Two British men told investors that they brokered loans for wealthy wine collectors using fine wines as collateral—but the collectors didn't exist, and neither did most of the wine, prosecutors in New York say. Stephen Burton and James Wellesley are accused of scamming investors out of almost $100 million in what Food & Wine describes as a "wine-based Ponzi scheme." The two men face federal charges of wire fraud, wire fraud conspiracy, and money laundering conspiracy, reports Reuters. They could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Authorities say Wellesley, 57, was arrested in the UK last month, while Burton, 55, is a fugitive.
Per the indictment, Burton and Wellesley "posed as" executives of a company called Bordeaux Cellars and put on conferences where they solicited investors beginning in 2017, the AP reports. They allegedly told would-be investors that high-net-worth wine collectors would fork over wine to use as collateral in order to secure loans, and that the investors whose money facilitated those loans would get regular interest payments. The men allegedly claimed they kept custody of the high-end wines for the duration of the loans, "but the 'high-net-worth wine collectors' did not actually exist and Bordeaux Cellars did not maintain custody of the wine," prosecutors say.
Instead, the two men allegedly used incoming funds for personal expenses and to pay the interest payments they had promised investors, though the payments to investors ceased in 2019. "Unlike the fine wine they purported to possess, the defendants’ repeated lies to investors did not age well," Breon Peace, US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement. "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." (Read more wine stories.)