The CNBC show American Greed is a true crime series narrated by Stacy Keach that examines “the dark side of the American Dream”. Last week’s episode profiled the downward spiral of John Fox who built his wine business ‘Premier Cru’ in Emeryville.
The faded and exhaust-stained awnings at 5890 Christie Avenue are the last remaining artifacts of the business that was the precursor to a scandal that bilked customers out of $45 million in wine.
Fox started Premier Cru in 1980 on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, expanded to Emeryville circa 1998, and then to University Avenue in Berkeley in 2010. Fox made his fortune through internet sales, selling “pre-arrival” wines to customers who received heavy discounts in exchange for up front payments. Fox admitted he began defrauding his customers as early as 1993.
Fox funneled about $5 million of these funds into his own bank accounts that he used to buy a mansion in Alamo, numerous luxury vehicles and pay his daughter’s college tuition. He also spent as much as $900,000 on online dating, with many of the women reported to be less than half his age. He met many of them over coffee at nearby Artis Coffee on Fourth street.
Things began unraveling for Fox when he was unable to deliver on his promises and as many as twelve customers filed lawsuits seeking restitution. This ultimately caught the attention of the FBI who began investigating him in 2015. Fox complied with the FBI’s investigation in part because he was being extorted by one of the women he was dating. “I’m the Bernie Madoff of the wine business” one of the narrators recalls him admitting.
Berkeleyside co-founder Frances Dinkelspiel, who covered the saga in depth, is featured in the episode and provides her unique insight. Dinkelspiel is no stranger to the corruption of the wine business having authored the 2015 NY Times Bestseller Tangled Vines that looks at the sometimes violent and corrupt history of the California industry.
The 61-year-old Fox was convicted for defrauding his clients out of $45 million and sentenced to six and a half years at the Lompoc medium-security federal penitentiary.
The Christie Avenue site is currently owned by the city of Emeryville and being used as the temporary Public Works corporation yard. The property was acquired using affordable housing funds and is restricted for this particular use. A City Council special study session was held back in February of 2015 that outlined its potential uses.
The subjects of the American Greed “docudrama” episodes involve white-collar criminal activity such as credit card scams, identity theft, counterfeiting and Ponzi schemes.
This episode is available to stream online for those with cable subscriptions.
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