Three British businessmen used pre-Millennium fears of a Champagne drought as a means to pocketing a £2m fortune, a court in London heard yesterday.

The men allegedly plied potential customers with "slick" sales patter and glossy brochures to convince them to invest large sums in supposedly top quality Champagne in return for a financial killing in the run-up to the biggest party in 1,000 years.

The court heard how victims were assured their liquid purchases would be safely stored in bonded warehouses until just before New Year's Eve 2000, when they would be auctioned off to the highest bidders at either Sotheby's or Christie's.

For the 1,000 customers duped by the bosses of the grandly named "Champagne House of Delacroix" the superior bubbly they believed they had bought turned out to be second rate fizz while the potential for last minute auctions did not exist at all, London's Southwark Crown Court was told.

But for those behind a scheme "shot through with falsehoods" it was "a nice little earner" said Jonathan Fisher, prosecuting.

In the dock is a 35-year-old Briton who denies one count of conspiracy to defraud while his two alleged partners in crime have already pleaded guilty to the charge.

Mr Fisher said all three had met while working for a whisky investment operation in Gibraltar during the early nineties.

Three years ago, the men decided to set up Delacroix, an off-the-shelf company based in Amsterdam and registered in the Dutch Antilles with two Panamanian nominee companies named as directors.

Staff were recruited from a base in Wimbledon, south-west London, while service offices were set up in Paris and Singapore to create the impression of a "high level, international operation".

"Throughout Delacroix's life...this fraud was executed in a slick and professional manner. All three men developed and utilised a sophisticated promotional material to persuade members of the British public to part with their money," Mr Fisher told the court.

They did this by "cynically exploiting" the then forthcoming millennium celebrations and emphasising the possibility that the world's partygoers would end up 45 million bottles of Champagne short.

The barrister said would-be customers answering advertisements heralding a "once in a lifetime opportunity" and a "unique ... risk-free chance" to double their money when the "biggest party in a 1,000 years ran out of fizz", were hoodwinked with a string of lies.

Salesmen were equipped with "very hard sell" manuals containing "an answer to almost everything ... in order to arouse the greed" of potential investors and relieve them of their money.

In reality the Champagne's mark-up was extremely high, no bespoke auctions were ever arranged and the frequently-mentioned secondary market simply did not exist.

Mr Fisher told the court the tens of thousands of bottles of allegedly "top restaurant" quality champagne on offer had actually been bought for about £5 a bottle.

Altogether, customers conned by Delacroix placed orders worth £2.5m.

The jury was told that once the company's outlay of £450,000 had been taken into account, the three men were left with a gross profit of about £2.1m.

"The prosecution would say to you (the jury) and you may think that
really this represents a nice little earner," counsel added.

Tom Munro