The Disastrous $45 Million Fall of a High-End Wine Scammer
As so many love affairs do, financier Lawrence Wai-Man Hui’s began with a bottle of 1982 Château Lafite Rothschild. It was 1990, and Hui was working as an accountant for Deloitte in London. While visiting one of his firm’s clients, a Scottish whisky brand, his hosts served the ’82 with lunch. This is a legendary Bordeaux vintage, one that made critic Robert Parker’s career when he championed it for ushering in a new era of complexity and balance for French wines. Smitten by the Lafite’s grapy charisma, Hui began learning all he could about wine. As his career grew over the next couple of decades—Hui retired two years ago as the chief financial officer of Shimao Property, one of China’s largest real estate developers—he amassed a strong collection of Bordeaux and Burgundies, along with a smattering of acclaimed Spanish, Californian, and Italian wines.
In 2011, while browsing Wine-Searcher.com, he discovered Premier Cru, a merchant based in Berkeley, Calif. Hui explained in an e-mail from Hong Kong, where he now lives, that it struck him as having a “beautiful” store, and prices were 10 percent to 30 percent below what other retailers charged for First Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundies. One of the biggest players in the fine wine market, Premier Cru had $20 million in annual revenue in the mid-to-late 2000s. Hui inquired about purchasing 2009 and 2010 Bordeaux. The wines were being offered on “pre-arrival,” defined on the company’s website as “wines we have purchased (typically abroad) that have not yet arrived. Depending on the particular wine, the arrival time is typically 6+ months to over two years.”
This practice isn’t that unusual. Pre-arrival is a way for collectors to lock in allocations of highly sought-after bottles that might sell out—and often on favorable terms. To many clients, this arrangement had another advantage. Premier Cru sold mostly young wines; rather than having to age them in their own cellars, buyers were happy to let Premier Cru hold on to them. Better yet, its owner, John Fox, never charged for storage.
Although Premier Cru was just an hour from Napa, European wines were the cornerstone of its business. No matter how good California wines have become, they’ve never eclipsed the best French vintages for a deep collector. Fox promised clients access to these nuanced beauties through a gray market. This means buying from brokers and other secondary merchants, mainly in Europe, as opposed to working with official importers. Although it’s legal in California, the gray market has its share of shady operators. Poor storage and handling is a common problem. The discounted bottles that Fox obtained, though, were always pristine, according to the four clients interviewed for this story. The trade-off was that Premier Cru was slower to deliver. Other gray-market retailers usually kept customers waiting no more than four to six months; with Premier Cru, the waits ran to years.
Hui was hesitant to pay upfront without knowing when exactly he would get his wines, but he was dazzled by the deals. He placed an order that immediately marked him as a whale. He purchased cases of the most exalted names: Lafite, Latour, Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion, Petrus, Cheval Blanc—all at $200 to $300 less per bottle than anywhere else. In all, it added up to 642 bottles and $420,820.53. Over the next three years, despite receiving only one magnum, he bought an additional 949 bottles, bringing his total to $981,642.
But by the summer of 2015, with a single bottle to show for his almost $1 million, Hui brought a lawsuit against Premier Cru in a San Francisco federal court for fraud and misrepresentation that would lead to one of the largest U.S. indictments for wine wire-fraud and Fox facing a prison sentence.
Fox, it would be revealed, easily bilked wealthy bankers, experts who’d amassed fortunes reading the market, of hundreds of thousands of dollars. He led less wealthy oenophiles into deluding themselves they’d found a too-good-to-be-true source. And Fox, now 66, managed a remarkable juggling act for more than 20 years, all while fitting into his complex financial contortions a series of twentysomething girlfriends he found and paid online. In the end, he owed former clients $45 million. How so many people seemed to remain soundly in denial about this now-obvious Ponzi scheme, in Northern California—where every professional who isn’t an academic, a tech nouveau riche, or an artisanal food maker, is a therapist—is another of the mysteries surrounding Fox and the buckets of cash that ran through his accounts.
Premier Cru started modestly in 1980, a storefront on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue, before relocating to Emeryville and then Berkeley. Fox worked as a waiter at several Bay Area restaurants before going into the wine business. He opened Premier Cru with his friend Hector Ortega, who’d worked for the U.S. Postal Service. For years, the company enjoyed a solid reputation, and through the 1990s and most of the 2000s, its business boomed. It appeared that Fox was using a low-margin, high-volume strategy, but that couldn’t fully explain the size of the discounts. Many clients chose to think of him as a wizard-behind-the-curtain figure, uniquely adept at finding rare wines at below-market prices.
