Ep. 132: Wine Scams and TikTok Takeovers

An alternative title for Ep. 132 could be "CSI: Vino," for all the thrills and intrigue. We've got damning lab results, missing collections of rare wine, a $100 million Ponzi scheme, and a friendly bouncer keeping a small business safe from throngs of...TikTokers. If your favorite true crime podcast just isn't cutting it lately, we've got you covered.

[00:00:00] Nick Toole: All right, disclaimer: I have a cold. So if you hear me doing cold things just bear with me. But I have another quiz for you two to kick things off. This will be quick. Y’all down.


[00:00:11] Katherine Cole: Yeah.


[00:00:12] Nick Toole: All right. I’m gonna name three alcohol brands and you tell me which of the three are real and which ones I made up. 


[00:00:20] Ruby Welkovich: I am ready. 


[00:00:21] Nick Toole: So number one we have Minute Maid Spiked. Minute Maid Spiked. Then we have Hard Mountain Dew, and then we have PBR Hard Coffee. So which of those do you think are real and which are fake?


[00:00:38] Ruby Welkovich: I really hope all of them are fake. I don’t even know which one could possibly be real.


[00:00:43] Katherine Cole: The most believable one is the Minute Maid, but because it’s the most believable, I have a feeling it’s one of the more horrible ones you mentioned. 


[00:00:51] Nick Toole: Alright, the big reveal is they’re all real. They all exist. Actually, one caveat, the hard coffee from PBR was discontinued last year, but it did exist. I tried that one. I mean, it tasted like, kind of like a milkshake. But yeah, all three exist, and the Minute Maid one I don’t think has hit shelves yet. I think that is on its way, so lucky us.


[00:01:11] Ruby Welkovich: I will steer clear. But that sounds interesting.


[00:01:16] Nick Toole: Katherine’s really having a hard time with this.


[00:01:21] Katherine Cole: I want to cry. Thanks for that, Nick. All right. 


TikTokers take over a Parisian wine bar. British scam artists face charges in the U.S. Rare wine collections are found under a Times Square TGI Fridays. And should you be perturbed by pesticides in your wine? This is the Four Top, and these are the stories we’re following this week.

I’m Katherine Cole, joined by Nick Toole and Ruby Welkovich. 


[00:02:02] Nick Toole: Okay, I love this first news story we’re getting into because it’s kind of like the universe dropped the most 2023 story it could right at the end of 2023. So, last week, Business Insider visited a chic little wine bar slash ice cream shop in Paris called Folderol.


[00:02:20] Katherine Cole: Yes, it sounds quite charming. They offer scoops of ice cream in artisanal flavors like olive oil from vintage metal coupes. And with your ice cream, you can have a glass of natural wine or purchase a bottle to go. What’s not to love?


[00:02:33] Ruby Welkovich: I actually really love olive oil ice cream. It’s really delicious. And, uh, apparently it’s been loved too much because Dua Lipa and other influencers have been singing its praises on social media. And it looks like this tiny business has been overwhelmed by TikTokers. If you check out all of the videos with the hashtag Folderol, you’ll see views of lines around the block and all these chic people in their 20s on the curb eating ice cream and drinking natural wine.


[00:02:58] Katherine Cole: Okay, so I totally did this when I was in my 20s or would have done this, and I think I would totally still do this now, I have to admit.


[00:03:05] Nick Toole: When I was reading this story, I was like, Ah, look at all those posers. And then I was like, well, if I was in Paris right now, I’d be doing the exact same thing. So I guess I’m the poser. But this story is not necessarily new. The New York Times actually covered it back in September, and the owners were not loving the situation, because it was just an onslaught of one time visitors that were scaring away their regular neighborhood clientele. So they recently banned photos and TikTok and hired a bouncer who prefers to be called a greeter. He seems like a nice guy. And they reduced the number of glasses of wine they would sell at once just to keep all these crazy crowds of TikTokers away.


[00:03:42] Ruby Welkovich: Yeah, well, according to this Business Insider story from last week, it’s now December and the TikTokers are still showing up.


[00:03:48] Nick Toole: To make this, uh, this story even more 2023 chic, the Business Insider story references orange wine multiple times. And it’s kind of like, of course, these folks were all drinking orange wine.


[00:04:00] Ruby Welkovich: What’s wrong with orange wine? 


[00:04:01] Nick Toole: Nothing wrong with the orange wine. Nothing wrong with it. It’s just the chicest of the wines it seems at the moment.


[00:04:07] Ruby Welkovich: Mm, okay. Sounded like you were dissing orange wine. 


[00:04:10] Katherine Cole: Never. Well, somehow this place is clearly tapping into a zeitgeist and I kind of love the sense of humor of the owners. I mean, just the name of the place, Folderol, it sounds like it should be French, but it’s actually an English word meaning trivial nonsense. And the owners have a wonderful restaurant next door called Rigmarole. So it kind of sounds like they’re in on the joke and they have a good sense of humor about being inundated by crazy TikTokers. So that’s our entertaining news for this week. And let’s get on to more serious subjects. 


