A Fog Over the Southern Jura
Domaine Ganevat is a seized asset in a money laundering investigation. What does that mean? Plus: interviews with south Jura rising stars Alexandre Plassat and Paul Lewakowski.
Updated with new information: November 29th, 2024
In late October, news broke that France’s Parquet National Financier had placed Domaine Ganevat under judicial seizure in connection with a money laundering investigation into its former owner (since September 2021), sanctioned Russian oligarch Alexandre Pumpyansky.
Pumpyansky claims to have divested his holdings in the estate several days before sanctions against him were announced. (And the day after my interview with him, in which he declared no intention to divest.) The estate’s new ownership has since been comprised of longtime Pumpyansky employee Benoit Pontenier and the Ganevat estate’s in-house enologist, Jocelyn Brancard.
As I wrote at the time (when Ganevat himself briefly appeared to be involved in the new transaction), “It seems very likely this new arrangement was concocted as a way to wait out the sanctions until Pumpyansky can repurchase both estates.”
SUSPICION OF MONEY LAUNDERING
“How does the employee of a wine estate find the means to purchase it outright?” wondered a source close to the investigation, quoted in Le Monde’s report. Authorities are investigating how an obscure Cyprus-based company called Furdberg Holding Limited apparently forgave a 2022 investment of 25 million euros in Pumpysanky’s two estates during their transfer to Pontenier and Brancard’s ownership in March.
As a result of the investigation, as of June 2023, Domaine Ganevat has been subject to judicial seizure, along with Hérault estate Prieuré Saint Jean de Bébian (also owned by Pumpyansky, and ceded to Pontenier and Brancard at the same time). Under such terms in France, the estates continue to function as normal, but they cannot be sold or distribute profits or cease activity, as they await potential confiscation by the Parquet National Financier.
Jean-François Ganevat and his sister Anne, in a statement to France Bleu, say they know nothing of what goes on above their heads at the estate since they sold it to Pumpyansky in September 2021. “The only goal is that the estate continues,” they say.
AN CERTAIN FUTURE
What happens to a wine estate if it becomes subject to confiscation?
“If an estate is confiscated, if the owners can’t put a payment plan in place, it’s put into liquidation,” says an official I contacted at SAFER (the Société d'aménagement foncier et d'établissement rural) with experience dealing with confiscated estates.1 “It’s put up for auction at a price fixed by the judge, which is typically the price of the debt.”
The official cautions that their experience concerns estates confiscated and put into judicial liquidation due to unpaid debt, whereas the formerly Pumpyansky-owned estates are, to all appearances, quite successful. Even if the investigation were to reveal a sanctioned individual as the true owner of the estate, that owner wouldn’t be obliged to request authorization from the French Treasury to pay for upkeep, since upkeep costs of the estate are paid for by the estate itself.
“As long as the director or manager or president of the company stays in place, the sanctions and the freezing order may have little consequence,” says Paris-based lawyer Frédéric Jeannin, a partner in commercial litigation firm Charles Russell Speechlys with experience in dealing with frozen assets. “He won't be able to distribute any profits to the shareholders, but he can carry out the business as long as he makes a profit. He’ll only be stuck if he needs to make an investment with the support of the shareholder.”
Jeannin notes that he himself does not represent any sanctioned individuals, but that he has colleagues who have experienced such scenarios. He confirms that confiscation, in this instance, would result in an auction of the company in question.
“If indeed the investigation shows that the people who repurchased the shares from [Pumpyansky] are nominees2 and the money is coming from [Pumpyansky], the shares will be forfeited,” says Jeannin. “Once the shares are forfeited, they are sold at auction.”
In this instance, the auction would be arranged by a division of the French Ministry of Justice called ARGRASC (Agence de gestion et de recouvrement des avoirs saisis et confisqués), whose purpose is to recover confiscated assets.
“But this would be in many years,” Jeannin adds, “because this kind of investigation lasts for years.”
When Jean-François Ganevat first sold his estate to Pumpyansky, many onlookers worried it could precipitate a wave of Jura real estate speculation that would price locals out of the market. No one expected the sale to instead become a painfully on-the-nose cautionary tale about the dangers of selling one’s estate to wealthy foreigners.
The fate of Domaine Ganevat might be uncertain, but its legacy continues to grow, as more promising young natural vignerons get set up in the southern Jura, including many alumnae of the estate.
For subscribers, here’s a pair of new reports from the region:
An INTERVIEW with Sud-Revermont vigneron (and Ganevat alum) ALEXANDRE PLASSAT, who is quietly BREAKING THE RULES of Jura vinification at his cellar in Montain.
An INTERVIEW with Sud-Revermont vigneron (and Domaine Labet alum) PAUL LEWAKOWSKI, a highly experienced Michigan-born expat presently on the cusp of FINALLY RELEASING his first official vintage after an impressive THREE YEARS of aging.
Now is a nice time to mention that another rising star of the southern Jura (and Ganevat alum), Katie Worobeck, has herself begun a Substack, which you can find here. Hers is a unique voice - and thank goodness for that. If every winemaker were as talented a communicator as she is, I’d be out of a job. (Check here for my account of pulling wood in her vineyards in 2022.)
What else? I just got back from my first visit to Slovakia, about which more soon, I hope. I’m presently chasing down information for an imminent round-up of winter 2023-2024 natural wine salons. And I’m putting the finishing touches on Part II of the second Not Drinking Poison podcast series, CONTEMPORARY PARIS NATURAL WINE. It should arrive next week.
Many thanks for reading, as always!
Antoine Laroche’s comprehensive October 27th summary of the saga at France 3, which links to a tweet of mine, although I myself was only reposting the Le Monde article.
Wink Lorch’s Nov. 2nd summary of the situation at Wine Searcher.
Nicolas Piquet’s October 26th article on the investigation in France Bleu.
Abdelhak El Idrissi’s October 20th article on the investigation in Le Monde.
Idelette Fritsch’s report on the putative acquisition of Domaine Ganevat and Saint Jean de Bébian by Benoit Pontenier in La Revue du Vin de France.
My March 3rd 2022 interview with Alexandre Pumpyansky.
From Wine Lists to Sanctions Lists: My March 2022 piece on the sanctions against the Pumpyanskys.
A March 2022 feature on the uncertain future of Alexandre Pumpyansky’s Hérault estate, Saint Jean de Bébian, by Jonathan Miller in The Spectator.
A Pineau d’Aunis Grows in the Jura: My June 2021 piece on Sud-Revermont vignerons Christian Boulanger & Mathieu Allante.
The SAFER official made clear that SAFER itself (which typically mediates in agricultural transactions according to certain laws) only ever becomes involved in such scenarios much later, when estates are put up for auction, and even then, only when a potential buyer invokes their mediating authority on a purchase.
A person or company, not the owner, in whose name a company is registered.