Hui never had direct contact with Fox, but few customers did, since Fox made his connections on the web. Most clients knew him only through the e-mail newsletter he sent out listing Premier Cru’s latest offerings. Some 20,000 people received the newsletter in 2012. He was never seen at the frequent wine events in the gourmandising Bay Area, and in contrast to other merchants, who routinely visited wine regions, Fox hardly ever traveled. He once went on vacation to Tahiti but cut it short, because the Wi-Fi connection at his hotel was balky and he had trouble sending out his e-mail blasts, said a former employee. He worked six days a week and kept long hours, typically arriving at the store at 7 a.m. and rarely leaving before 6 p.m. According to a former employee, Fox’s wife, Gail, had no involvement with the business, and Fox kept his private life to himself.
Tall and solidly built, he had a personal gym in the office and was known to be a fitness buff. He dressed well, but in the low-key, Bay Area business standard—suits without ties. By most accounts, he was a good boss. “He was a very nice guy,” recalled an ex-employee. “I don’t think I ever saw him get in anyone’s face. He was very even-tempered.” He covered 100 percent of the health benefits for the 20 to 30 people he had on staff. For happy hour on Fridays, he would open pricey wines to try. But he was not so forthcoming when it came to opening the books, maintaining a mystique around his marvelous deals.
Still, the staff noticed certain things. They knew, for instance, that Fox was exceedingly slow to pay suppliers, and that Premier Cru had been cut off by a handful of them. Some chalked it up to disorganization: “His workspace was a disaster area,” said one. “Papers were sky-high everywhere.” Others speculated that it was a cash-flow issue. Over time, employees started advising suppliers that the best way to get paid was to visit the store; if Fox knew someone was coming to collect, he could usually be shamed into signing a check. No one could miss his fancy cars—over the years, a Ferrari, a Maserati, a Corvette, and a handful of vintage muscle cars—which he parked in the store’s handicapped spot with impunity. (In Berkeley.) A former employee, who didn’t want to be named (as was the case with many who’d come in contact with Fox), said that, perhaps in hindsight “there was something scuzzy about” Fox.
Then the 2008 global financial crisis hit. Sales dropped at Premier Cru as they did for many wine merchants. Warning signs that something might be more deeply amiss appeared. In 2009, Fox bought a large quantity of 2005 Bordeaux from a retailer in suburban New York. This merchant said that in the months that followed, Fox made four additional purchases from him, spending around $50,000 in all. The store owner was puzzled. Premier Cru, like other retailers, had sold the ’05s as futures. These are different than pre-arrivals because they’re paid for before the wine is bottled, a gamble on a potential prime crop. So why, four years later, was Fox buying ’05s, and paying full retail for them? “It was clear to me he was covering orders,” said the merchant.
A longtime Premier Cru customer also had an experience that aroused suspicion. During a weekend auction, he was outbid for a parcel of rare vintages. The next day he noticed the same wines had been added to Premier Cru’s online inventory. It had obviously been the winning bidder. He found it odd that Premier Cru was participating in auctions, but what happened next was even stranger. Initially, Premier Cru marked the wines up around 20 percent from what it had paid. They didn’t sell, and the store quickly began discounting them. Soon it was offering the wines below the auction price. At that point, the customer swooped in and bought them. “You shouldn’t lose money on those wines,” he said. “You could tell they needed capital.” He started scaling back his purchases from Premier Cru and advised friends to do the same.
Meanwhile, the store was becoming even slower to deliver. In February 2012 a participant on Wineberserkers.com, a popular discussion board, started a thread titled “Why does Premier Cru take so long” that would continue unspooling into outrage for the next four years.
Outwardly, Premier Cru still looked all right. In 2011 it moved to a 27,000-square-foot facility on University Avenue in Berkeley. Fox paid $4.1 million for the property and hired prominent local architect David Trachtenberg to oversee a $500,000 renovation that included a spacious walk-in retail shop replete with mahogany walls and racks and a temperature-controlled bottle room for the rarest wines. It was near, but not in, the posher Fourth Street shopping district. Neighboring businesses were package stores and delis selling Gallo Hearty Burgundy. But Premier Cru did its big deals online, and a slightly seedy location is catnip for food-fad-foraging Bay Areans anyway. Choosing to buy a more affordable building fit a pattern of Fox’s, who seemed only half-committed to being a high roller. His extravagant cars were balanced by what appeared to be a workaday life. He and his wife purchased a relatively affordable (considering the absurd local market) $2.3 million house in Alamo, an upper-middle-class enclave east of Oakland.
