The bankruptcy of California's Premier Cru wine company is officially being investigated as a possible Ponzi scheme, reports CNBC. The FBI is looking into the failed Berkeley-based company because of a "high number of complaints" from Premier Cru customers.
"Due to the wide scope and high number of complaints from people who claim to have been impacted by Premier Cru's bankruptcy, the FBI has established an email address for individuals to notify us with complaints, concerns and tips," an FBI spokesperson told CNBC. "It is firstname.lastname@example.org."
Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings for Premier Cru began on January 27, per Contra Costa Times, after the company claimed $7 million in assets and $70 million in debt. A federal judge ordered a trustee to secure and insure more than 30,000 bottles of wine in a warehouse. A day later, the judge ordered Premier Cru owner John Fox to overturn a "secret computer" that operated outside the business' accounting system. The trustee said the computer "should contain the best information to determine 'where the money went' (or didn't go) with respect to tens of millions of dollars of future contracts, among other transactions."
Premier Cru frequently sold wines on a "pre-arrival" basis, meaning its store was not in possession of certain bottles, so shipping was not always immediate. Customers sometimes complained about long waits in obtaining pre-paid wines, and those delays could reportedly stretch into years. As recently as last fall, customers filed lawsuits against the vendor, alleging that fraud and misrepresentation had taken place, suggesting that Premier Cru had not met obligations of sale in late shipments of purchased wine.
The alleged Ponzi scheme is similar to an alleged fraud that possibly cost late chef Benoît Violier as much as $2 million. A Sion, Switzerland-based company is accused of selling bottles ranging from $20,000 to $40,000 to several restaurants, including Violier's, without delivering the product. The company declared bankruptcy on November 30. Violier committed suicide on January 31.