Whoever coined the phrase in vino veritas must have been a glass or two deep at the time. There are few industries quite so awash with hucksters, shysters, sweet-talkers, bamboozlers, and schmoozers as the world of wine—an ever oiled swill-fest of fantastical tasting notes, purple-toothed bores, and credulous, insecure arrivistes.
It is a place of long lunches and big claims, where the bullshit is priced in, and the nonsense is part of the fun. Everyone’s on the make. Everyone knows something you don’t. And everyone’s half cut.
Perhaps that’s what made fine wine such an attractive McGuffin for Stephen Burton and Andrew Fuller, two British businessmen currently facing trial in New York for an alleged $100 million scam. From the U.K. but with clients predominantly in America, the pair ran something called Bordeaux Cellars, an investment vehicle promising delectable returns—as high as 12 percent quarterly—which used exquisitely rare wines as collateral.
Burton and Fuller told investors they were selling loans to wine collectors whose deep cellars included such vaunted vintages as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Screaming Eagle—the cultish Californian Cabernet Sauvignon, a bottle of which once sold for half a million dollars at a charity auction. The investors would get regular interest payments from the loans, they were told, while the august-sounding Bordeaux Cellars would hang on to the wines for safekeeping in climate-controlled, secure warehouses.
The loans were capped at up to 35 percent of the wine’s value. Fuller and Burton told investors that many of the borrowers were “property developers who are short of cash,” or otherwise wealthy people looking for a quick, no-questions-asked financial injection. The Pétrus pawnbroker.
It must have looked like a winning combination: the healthy returns of a grubby payday lender paired with the rarefied elegance of a fine Burgundy—a white-blazered sommelier selling crack cocaine. Burton and Fuller drummed up business at investment conferences from Cancún to Las Vegas. At least 161 clients poured money in, to the tune of $99.4 million from June 2017 to February 2019. And in an apparent calculation that wine snobs might well be regular snobs, too, Fuller allegedly began calling himself “James Wellesley”—the historic surname of the Dukes of Wellington.
But it was all rot—noble or otherwise. “Unlike the fine wine they purported to possess, the defendants’ repeated lies to investors did not age well,” said Breon Peace, the district attorney currently bringing the case in the Eastern District court of New York. “As alleged, these defendants duped investors by offering them an intoxicating investment opportunity collateralized by valuable bottles of fine wine that turned out to be too good to be true.”
In fact, Peace continued, “Bordeaux Cellars used incoming loan proceeds to make fraudulent interest payments to investors and for their own personal expenses”—a common or garden-variety Ponzi scheme, gussied up with a fine-wine fugazi. In hindsight, why would people with some of the most sought-after wines in the world not have access to better, cheaper lines of credit, or liquidity of their own? Why would they need short-term, high-interest loans? But investors seemed bamboozled by the polished pitch, an impressive web of shell companies, and the ritzy lifestyle of the company’s founders.
At least 161 clients poured money in, to the tune of $99.4 million.
One industry veteran tells me how Burton ran a “slick operation out of an office in Berkeley Square,” and was a well-known long-luncher in Mayfair. Meanwhile, Alex Turnbull, who worked at high-end London wine sellers Justerini & Brooks, told Wine Spectator how “Stephen was going around town for years opening crazy bottles. I once heard him say with great confidence that he had the largest collection of Penfolds Grange in the world. I told him that I knew people who also had large collections of Grange and said, ‘Maybe you should meet them.’ He got a bit cagey at that. So I had my suspicions for a very long time.”
Burton’s LinkedIn profile shows him posing next to large-format bottles of Château Pétrus and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, while the bio explains how “having received a case of 1961 Latour for my 21st (which I still have!) my private collection has grown to over 5,000 cases today!!” Burton isn’t unique; social media has long been a safe space for all kinds of braggers and cons. “He seemed like a successful guy, living a good life,” says the same industry expert. “Turns out it was all bullshit.”
Fuller had in fact previously served jail time, following an elaborate scheme in that other bastion of financial propriety, high-end property. He is said to have borrowed $7 million in cash to develop 19 chichi apartments in Kent, England before flogging the homes without telling the bank and pocketing around $4.3 million personally.
As you do, Fuller then fled to Southeast Asia, where he went by the knightly name “Andrew Templar” and attempted to “live the high life of a successful businessman, which he clearly was not,” according to the officer investigating the case. And finally, on a trip back to Britain in 2013, he was caught and sentenced to six years in prison on a cornucopia of financial-fraud charges—but was clearly free enough to start planning the next racket just a few years later.
Likewise, on Valentine’s Day 2019, Burton was arrested at a hotel in Kent—where officers discovered two fake passports, a stash of precious metals, and about $1.3 million in cash. Burton pleaded guilty to possession of false identity documents and money-laundering, and was sentenced to four years in prison—before being released in 2020 and promptly disappearing. Bordeaux Cellars remains an active company, and he is still listed as a director.
Today, Fuller is sitting in South London’s Wandsworth prison and few details about his arraignment have been released. As it stands, the pair face four charges, including wire fraud and money-laundering, and are staring down the barrel of a potential 20-year prison term. Burton, however, is nowhere to be found.
But in 2013, just as Bordeaux Cellars was taking off, he appeared in a segment on CNBC entitled “Dough for Merlot,” peddling his services. “I’ve got a lot of lenders in Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, where interest rates at the moment are sort of negative, so they’re getting a pretty good deal,” he offered, while the presenter raised eyebrows over his no-questions-asked loan policy. But “rich people have bad credit,” the reporter concluded, and “good wine is always good wine.” Except when it’s not.
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the editor of Gentleman’s Journal in London