Not long after its move to University Avenue, however, Premier Cru lost an important revenue stream. Starting with the 2011 vintage, Bordeaux had a string of mediocre crops. Many oenophiles had already soured on Bordeaux because of the exorbitant prices; others were still reeling from the recession. The weak vintages made it easy to forgo buying Bordeaux futures. Without that upfront money, Fox began to noticeably falter. According to an employee, a French wine dealer showed up unannounced one day at the store, accompanied by two burly guys (“they looked like they were just off the dock in Marseille”) who were clearly there as muscle in case Fox needed some help finding his checkbook. He didn’t.
By late 2014 only 120 bottles of Hui’s initial order of 642 had arrived at Premier Cru’s Berkeley warehouse. The 2009 Bordeaux had been released three years earlier; the 2010s had been in circulation for two years. As Hui pressed for details and tried to arrange shipping, he found that his e-mails weren’t getting answered as quickly as before, and some not at all.
Around the same time, James Gillerman, a long-serving employee who’d been Hui’s point of contact, left the sales desk and went to work in the warehouse. Colleagues speculated that Gillerman had grown tired of fielding calls from irate customers. Michael Glasby, a top salesman for 20 years whose English accent had given Premier Cru added polish, left to start his own wine company. Neither would speak on the record.
Wine-Searcher.com delisted Premier Cru in May 2015 after receiving numerous complaints about undelivered wines. That same month, a Bay Area chiropractor sued for $230,000 in undelivered wines going back 12 years. Amid all this, employees noticed that the five or six shipments from Europe that usually arrived over the course of a year had been reduced to one. “I would go in to John and ask him to give me a real ETA for a shipment,” an employee said. “He would sit there, stroke his chin, and say something like, ‘It will definitely be next spring.’ He was pulling the date out of his ass. He had no idea when the container was coming in, because he had no idea when he was going to pay for it.” Court records reveal that, maxed out on his credit cards, Fox now asked some employees if he could use theirs to make purchases. He charged $25,000 to a card that belonged to Brian Nishi, Premier Cru’s longtime IT guy. When Fox couldn’t come up with the cash to reimburse Nishi, he paid him back with wine.
In June 2015, “The Haggler” column in the business section of the Sunday New York Times ran a letter from a Paul Higgins of St. Louis, who was seeking help getting Premier Cru to cough up some wines he’d purchased almost six years earlier. David Segal, aka the Haggler, managed to get Fox on the phone. Fox said newbies like Higgins were “not used to extended waiting periods.” But he conceded that Premier Cru was guilty of giving overly optimistic delivery projections, a problem he blamed on his employees. “We’ve been working on getting our staff to give people correct information,” the Haggler reported him saying. “Not false estimates because they want to get off the phone.” That remark infuriated his staff—it was Fox who gave them the projected delivery dates. The article, said the former employee, “really started the run on the bank.”
Hui, back in Hong Kong, never saw the Times story; all he knew was that he’d received just one bottle of wine. He finally came to the conclusion that he’d been scammed and filed his lawsuit last August. In October, Wine Spectator magazine wrote about it. The San Francisco law firm that is representing Hui, Shartsis Friese, was bombarded with inquiries from other Premier Cru clients. “We were getting phone calls and e-mails every day,” said attorney Arthur Shartsis. Those who’d not yet sought legal redress pelted the store with calls and e-mails. Berkeleyside, a local newspaper, reported that Premier Cru owed Alameda County $270,000 in property taxes for the years 2011-14 and the state of California more than $200,000 in sales taxes. In addition, Premier Cru’s bank, Community Bank of the Bay, had placed a lien on the property. Fox had also not paid for insurance on the complex in more than a year, despite the millions of dollars of wine stored there.
By this point the office was rife with gallows humor. Staffers thought the saga had the makings of a Hollywood drama, and it was agreed that Kevin Costner or Robert Redford would play Fox. One day a customer walked into the store and helped himself to multiple bottles, saying he was owed wine and that the employees were welcome to call the police if they wanted to stop him. No one called. For his part, Fox was still a cheerful presence; the only outward sign of strain was the acute back pain he was suffering. He added to his car collection, acquiring a $165,000 Ferrari in a lease-to-own agreement. He did ask one employee if anything could be done to counteract the beating Premier Cru was taking on Yelp. Employees were amused when a “John F” contributed a glowing review, lauding Premier Cru as “the greatest wine store in the U.S.”
