Italian police foil attempt at ‘world’s greatest wine fraud’

Officers seize over 165,000 litres alleged scammers planned to sell as renowned Brunello

Italian police have foiled what producers believe would have been the world’s biggest wine fraud. Photograph: Jamal Saidi/Reuters

Italian police have foiled what producers believe would have been the world’s biggest wine fraud. Photograph: Jamal Saidi/Reuters

 

Italian police foiled an attempted scam aimed at passing off over 165,000 litres of cheap red wine as one of the country’s most famous, which usually sells for between €35 and €500 a bottle.

Finance police recently blocked the intended “sting” and sequestered 165,457 litres of red wine stored in canteens around Siena,Tuscany after they were tipped off by the Brunello di Montalcino producers consortium. They estimate that the whole sting could have earned up to €5 million.

The scam in this case was simple enough. First, buy large quantities of cheap red wine from producers.

Secondly, forge the label of one of Italy’s most famous wines, namely Brunello di Montalcino, produced around Siena. Thirdly, put the forged labels onto bottles containing the cheap plonk. Obviously, of course, you sell the “plonk” at Brunello di Montalcino prices - ranging from €35 to €500 euro per bottle — in the process making a tidy profit given that 160,000 litres equals 220,000 bottles.

On occasion, individual Brunellos sell for up to $50,000. The US market remains vital for Brunello since one in every four bottles of this prestigious wine is sold in America.

Italian finance police, who discovered the scam thanks to a tip-off from the Brunello di Montalcino producers consortium, estimate that the whole sting could have earned up to €5 million. Both police and the Brunello consortium, however, underline that none of the fraudulent bottles had yet gone on sale since the sequestered wine came from grapes harvested between 2008 and 2013.

Authentic Brunello is only sold after it has aged for at least five years in traditional oak vats. Brunello comes with an exclusive DOCG (Denominazione Di Origine Controllata e Garantita) label which lays down very specific criteria re the altitude (not over 579m above sea level) and the extensive exposure to the Tuscan sun of any Brunello vineyard. These, of course, are the very labels that had been forged in this attempted fraud.

The consultant oenologist of the group behind the coup is currently under investgation on charges of commercial fraud and embezzlement whilst prosecutors have also “expelled” him from Montalcino itself, the hill top town near Siena which gives its name to the famous wine. Among other things, the oenologist is also accused of having tried to steal €350,000 euro from the online bank account of a wine producer.

Even if the Ministry of Agriculture and various wine producers groups have all expressed their satisfaction that this particular sting has been nipped in the bud, a certain unease remains. Can we be sure that other false wines have not already got through?

Farmers lobby Coldiretti this week claimed that attempted fraud in the Italian wine industry has doubled in quantity in the last six, crisis-ridden years. The CIA (Confederazione Italiana Agricoltori) also points out that 20 per cent of all fraud in the agricultural market, or roughly €200 million worth, concerns the wine industry.