[00:04:47] Nick Toole: Alright, for our next story, we turn from Business Insider to The Business Times for some wine true crime. So, I’ll set the scene. Imagine you’re in a U. S. federal court in Brooklyn, probably not far from Ruby, and it’s Saturday, December 16th. And so, this past weekend, federal prosecutors allege that two British citizens bilked investors out of a hundred million dollars in wine loans.


[00:05:12] Ruby Welkovich: Yikes.


[00:05:13] Katherine Cole: Yeah, so according to the charges, between 2017 and 2019, the two men approached investors under a number of different aliases, claiming that they were brokering loans for high net worth wine collectors, and that these loans would be backed by a vast wine inventory stored by their company, Bordeaux Cellars. Oh my gosh, this sounds like a screenplay.


[00:05:34] Nick Toole: Yeah, I was gonna say, no surprise when prosecutors were like, eh, it was actually just a big Ponzi scheme.


[00:05:39] Ruby Welkovich: This is a juicy story, no pun intended. We’ve got charges of wire fraud, wire fraud conspiracy, and money laundering conspiracy here. And guys, does this happen a lot in wine? I feel like I hear about these wine swindles all the time in the news.


[00:05:53] Nick Toole: I feel like wine is just ripe for this kind of stuff. It’s, it just kind of plays into the mystique of it all, but honestly, who would loan money to a high net worth wine collector, like high net worth to me means like, maybe you don’t need a loan?


[00:06:08] Katherine Cole: I feel for those who were swindled, but guys, could you come up with a more like Acme Corporation name for your company than Bordeaux Cellars? Like, this is like if Wiley Coyote were to launch a wine company, he would call it, quote unquote, Bordeaux Cellars. So, the people who invested in this, I’m sorry.


Also, I just want to say as an aside, I am a fan of Louisa Ponzi’s wines made here in Oregon. So I don’t like the term Ponzi scheme because I like Ponzi wines. Let’s focus on the wine crimes.


[00:06:39] Nick Toole: To add even more kind of intrigue to this, according to Reuters, one of the defendants…I’m going to try to follow this…was extradited to New York from Morocco last Friday after attempting to enter Morocco using a fake Zimbabwean passport last year. So this guy’s all over the map. And then the other defendant, not quite a Globetrotter, he’s currently awaiting extradition from the U.K. And they only got caught because the payments to investors dried up in 2019. 


[00:07:09] Katherine Cole: I think we need to have these guys as guests on The Four Top. I want to hear from them. They sound very entertaining. 


[00:07:21] Nick Toole: Well, it’s not often that we flag a story from the New York Post, but couldn’t really pass this one up. It reads, New York Wine Crisis. FBI Raid Top Shop. Thousand Dollar Bottles Found Stashed in Times Square TGI Fridays. And now that I’ve read that, I’m gonna, I’m gonna close out this tab because I don’t want anyone seeing that I’ve been reading the New York Post.


[00:07:44] Katherine Cole: Uh, yeah, and let me tell you my laptop fan just went crazy when I was reading this article because of course the Post is one of those websites that just shows you so many ads and videos, but folks it is worth clicking the link and reading this incredibly alarming story. For me, it was just seeing the grim photos of people’s prized wines being stored in, let’s just say, abhorrent conditions in the basement of a TGI Friday’s in Times Square. I shouldn’t be laughing. I mean, the boxes just look like they were thrown in there willy nilly in this dark, horrid basement, and it’s definitely not temperature controlled. I, I mean, I don’t know that for sure, but looking at the photos, it sure looks that way.


[00:08:23] Nick Toole: Yeah, it looks like, it looks like the world’s most expensive game of Jenga.


[00:08:27] Ruby Welkovich: It seems like the New York State Liquor Authority has been investigating Chelsea Wine Storage, which moved its facility to the basement of a TGI Friday’s in Times Square in 2022. Uh, red flag there, Times Square is most definitely not in Chelsea.


[00:08:41] Katherine Cole: False advertising.


[00:08:43] Nick Toole: Yeah, and apparently over the past few weeks, these clients of this Chelsea Wine Storage, who include individual wine collectors as well as businesses like wine shops and restaurants, they started lodging complaints because they couldn’t access their wines. So some of them have sued Chelsea Wine Storage, including the wine brokerage firm Grand Cru, which claimed that they had purchased, get this, $349,000 worth of Burgundy back in May. And then, yeah, they never got their order.


