Winegate: The 1973 Bordeaux Wine Scandal

Since ancient times, wine has been revered for its intoxicating and sensual influences on the human body. According to many studies, fine wine was considered a drink for the royals during the early history of mankind. Wine has enjoyed a pivotal status at the center of great kingdoms and even wars. However, wine has also been touted for its frivolity and decadence. For instance, it was banned during the Prohibition Era (1920-33) for the reason of promoting immorality and society decay in the United States.

Undoubtedly, wine has always created news and waves since ancient times. One of the recent events in wine history took place in 1973 – a wide-ranging scandal that shook the Bordeaux Region. The scandal has been referred to as Winegate. When speaking of scandals, most people remember the 1998 Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. However, the winegate scandal shook the Bordeaux wine industry and is one of the most well-known scandals in the wine industry. In case you never heard of the scandal, be sure to follow along as we take you through the issue.

Bordeaux Before the 1973 Scandal

Bordeaux wine was among the most sought wines before 1973 the Bordeaux wine scandal. The region was distinguished in the world for its fine wines that saw prices skyrocket. Bordeaux has always enjoyed a rich history of producing the best wines. Some of the world’s finest red wines were and are still being produced in Bordeaux. Furthermore, Bordeaux appellations have always been dominant in the wine industry; thus, the region is referred to as the world’s wine capital.

Wine production continued to grow gradually, especially after cooperatives consolidated small vine farmers and reoriented wine production. The consolidation ensured a rise in quality of life for petty growers while also contributing to mass firm production. For these reasons, Bordeaux wine could be easily identified, and its demand continued to rise. 

The Winegate Scandal

Bordeaux wine industry had its frailties that led to industry-threatening consequences. By 1970, the wine industry had become volatile. Suspicion about prices and wine quality increased. People questioned the rising costs that attracted the need to assess Bordeaux wine in the world economy. 

Primarily, in the Winegate Scandal, two million red wine bottles were adulterated and sold under the prestigious brand name of Bordeaux. The scandal broke out in June 1973, when a group of quality inspectors visited the House of Cruse on an informer’s tip to inspect their wine and audit their books. House of Cruse was one of the proudest and most prestigious wine houses in Bordeaux, run by two cousins, Lionel and Yvan Cruse

At first, when the officials arrived, they were thrown out and accused of employing “Gestapo methods.” However, the House of Cruse’s illicit practices were soon revealed after an extensive inspection. Both the owners, Lionel and Yvan, were convicted of obtaining Languedoc wine, altering it via chemicals, and selling it as genuine Bordeaux wine. The French wine industry utilizes various region identification methods. The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) is employed for wines from specific regions and practices. The Cruses were convicted of doctoring two million bottles of wine and subsequently repackaging them as AOC Bordeaux.

Trial and Judgement

The Winegate Scandal affected the cousins and five other smaller merchants. After the trial, Lione and Yvan Cruse received a year-suspension jail term. They were also fined and handed a probation period of three years. The smaller merchants “received suspended prison terms, fines, and tax bills. One of the people who perhaps received the harshest punishment is Pierre Bert. Bert was a wine broker who admitted to tampering with the wine. He was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. This famous trial was followed far beyond France, in the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, and the United States. 

Impact on Bordeaux Wine Industry

The Winegate Scandal significantly impacted the Bordeaux wine industry. Actually, the Cruses never confessed to tampering with the wine; they only admitted not tasting Bert’s wine. Nonetheless, they were convicted after the scandal. Due to their conviction, wine prices that had hit a record high were sent tumbling down. The scandal portrayed a negative image of Bordeaux wines that saw a decline in demand for Bordeaux wine.

Accordingly, the customer confidence in Bordeaux wines was significantly reduced. “Not only did the scandal hit the wine merchants of the most prestigious French wine region, but it also tarnished the reputation of négociants as a whole, regardless of their honesty or geographic location.” Later on, the Cruses firm was up for sale a year after the scandal had broken. However, it was subsequently sold to a British distillery. In addition, some of the prestigious wine houses collapsed due to losses and tarnished reputation of Bordeaux wine. 

Admittedly, the scandal was a blessing in disguise for many small growers. It is because the Winegate Scandal compelled them to adopt new scientific farming methods, restoring the industry to recover. Moreover, the structure of viticulture transformed, as small growers began selling their own bottles. Consequently, Bordeaux wine regained its reputation and set it back to rising prices and demand by the end of the 20th century.

The scandal affected many producers in Bordeaux, who also embraced direct sales as their trust in negotiators shattered. The scandal’s effects were also felt beyond Bordeaux. For instance, in the United States, merchants had to reassure consumers that the adulterated wine did not spread since the French Tax ministry impounded it. But then, thirst always prevails. Despite the demand for Bordeaux wine reducing to the 1969 level, it recovered after 1982. Currently, Bordeaux still enjoys its historical reputation of being the best wine in the world.

This Day in Wine History

11 March 1907 – On this day, the Revolt of Languedoc Winegrowers started. Marcellin Albert, a small-scale winegrower, called the revolt. Albert called the meeting of the village’s viticultural defense committee that set forth the protest against Georges Clemenceau’s government due to the wine crisis that had been persistent in southern France. The protests aimed to push the government to enact wine control measures and ensure there were no fraudulent wine practices destroying the reputation of the wine market. On 11 March, protestors marched to the parliamentary commission in Narbonne that had been sent to investigate the crisis. The revolt continued until 22 September 1907, when Georges Clemenceau’s government revised the laws about wine production.

3 August 1914 – On this day, Germany invaded France. The invasion led to the destruction of French vineyards, especially in Champagne. This region was known for having the best terroir in the world, but the war decimated its vineyards, significantly affecting wine production. Due to the war, more than half of Champagne’s population was lost. Germany persistently bombed and shelled the region, affecting wine production. As a result, the surviving population took shelter in underground quarries. Enthusiast winemakers continued with wine production, albeit with difficulty, during World War I and aged their wine in these underground quarries. The German invasion laid to waste many French vineyards and highly influenced the country’s wine production industry. 

28 June 1973 – On this day, the Winegate Scandal broke in Bordeaux, France. Eight inspectors from the state tax department visited the Cruse cellars to investigate illicit wine activities. On reaching the cellars, the inspectors were thrown out by the Cruses, who claimed to be too busy for the inspection. However, the inspection took place after a while, and the wines were compounded. A trial later in 1974 led to the Cruses’ conviction of doctoring two million bottles of wine and repacking them as AOC Bordeaux. The scandal significantly influenced the Bordeaux wine industry as demand declined and wineries experienced losses. Nonetheless, the scandal shook the Bordeaux wine industry, leading to several strict wine production measures.

Expand your knowledge with these recommended books!

On Bordeaux: Tales of the Unexpected from the World’s Greatest Wine Region

Thirsty Dragon: China’s Lust for Bordeaux and the Threat to the World’s Best Wines

Reference

  1.  Michael Dresser, “In the World of Wine, Fraud Is a Vintage Pastime Bordeaux Scandal Is Just the Latest in a Long Line of Tampering Cases.,” Baltimore Sun, June 14, 1998. https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1998-06-14-1998165006-story.html.
  2. Silvia A Conca et al., A History of Wine in Europe, 19th to 20th Centuries. Volume II, Markets, Trade and Regulation of Quality (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).

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