SOUR GRAPES

Meet the Wine World’s Bernie Madoff

The rise and fall of Berkeley’s acclaimed Premier Cru wine store leaves customers out tens of millions of dollars.

08.18.16 5:00 AM ET

In late November, Dale Williams of Dobbs Ferry, New York, received an email offer from Premier Cru, a wine store in Berkeley. The retailer was selling a 1990 Château Cheval Blanc, a coveted French Bordeaux, for only $599.99—about 45 percent off its usual list price of $1,087.50. Another item that caught his eye was a magnum of 2009 M. Chapoutier Ermitage Meal Rouge, a Rhone wine that influential critic Robert Parker had awarded 100 points. It was going for $415, which was more than half off.

Premier Cru had long been known for its amazing email offers, which it sent out twice a week. The store seemed to have an uncanny ability to offer French Bordeaux and Burgundy wines at unbeatable prices. The bargains had attracted some of America’s top businessmen, including Arthur Patterson, a tech venture capitalist whose firm, Accel, was an early investor in Facebook, as well as Vox Media, Etsy, and Slack. Adebayo Ogunlesi, the founder and managing partner of the private equity firm Global Infrastructure Partners, which owns 75 percent of London Gatwick Airport, was another frequent customer, as was Jeff Greene, the billionaire Florida real estate mogul.

But Williams had started to become suspicious of Premier Cru’s prices. They seemed too good to be true. In addition, a number of customers had been complaining, on various internet wine bulletin boards and even to The New York Times Haggler column, that the company took too long to deliver the bottles. Some drinkers had been waiting three, four, even five years for delivery.

Williams ultimately decided to pass on the Chapoutier and the Cheval Blanc.

It appears he made the right decision. Late last week, in a federal courtroom in San Francisco, the owner of Premier Cru, John Fox, his feet shackled and his hands cuffed, admitted he had been running one of the world’s biggest wine Ponzi schemes. Starting in 1993, but accelerating in the last six years, Fox, 66, had offered wine to his clients that Premier Cru didn’t own or couldn’t even get, such as that 1990 Cheval Blanc, he admitted in a plea agreement. While pleading guilty to wire fraud in a voice so soft the judge requested that he speak up, Fox acknowledged that he had sold about $20 million in “phantom” wines over the years and taken at least $45 million—and maybe even more—from 4,500 customers.

“These representations were false and I knew they were false at the time I made them,” Fox admitted in the plea agreement.

While some of the funds went to keeping his scam going (he would issue refunds to customers who complained the loudest), Fox embezzled at least $5 million. A car fanatic, he had used the purloined money to lease a Maserati, several Mercedes-Benzes, a 2014 Ferrari worth $200,000 and a 2016 Corvette ZO6, with a 650-horsepower engine, that sold for $90,000. In addition, the cash went toward paying the mortgage on his $3.2 million house in Alamo, one of the toniest suburbs in the East Bay, as well as his daughter’s college tuition and the membership fees in two private golf clubs.

And even though he had been married for decades, Fox spent $900,000 “on women I met online,” paid through a PayPal account, according to the plea agreement.

Fox faces 6½ years in federal prison, with a year off for good behavior, if U.S. District Judge James Donato accepts the plea bargain worked out between the U.S. Attorney’s office and Fox’s attorney.

The short length of the sentence has angered many of those who were cheated by Fox.

“It makes a mockery of our justice system,” said Dustin Kaczoroski, who lives in Florida and lost $5,000. “They have these non-violent drug offenders who get life and this scumbag gets a pass for defrauding thousands of people out of their hard-earned money.”

Fox will also have to pay $45 million in restitution to Premier Cru’s clients and another $6.5 million to those who lent the company funds to buy its headquarters in Berkeley.

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But former customers probably won’t see much money. Fox filed for personal bankruptcy in February. Premier Cru filed for Chapter 7 liquidation on Jan. 8, citing $70 million in debt and only $7 million in assets. The bankruptcy trustee is planning to sell most of the 79,000 bottles of wine still stored in the company’s warehouse on Aug. 30, but only expects to recoup $3.3 million from the sale.

The collapse of Premier Cru has left observers wondering how Fox managed to fool so many high-powered wine collectors for so many years. Premier Cru owes Accel’s Patterson $836,000; Lawrence Wai-Mun Hui, a Hong Kong businessman, is owed $981,000; and Ogunlesi is owed $470,000.

Fox seemed able to lure people to his store and online operations by creating the veneer of respectability. Born in Corvallis, Oregon, in 1949, Fox only has a high school education, but parlayed a small wine bar he opened with a partner, in Oakland in 1980, into a multimillion-dollar wine business.

After 31 years of operating in nondescript buildings, first in Oakland and then in nearby Emeryville, Fox moved operations in 2011 to a retail store on University Avenue in Berkeley that he spent $500,000 remodeling. It was outfitted with bamboo floors, mahogany walls, backlit wine cabinets, a flat screen television, and medieval-style tapestries on the wall. A glassed-in, temperature-controlled room held bottles that cost more than $150. One customer said the salesmen went from wearing jeans to sporting suits and talking with British accents.

Premier Cru’s specialty was offering low prices on “pre-arrival” bottles of high-end wine. The retailer claimed that it could source hard-to-find European wine while charging 10 to 15 percent lower than everyone else.

But there was a catch to the bargains: The wine was not immediately available for pick-up and would take six months to two years to arrive. At first, the terms didn’t raise suspicion, since it’s common for wine futures and pre-arrival wines to be sold years in advance.

“I was always patiently waiting,” said Charlie Carnes, a Florida wine collector who is owed about $10,000 for 69 bottles.

Amazingly enough, Fox admitted in the plea agreement that he didn’t always even bother to try to find the wine he promised to his customers. He just drew up phony purchase orders to make it seem as if he had ordered the bottles. His employees kept telling those who called that their wine was probably on the next ship out or the ship after that.

By October 2015, the continuous complaints about the pace of wine delivery had spilled into the courts. Eleven Premier Cru customers eventually filed lawsuits claiming fraud, including one by Wai-Mun Hui. He is still waiting for bottles from his initial order in 2011, which included 18 bottles of 2009 Cheval Blanc, then offered at $995 a bottle.

Fox is scheduled to be sentenced in December. In the meantime, he has a great deal for you on a case of Bordeaux wines.