AGAZZANO — This village in the northern Italian province of Piacenza is tucked between the hills. The locality is celebrated primarily for its castle, a complex that represents an incredible synthesis between defensive medieval architecture and the elegant, ladylike mansions of the Renaissance. And the beautiful interior of the Castle of Agazzano is the perfect location for a Dec. 9-10 celebration for a delicacy that is its own splendid form of synthesis.
If you've never seen or tasted it, "Orange Wine" is a kind of white wine prepared according to an ancient tradition that makes it a very particular color (not the fruit!) that is the source of its name. For many years, in fact, natural winemakers with a passion for tradition have brought a fourth color back to the table. One can now find wines made from white grapes that take on a thousand shades of orange: from amber to bright orange, to bronze. This particularity is due to extended contact of the grape first with the must of the wine, and then with the wine itself. The processing is the same classic vinification used for red wines: grape skins release the substance contained inside, making the wine more complex and intriguing to both the nose and mouth—and it is the peel that allows the expression of the true identity of the wine.
It's also stuck around in Georgia.
The event, entitled "Orange Wine: The New Color of White," will feature some 50 winemakers who use organic or biodynamic farming and vinify their grapes using traditional methods. It is a unique opportunity for all lovers of wine, scents, and unusual flavors. The roots of Orange wine trace back centuries when the maceration of white wineskin was a peasant tradition that almost disappeared with the advent of new wine machinery that allows the almost immediate removal of the peels.
But it's stuck around in Georgia, considered the "cradle of wine," and in the Italian countryside where peasant traditions have persisted in such regions as Friuli Venezia Giulia, Emilia Romagna, Veneto and Liguria. And how does Orange wine taste? It has a freshness and a toasty low acidity and often, yes, even a hint of citrus.
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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