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A Threat from Sébastien Riffault
On Sept. 30th, the Sancerre vigneron demanded I take down my June article on his defamation lawsuit - or, he said, he'd send Ukrainian war refugees to break my knees.
When your first name begins with two As, you grow accustomed receiving accidental pocket calls whenever someone with your number sits on their phone. I assumed this was the case when, on September 29th, as I was in the midst of changing my son’s diaper, I declined an incoming call from Sancerre vigneron Sébastien Riffault.
The following afternoon, however, when Riffault phoned again from a private number, I learned his call had been quite intentional.
“You don’t recognize the justice of men, so I’m going to make another one happen,” he said, after a short, aggrieved preamble, in which he compared his plight, as the alleged subject of anonymous sexual assault allegations online, to that of Jews in Vichy France. “I’ll explain something to you.”
Riffault was calling about an article I published on this Substack back in June entitled “A Suggestion for Sébastien Riffault.” The Sancerre vigneron had just won a defamation case against Beaujolais vigneronne Isabelle Perraud, who’d been found liable for having shared, via the Instagram account of her women’s advocacy group, Paye Ton Pinard, anonymous allegations from Denmark accusing a figure identifiable as Riffault of sexual assault. In my article, I suggested that Riffault might help rehabilitate the image of his estate by donating the substantial financial sum he won in the courtroom to a support group for sexual assault victims.
I didn’t think it likely Riffault would take up my suggestion. But it felt worth floating the idea, since it seemed the only way for someone in his position to mitigate the dreadful optics of using the courts to silence a woman and fellow natural winemaker and inflict punitive financial harm upon her.1 (His lawsuit looked particularly vengeful and diversionary, given that Perraud was not the original source of the allegations of sexual assault. She had merely shared news of them in the context of her association’s wider campaign against sexism and misogyny in wine.)
In any event, I heard nothing from him in the months that followed publication of my article.
I heard nothing, that is, until his phone call of Saturday, September 30th, when Riffault unleashed the following long, detailed threat:
The harvest ended two days ago. My brother-in-law came from Lithuania with three Ukrainian war refugees. You know, these are people who sought refuge from war, who’ve lived through horrible things, who aren’t in your little Parisian or New York bobo bubble. So if you don’t take down your article immediately, these guys, when they go back to Ukraine, they’ll come to see you in Paris. And they’ll mess up your face. Do you understand that? They’ll massacre you. They’ll come see you, and you’ll have your little baby, and you’ll have your two knees broken and your face massacred. Do you understand that?2
I told Riffault it sounded like he was threatening me. He affirmed this, before insulting me at length, reiterating his threat to send Ukrainian war refugees to inflict bodily harm upon me, and hanging up.
A few days later, having had time to reflect upon Riffault’s words, I would report the incident to a local police station, who took note of the situation and informed me Riffault would have to threaten me once more for it to warrant filing a formal complaint.
In the meantime, I happened to speak with one of Riffault’s former importers, who told me he, too, had just a week earlier received a call from Riffault, who in this instance threatened to send his Lithuanian brother-in-law to the city where the importer lived to commit unspecified criminal mischief.
The similarities in timing and substance between the two threats leave me skeptical anyone will come to physical harm. Indeed, the most vulnerable person in this scenario would seem to be the desperate vigneron alighting upon threatening a journalist as a promising course of action. This is why I hesitated to speak to the police, and why I hesitated to write anything about the episode.
A SENSE OF IMPUNITY
To remain silent about Riffault’s threat, however, would be to encourage the sense of impunity that inspired it. A similar sense of impunity appears to have inspired the behavior of the person described in the anonymous allegations from Denmark, originally disseminated via the Instagram Stories of Danish journalist Lisa Lind-Dunbar. Whether it be unwanted sexual advances or conditional threats of kneecapping, a perpetrator of such actions does so because he believes the target will not take the personal reputational risk necessary to hold him accountable.
Many of Riffault’s vigneron peers and professional clients, including some of the signatories of the letter circulated in his defense in June 2022, continue to maintain a position of dutiful skepticism with regards to the rumors concerning his behavior in Denmark.3 But as the present leadership debacle in the US House of Representatives shows, a community unwilling to talk sense to its most deranged, deluded members is a non-functioning community. This is why it feels important to call Riffault out on his violent, racialized, patently offensive threat, which has no place in the world of natural wine.
If it weren’t clear already, with one war raging in Europe, it is manifestly obvious now, with another erupting in the Middle East: people fleeing war are among the world’s most unfortunate and most deserving of sympathy. They are not, as Riffault’s threat might suggest, thugs-for-hire.
Furthermore, Ukrainians and Lithuanians and Eastern Europeans at large are not, as Riffault’s threats might suggest, inherently more menacing or capable of inflicting harm than Americans or French people.
Finally, it is not only undemocratic to threaten journalists. It is also unwise, for doing so risks inciting renewed interest in - and lending further credence to - the same damning stories one has gone to indefensible lengths to bury.
The June 2nd 2023 letter from Perraud’s supporters in La Libération decrying the verdict in Riffault’s case against her.
An analysis of the story and the April court hearing by my friend Emma Bentley, who has firsthand experience of the difficulty of bringing sexual assault cases to trial in France.
Oliver Styles’ June 2022 piece on the letter circulated in Riffault’s defense, at Wine Searcher.
I’ve known Riffault professionally for over a decade. After hearing of his lawsuit against Isabelle Perraud, but before publishing my June article, I did make efforts to contact him via email and text message to hear his side of the story, without success. Instead of refuting or rebutting or addressing in any way the original allegations from Denmark, Riffault has led a concerted campaign to vilify Perraud and make himself into a martyr for issues of due process.
I happened to be sitting in front of my computer when he called, and had the presence of mind to put him on speakerphone and do a Google search for “online voice recorder.” The original French was:
Les vendanges se sont terminées il y a deux jours. Il y a mon beau-frère qui est venu de Lituanie avec trois réfugiés de guerre ukrainiens. Tu sais, ce sont des gens qui sont réfugiés de guerre, qui ont vécu des choses affreuses, qui ne sont pas dans ta petite bulle de parisien de bobo ou de new-yorkais. Alors si tu ne retires pas tes publications immédiatement, ces mecs-là, quand ils vont revenir en Ukraine, ils vont passer te voir à Paris. Et ils vont te démonter la gueule. Est-ce que tu comprends ça? Ils vont te massacrer. Ils viendront te voir, et tu auras ton petit bébé, bah tu auras les deux genoux pétés et tu auras le gueule massacré. Est-ce que tu comprends ça?
I defended the letter’s signatories in the article I published in June, because online blowback against them seemed excessive in advance of the defamation trial (and indeed before the release of any comprehensive reporting in French on the situation). In the wake of subsequent reporting in La Libération, and Riffault’s ludicrous lawsuit against Perraud, and his threat to kneecap me personally, I can no longer defend anyone supporting him.