In the line of duty

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The Independent Culture
When the beer baron Ellis Martin was sent down for seven years last month, Operation Jeroboam was feted by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise as the biggest feather in its peaked black cap since cross-border drinks shopping became big business in1993. Ellis evaded pounds 5 million worth of excise duty on alcohol in a paperwork fraud and smuggling sting.

Tough on bootlegging, but tough on the causes of bootlegging? It was of course the Government itself which launched a thousand booze cruises back in1993 . Instead of reducing duty on drink to bring the UK closer into line with Europe, the government relaxed the restrictions on the amount of duty-free alcohol that could be brought back across the Channel in a gesture of appeasement to its European partners.

You can still bring back an unlimited amount of drink if it's for personal consumption. If, however, you bring back over 90 litres of table wine (60 of which can be fizz), 20 fortified, 110 litres of beer and 10 of spirits, Customs and Excise, and possibly your doctor, will want to know more about your drinking habits.

Apart from attracting organised crime, the effect of the savings incentives offered (just over pounds 1 on a bottle of wine, and over pounds 1.50 on fizz and fortified wines) has been to make petty criminals out of normally law- abiding citizens, who form local consortia to bring back booze for their members. Richard Tanner for instance, boss of Shrewsbury wine merchant, Tanners, was less than thrilled to find himself at a customer's party recently at which all the drink had been supplied by a bootlegger.

Damaging as the loss of revenue is from bootlegging, it is estimated by some to be only a quarter of what's being lost (as much as pounds 1.1 billion, according to one wine trade group) from legitimate cross-Channel imports.

Once upon a time, going to Calais was fun. The armpit of France now heaves with bootleggers, returning holidaymakers and punters on bargain booze days out. The added traffic through Le Shuttle and the Cite de l'Europe, the giant new shopping mall, has made Calais more competitive and insalubrious than ever.

Richard Harvey's La Maison du Vin in Cherbourg is still popular with the Cowes fraternity, but his new shop in St.Malo has had to close for. Martin Brown's Grape Shop has decamped from the tranquillity of the Seacat dock in Boulogne to set up more spacious premises in Calais next to Le Chais and round the corner from ex-Romford Market trader Dave West's EastEnders.

At its new enlarged Calais site, the Grape Shop offers the best range of individual growers' wines, mainly French, with special emphasis on good value champagnes, burgundies and a handful of bargain Aussies such as the 1992 Penfolds Bin 389, 1990 Bin 707 and Rosemount's 1992 Balmoral Syrah.

Le Chais has opened a new branch in the Cite de l'Europe, alongside a well-stocked Victoria Wine. With its full range, plus an additional list of exclusive French wines, Tesco's capacious Vin Plus, at least offers the opportunity to browse and have a bit of fun, instantly converting French to British prices when you hold your bottle up to the screens of its Speak-Your-Weight-type machines.

Within sight of the Cite de l'Europe, Sainsbury's has expanded its token presence in the Mammouth complex and two minutes walk away, the Calais Wine & Beer Company claims to be 'Britain's biggest wine merchant in France'. And at Hesdin, just over an hour's drive from Calais, the Wine Society offers members a selection of 100 wines, free of duty, from its list (for details, contact 01438 741177).

With the franc creeping back up towards 8 francs, retailers across the Channel are reporting an upturn in business. While Customs and Excise stick the fingers of 20 new Excise Verification Officers in the bulging dyke, we look set for another dam-busting summer of legitimate and decidedly dodgy cross-border booze shopping

Wines of the Week

1995 Domaine Le Noble Chardonnay Vin de Pays d'Oc, 29ff, Grape Shop. Well-made, delicately oaked Languedoc chardonnay from Hugh Ryman. 1993 Riesling Heimberger, 29.05ff, Tesco Vin Plus. Aromatic with soft, lime- like fruitiness. 1993 Chateau de Sours Bordeaux Rose, 29ff, Grape Shop. Mature, smooth summer rose with green pepper cabernet flavours. 1993 Fitou Rocflamboyant, 22.90ff, Tesco Vin Plus. Naff label but excellent robust Mediterranean red. 1994 Prince Gonzalve du Puy, St Emilion, 29.95ff, Tesco Vin Plus. Medium-bodied Bordeaux with a touch of oak. 1994 Domaine de Limbardie, Vin de Pays des Coteaux de Murviel, 26ff, Wine Society. Luscious, southern French red with the flavour of syrah. 1993 Bourgogne Les Perrieres, Simon Bize, 67ff, Grape Shop. Top grower's red burgundy from a fine vintage. Champagne Rocheret Special Selection, 59ff, Tesco Vin Plus. Youthful, tangy, cut-price champagne. Larmandier Bernier Champagne Cramant Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, 115ff, Grape Shop. Elegant and toasty with finesse and lots of flavour.

Useful addresses: The Grape Shop, 40 Rue Phalsbourg, Calais (00 33 21 85 99 64); Tesco Vin Plus, Cite de L'Europe (33 46 02 70); The Wine Society, Hesdin (33 21 86 52 07); La Maison du Vin, 71 Avenue Carnot, Cherbourg (33 33 43 39 79)