Pyramid scheme for wine? Collectors cry foul

The business of investing in wine futures has always been risky. But now, customers of a large California seller are wondering whether they're victims of an even bigger risk: A pyramid scheme.

Several California publications have reported that Premier Cru, a large wine store and futures seller in Berkeley, has closed its doors after facing at least 10 lawsuits from customers who allege that millions of dollars worth of wine they purchased was never delivered.

Source: Premier Cru

CNBC's phone and email messages to the store have not been returned. A message on the store's answering machine says: "Due to the high volume of calls, we are unable to answer the phone right now. We are currently transitioning to online sales only."

According to the Contra Costa Times, customers claim they paid for expensive bottles of wine and futures but haven't received any wine or refunds.

Wine futures allow collectors to buy wine that is still aging but has yet to be bottled or sold to retailers, allowing them to make potential profits when the wines increase in value.

While the delivery of wine purchased in the futures markets can take months or even a year or two, some customers say they've waited several years and only received excuses from Premier Cru, according to reports. Many of the buyers are from overseas and have spent six figures on expensive bottles of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne.

One large collector who purchased thousands of dollars of wine from Premier Cru told CNBC that he is working with his credit card company on getting a refund, but that "it looks like I was never going to get my wine."

Others have been more pointed. In lawsuits, several customers accuse Premier Cru of running a wine "pyramid scheme," and at least one has filed a complaint with the local district attorney, according to media reports.

Slowdown in high-end real estate and collectables?

In an interview with The New York Times in June, Premier Cru's co-owner John Fox said that wine futures take time to deliver, and that some of the customers who were complaining didn't understand how long the process could take.

"Customers that have come around in the last six to seven years, because we have good wines at the right price, they are not used to waiting extended periods," he said.

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