BERKELEY — An embattled wine business announced it is closing its University Avenue store this week, days after this newspaper reported Premier Cru was facing at least 10 lawsuits over the past year claiming more than $5 million in wine was never delivered to customers.
“Due to the high volume of calls, we are unable to answer the phone right now. We are currently transitioning to online sales only,” an unidentified woman announces on a recorded message, which plays during and after business hours.
In less than two weeks after this newspaper’s first report, three more investors have sued Premier Cru, sharing the same story: they paid for expensive bottles of wine and for wine futures — vintages still aging and not yet bottled, but never received the products and then were fed never-ending excuses for the delays and failures to refund.
In online wine forums, frustrated customers have shared stories about how they went to the store and demanded
whatever wine they had in stock. Others strategized on getting refunds from credit card companies, while some simply crossed their fingers that their wine would eventually be delivered. This newspaper fielded calls from customers in the Bay Area, across the country and as far away as Mexico, seeking advice on how to get their wine or refunds — or desperate for some good news.
In the new and old lawsuits the investors, many of them from overseas, accuse Premier Cru of running a wine pyramid scheme of sorts. One caller said he filed a formal fraud complaint with the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.
Spokeswoman Teresa Drenick said her office has received a complaint, but could not comment further on whether an investigation has been launched.
A Bay Area retiree, who did not want to use his name for this article, said while he’s received about 20 percent of the wine he’s bought since 2012, he’s owed about $45,000 in wine.
“I’ve never heard more empty promises than those from that company,” he said. “Trying to get ahold of these guys is really hard. You can get a live person like once every 30 tries.”
While not rich, he said he couldn’t resist investing in stellar deals like bottles of Dom Pérignon Champagne for $99, when other outlets sold the bubbly for $150. He said the sales people explained the great deals came from the strong U.S. dollar allowing Premier Cru to get good deals with European distributors. “Everything seemed so copacetic,” he said. But then he kept receiving the same message: his container ship was stuck in port and delayed.
“They’ve been promising that container ship for over a year,” he said. Now, he’s looking for an attorney but doesn’t think he can afford one and hopes a class-action suit will be filed.
“I don’t have a ton of money. I bought the wine as an investment to resell. It was a bad investment on my part,” he said. “I’ll be honest, I’m a religious man and I’ll be saying some prayers.”
Japanese corporation Firadis Ltd. and its president Daihachiro Ishida sued Premier Cru on Dec. 8 claiming they bought just over $100,000 in wine since 2012 and have received next to nothing, except a laundry list of excuses. “Subsequently, (Ishida) discovered that numerous retail customers were complaining that Premier Cru accepted payments but failed to deliver wines and as a consequence had filed suit and alleged that Premier Cru was a Ponzi scheme,” the claim alleged.
In the court documents, Ishida said Premier Cru staff told him in October that wine he paid for was not available until mid-to-late 2016, however most of the wines were advertised as “in-stock” on the website. He was promised a refund later that month, but never received any cash.
Meanwhile, owner John Fox has not responded to numerous requests for comment. In past interviews with other publications, he has blamed confused customers and sales staff providing false estimates on delivery times.
“It feels like a big Ponzi scheme,” the Bay Area investor said. “He’s like the Bernie Madoff of the wine industry.” The extravagant 29,000-square-foot Berkeley building complex, on which Fox owes more than $270,000 in delinquent property taxes, is still listed on a real estate brokerage site for $6.8 million.
The recorded phone message provides email addresses for inquiries about shipping, pickups and sales questions, but it stresses pickups can only be done by appointment.
“We thank you for your patience during this time of transition,” the message ends.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026.