[00:09:12] Katherine Cole: Oh boy, this story is making me really, really nervous, uh, because wine storage facilities are kind of like banks for the wine industry. And you know, there’s an element of trust there. You know, if you want to sell your wine collection at auction, one of the first questions the appraiser is going to ask is, has it been stored at a reputable facility? And these commercial wine storage facilities typically guarantee that your wine is being kept at the right temperature and humidity, you know, in a perfectly dark place where it’s undisturbed. So I think that when Chelsea Wine Storage announced that they were moving, I’m guessing there was something like a bank run because collectors and, and businesses do not want their wine to be moved. So this, to me, this is a very alarming story. I’m, I’m not liking what I’m, what I’m reading here.


[00:09:56] Nick Toole: To just pile on to the bad news coming out of New York, this Post article points out that this is coming after the FBI raided the revered 90 year old Park Avenue retailer, Sherry-Lehman in February. It apparently owed a whopping $2.76 million in back taxes to New York State. In that case, customers also sued the shop claiming that it had taken their money, but never delivered wines and suppliers were complaining that the store was not paying its bills.


[00:10:22] Ruby Welkovich: This is, uh, a rough day for New York, but I do want to just shout out my favorite Brooklyn wine shop, which is on my block, it’s very convenient, uh, Windsor Wine Merchants. I love you.


[00:10:33] Katherine Cole: Sounds like they pay their bills and pay their taxes, so…


[00:10:35] Ruby Welkovich: I really hope they do now that I’ve given them a shout out. Alright, let’s end on a gloom and doom note because, hey, why not? On December 13th, the Pesticides Action Network came out with a pretty explosive analysis of the UK government’s findings on pesticide residue on food. According to this report, pesticide residues were detectable in just 14 percent of wines in 2016, but were now found in 50 percent of wines in 2022.


[00:11:06] Nick Toole: Yeah, I’ve got some numbers here from James Evison’s summary for Drinks Business, and I’m gonna try to keep these straight. So the data revealed that the residues of 19, that’s our first number, different pesticides were found in the 72 wines sampled, including nine chemicals that are carcinogenic.


[00:11:24] Katherine Cole: Oh boy, that’s not good news. Uh, I realize this is a UK study, but, uh, while there are some nice domestic sparkling wines made in the UK, most of the wines consumed there come from Europe, which is where a lot of the wines we consume in the US come from. And actually one of the wines that tested positive for pesticides was actually labeled as organic, so, ooh.


[00:11:48] Nick Toole: I like this story though because it has layers. It’s got contrasting notes, like a, like a fine, complex wine. I think that the Pesticides Action Network thought they had kind of a gotcha moment here, but it might not be quite as clear cut if you get into the weeds. If you look at James Evison’s most recent update, the Wine and Spirits Trade Association is calling this report sensationalist because they argue that the pesticides found were A) all permitted, and B) only one wine showed levels of pesticides higher than the legal limits.


[00:12:20] Ruby Welkovich: I want to note that Miles Beale of Wine and Spirits Trade Association said that organic wine does not mean pesticide free. That’s technically true, but I think if you polled the public, they would say that organic means no pesticides.


[00:12:32] Katherine Cole: Yeah, I think that is the public perception, and I am a little alarmed, but I suggest that we hop over to Dr. Jamie Goode’s blog to see what he has to say. Listeners may remember that Dr. Goode was a guest on Episode 126, and he usually has a pretty well informed and nuanced take on these issues relating to sustainability, science, and wine. 


[00:12:54] Ruby Welkovich: Isn’t this the guy who said he would drink Roundup?


[00:12:56] Katherine Cole: Yes.


[00:12:58] Ruby Welkovich: Okay. 


[00:12:59] Nick Toole: I love his hot take. We need more of that on The Four Top. Anyway, Katherine, uh, we’re on the same wavelength here, because I already went ahead and checked to see what Jamie Goode’s take on this issue is, and he posted a blog post last week. He was kind of in line with the Wine and Spirits Trade Association. He described this report as scaremongering. Basically, as he describes it, only trace amounts of these pesticides were found in the wines. And we’re talking micrograms per liter or parts per billion. So he’s saying these chemicals are only potentially harmful in high concentrations. So if you want to like shower in these pesticides, they might be harmful. But if you’re consuming just a few parts per billion every once in a while in a glass of wine, they’re almost certainly harmless. W. Blake Gray of Wine-Searcher was also nonplussed by this report, and his take, he analyzed the cost of the wines that were tested, and he was basically saying if you spend more than $10 on a bottle of wine, you don’t need to be as concerned because higher end wines don’t seem to contain the same levels of, of pesticides.


[00:13:59] Ruby Welkovich: Yeah, I don’t know, I see Dr. Goode’s point, but I wonder if the question here isn’t about human health, but maybe what does it say about the planet’s health that the study has found an increase in pesticide levels?


