in Europe, tips on how to buy, store, and serve wines, and even a few recipes calling for the use of wine.

The Complete Wine Book would be seen as incomplete today. While the bastions of western European winemaking—France, Germany, Italy, and Spain—received plenty of attention, the entire New World received only passing mention. Schoonmaker stated that the likes of “Algeria, Argentina, California, South Africa and Australia” were only good for mass-produced wines that “attempt, but always unsuccessfully, to imitate the great wines of Europe; and which bear, more often than not, world-famous European names [such as port or Chablis].” He did cover his back for future readers who might tut-tut at his narrow view of the wine world: “No one can lay it down as an absolute fact that great wine will never be produced in any of these commercial wine countries. . . . Nor will it be so long as factory methods are followed instead of those of the master-craftsman.” These statements hardly endeared him to his countrymen, but within a few years he was buying and selling wines from the Golden State as well as penning another book, American Wines, although that too damned US wines with faint praise. That said, he was hardly complimentary about a lot of French wine either, claiming that 50 percent of it was “perfectly terrible.”

During Schoonmaker’s formative years in France, he befriended Raymond Baudouin, the founder of France’s most important wine magazine, La revue du vin de France. He had privileged access to winemakers and their wines, and Schoonmaker was allowed to tag along with him. Baudouin was a relentless campaigner against wine fraud and championed the still-embryonic method of bottling at the estate rather than in a négociant’s cellar, where anything could happen to the barrels of wine and frequently did. Bottling at source was expensive and fiddly, due to the need for measures to prevent any tampering en route to the customer, thus ensuring that the wine the customer received was as the winemaker, rather than the overseas merchant, intended. In The Complete Wine Book, Schoonmaker raised a glass to Baudouin, who was “not only one of the outstanding oenological authorities of Europe, but who has, for more than a decade, waged unrelenting warfare upon fraudulent practices in the wine business.” He also gives a shout-out to Baron Le Roy [who spearheaded the creation of the appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône in the 1920s and 1930s, later becoming the president of the International Office of Wine], to “whose vigilance and energy the present standing of the Rhône wines is in no smaller measure due,” as well as to a Beaujolais producer who had introduced estate bottling rather than allow merchants to take his barrels and blend away their contents.

Schoonmaker was also influenced by a Burgundian whose wines he would later introduce to the American market: Marquis d’Angerville. After studying at the illustrious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Sem d’Angerville turned his back on engraving in 1906 when he inherited his childless uncle’s vineyard in the Burgundian village of Volnay. Over the course of the next four decades, he became a “vigilant protector” of Burgundy’s reputation, leading one of the local wine producers’ unions in the interwar years. In collaboration with several other growers, d’Angerville vehemently opposed the creative blending that was an everyday occurrence in the warehouses of négociants and doggedly pursued anyone misrepresenting Burgundy’s most famous wine villages. He was involved in scores of court cases, taking on merchants, restaurateurs, and anyone else misusing Burgundian names. It won’t come as a shock that négociants stopped buying wine from d’Angerville and other anti-fraud champions, including Henri Gouges and Armand Rousseau. These little guys were forced to bottle their own wines, which they had never done before. However, it guaranteed their customers that the wines were the genuine article, setting a precedent for others.

Surrounded by these steadfast, straight-shooting wine personalities, it was only natural that Schoonmaker railed against those who were dragging down the name of Burgundy with their imitations. His French friends were some of the country’s most ardent supporters of the appellation system as a legal solution to the issue of fraud. He claimed that his book’s greatest merit was that it “stands up boldly for the strictest application of that elementary principle of commercial honesty the French call ‘appellation of origin’ (which over here, unfortunately, is still quite as often honoured in the breach as in the observance), preaching and exemplifying it throughout.” His advice to buyers? “One should buy Burgundy only from the most trustworthy dealers and should regard every brand as suspect until it proves its worth.” Many of the village wines, whether Beaune or Pommard, he declared “are, in the vast majority of cases, cheap ordinary wines in fancy dress and . . . should be shunned like the plague.”

Reprinted from Vintage Crime: A Short History of Wine Fraudby Rebecca Gibb, courtesy of the University of California Press. Copyright 2023.

UC Press is offering GuildSomm readers a 30% discount on Rebecca's book! Purchase on the UC Press website using the code UCPSAVE30.

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