In October, the same month he took delivery of the new Ferrari, Fox put the Berkeley property up for sale, asking $7.5 million. Some more optimistic workers thought that unloading the building would provide enough capital to stay afloat. But a few weeks later the staff was hastily summoned to the second-floor conference room. Fox was absent. Instead, there were two lawyers: Petra Reinecke, secured to give them legal advice, and Robert Breakstone, a criminal attorney representing Fox. Breakstone told them that their boss was under investigation by the FBI and that agents could raid the premises at any moment.
The dark humor immediately gave way to panic. In the days following the meeting with the attorneys, Fox posted several security guards at the front and back entrances. Along with the specter of an FBI raid, staffers were fearful of possibly violent confrontations with empty-handed buyers. While updating their résumés, employees frantically tried to get wines to as many customers as possible. They advised clients who had bottles stored in the warehouse that it would be a good idea to retrieve them ... now. They also tried to compensate those whose wines had never arrived from the retail shop’s rapidly dwindling inventory; one customer was given Riedel glasses as partial repayment.
Throughout, Fox continued to promote offers. In November he e-mailed one that included 31 bottles of 2013 Domaine Ramonet Montrachet, a grand cru white Burgundy made in minuscule quantities. Coveted by collectors, it usually sold for $1,200 or more; Fox offered it at $360 per bottle. A few days later, Fox shaved $11 off. But even his few remaining defenders on Wineberserkers.com weren’t biting. In mid-December, Fox announced that Premier Cru would now sell online only and closed the store. Multiple sources confirmed that in late December, Premier Cru offered wine out its back door to several Bay Area merchants; one nearby retailer, they said, bought $200,000 worth of wine from Premier Cru’s warehouse.
At the beginning of 2016, Premier Cru filed for bankruptcy, claiming $7 million in assets and an astonishing $70 million in liabilities. The filing listed 9,200 creditors; some were suppliers, but most were clients, a number of whom were facing six-figure losses. In addition to Hui, the victims included famed venture capitalist Arthur Patterson ($837,000) and former Credit Suisse investment bank chief Adebayo Ogunlesi ($479,000). A few weeks after Premier Cru declared bankruptcy, Fox filed for personal bankruptcy. In the hallway outside the courtroom after the spring hearing in Oakland, Fox, dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a hoodie, his face flush and haggard, pretended not to hear reporters.
During the bankruptcy proceedings, Fox took the Fifth on every question the court-appointed trustee put forward. There was no word of the criminal investigation until Aug. 11, when Fox pleaded guilty in a federal courthouse in Oakland to one count of wire fraud connected to the sale of wines to a client identified in the government’s complaint by the initials H.W.M.L.—presumably Lawrence Wai-Man Hui. As part of his deal, which would guarantee no more than six and a half years in prison, he’s required to pay $45 million in restitution to clients. None of his staffers have been implicated. Reached by phone, Breakstone said that his client “decided to cooperate with the government at a very early stage.” He said it was clear they had the evidence to secure a conviction. “This case would have had a terrible outcome for Mr. Fox. It was in his best interest to move forward with a resolution,” Breakstone said. Fox also agreed to detail his crimes in his plea agreement. He confessed that he’d begun selling what he called phantom wines sometime around 1993 or ’94, selling $20 million worth from 2010 through 2015. He’d used money from new customers to obtain wines for old ones; he’d tapped the company bank accounts and credit cards for mortgage and tuition payments, credit card bills, car purchases and leases. And he spent $900,000, via PayPal, on women he’d met online.
One dogged Berkeleyside reporter, Frances Dinkelspiel, tracked down witnesses to these affairs. In a story that lit up the food blogs, workers at Artis Coffee, a “live roast bar” on Fourth Street, said he had assignations there several times a week with women in tiny outfits who looked 40 years younger. Meanwhile, on online forums and in wine circles, speculation flared that Fox had squirreled money away overseas. Breakstone was adamant that this was not the case. “Is there a secret treasure trove? No, there isn’t. He has nothing left.” Aug. 30 is the final bankruptcy auction date for the 71,000 bottles still in Fox’s warehouse. (So far, only one bidder has come forward, with an offer of $3.2 million.) Nestled among the cases are 2,500 wines with clients’ names on them. Because of a class-action suit concurrent with the bankruptcy proceedings, these have been called “segregated” bottles, and their buyers will be allowed to collect them. Hui wrote in an e-mail, “As my wines were not physically separated, I did not and cannot secure them. It’s very, very unfortunate.” A few other patient customers, though, will finally get their great deals.
(Corrects amount of the bankruptcy-auction bid in the last paragraph.)