[00:14:08] Katherine Cole: Yeah, these numbers indicate that while more and more of the wine world is purportedly moving toward sustainable farming methods, it seems like the reliance on chemicals has also gotten greater. So I just think we need to keep an eye on this and also I just want to take a step back and say, you know, I agree with Dr. Goode that, you know, these pesticides are only traced in, in parts per billion, you know, negligible amounts in our wine. But this report does concern me in terms of food. So I am just going to continue to eat fresh organic vegetables because the idea that pesticide rates have increased this much is alarming.


[00:14:49] Ruby Welkovich: Yeah, um, this is a really good time to, uh, check out a farmer’s market. I’m a big fan.


[00:14:54] Nick Toole: Yeah, find your closest indoor farmer’s market. 


[00:14:57] Ruby Welkovich: Indoor farmer’s market?


[00:14:58] Nick Toole: It’s cold, guys. I’m in Maine.


[00:15:01] Ruby Welkovich: It’s cold here and I’m outside at my outdoor farmer’s market.


[00:15:04] Nick Toole: I mean, that’s true. It’s 50 degrees in Maine, so.


[00:15:07] Katherine Cole: Well, I grew up going to the Pike Place Market in Seattle, which is both indoor and outdoor, and it’s fabulous. So, shout out to the Pike Place Market, where they throw fish. 


[00:15:16] Nick Toole: Little East Coast versus West Coast going on right here.


[00:15:19] Katherine Cole: Yeah.


[00:15:20] Ruby Welkovich: Uh oh. 


[00:15:23] Katherine Cole: Um, well, that was quite a heady day of news. I feel satiated with our four very exciting news stories. I think I’m ready for a little dessert. So Nick, could you serve us up a little, uh, holiday dessert course?


[00:15:38] Nick Toole: Yeah, absolutely. I got you. So I have a buddy from college who owns a cidery here in Maine. It’s called Absolem Cidery. And I would tell you to check it out, but a lot of our listeners are nowhere near Maine. So, instead I will tell you about a wine that he let me try last time I was up there visiting him.

It was a szamorodni or sam-o-rod-ni. I’m not totally sure. But it’s a style of Hungarian white wine, from the Tokaj region. And it’s made from grapes with, you know, higher sugar content and it’s made from healthy grapes and those that have developed some noble rot. And it was absolutely fantastic. I think it would be a really great wine for holiday meals, maybe at the end of the meal, or even if you, if you don’t like sparkling wine, sorry, Katherine. But if you don’t like sparkling wine, it would honestly be a great wine to ring in the new year with. So it’s szamorodni, from the Tokaj region of Hungary.


[00:16:33] Katherine Cole: Yeah, I love this suggestion. It’s a wonderful style of wine. And, you know, what I love about it as you were mentioning, it’s not too sweet and there’s this wonderful kind of tanginess and some acidity So it’s just very lively on the palate. You could have it with savory foods as well as sweet foods. So, thank you That’s a terrific recommendation.


Well, this has been The Four Top podcast. I am our executive producer, Katherine Cole.


[00:16:58] Nick Toole: I’m our producer, Nick Toole.


[00:17:00] Ruby Welkovich: And I’m media and design manager, Ruby Welkovich.


[00:17:03] Katherine Cole: Kielen King is our sound supervisor and the composer and performer of our fantastic theme music. Please visit our website, thefourtop.org, to learn more about us and listen to back episodes.


[00:17:15] Ruby Welkovich: And if you have not already subscribed to The Four Top on iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app, what are you doing with your life? Subscribe already. And please, yeah, leave us a rating.


[00:17:26] Nick Toole: Yes, this is very important. Ratings feed the algorithm and help new listeners find The Four Top. 


[00:17:32] Katherine Cole: Yes. Well, from the high fiber, protein packed city of Portland, Oregon, in the beautiful Willamette Valley, this is Katherine Cole, signing out.


[00:17:40] Ruby Welkovich: And from the pizza capital of, of America, this is Ruby signing out. 


[00:17:48] Nick Toole: From the unseasonably warm city of Portland, Maine. This is Nick signing out, stay safe out there. And thank you for listening.


Sources & Citations

Citations reference first appearance, without repeating for subsequent usage:

[00:02:02]: Business Insider: A Parisian wine bar banned TikTokers and hired a bouncer to control crowds after it became an unwilling viral sensation

[00:04:47]: The Business Times: 2 men bilked wine investors out of nearly US$100 million in Ponzi scheme, US says

[00:07:21]: The New York Post: New York Wine Crisis. FBI Raid Top Shop. Thousand Dollar Bottles Found Stashed in Times Square TGI Fridays.

[00:10:35]: Drinks Business: WSTA hits back at ‘sensationalist’ pesticides in wine study

[00:12:32]: Wine Anorak: Are pesticide levels in wine something we should be concerned about?

[00:12:59]: Wine-Searcher: Pesticide Plague Sticks to Cheap Wine