French Wine Fraud – Do You Know What You’re Drinking?

This post was originally published
Feb. 19 on The Washington Post’s “All We Can Eat” Food blog. Since
then, the scandal has widened to the United States, as Federal
authorities launched an investigation this week of the importers who may
have sold the mislabeled wine to American consumers. More to come, with
details of the U.S. probe on All We Can Eat on Friday …


Do you really know what you’re drinking?
Headlines last week screaming fraud in wine production in France for a
popular brand sold in the U.S. may make you wonder.


A French court in Carcassonne on Feb. 17
convicted 12 people from the Languedoc region of passing off merlot and
syrah wine as pinot noir to the U.S. firm E&J Gallo for its Red
Bicyclette brand.


Red Bicyclette debuted with the 2005
vintage and sells for about $8. There are also a chardonnay, syrah,
merlot and a rosé that have not been implicated in any scandal. Gallo
markets the brand as offering a taste of southern France. A tech sheet for the 2006 pinot noir
on the brand’s Web site gives details about the soils where the grapes
were grown, how the grapes were handled during production and how a mere
3% of the wine was matured in French and American oak barrels, giving
the impression that Gallo was intimately involved in the production of
the wine. (The tech sheet also states that the wine contains 10%
grenache and 5% syrah, which while not stated on the label is quite
legal €“ the U.S. government allows a wine to be labeled as single
varietal if 75% or more of the wine is from that grape.)


According to the French investigation,
however, Gallo had little to do with the production of the wine. Rather,
Gallo, which has not been implicated in any wrongdoing, bought bulk
wine from a company called Sieur d’Arques, which in turn purchased the
alleged €œpinot noir€ from a bulk wine broker, Ducasse Wine
Merchants. Both Sieur d’Arques and Ducasse were convicted of the fraud,
though Sieur d’Arques maintained that it was duped into buying
fraudulent wine it believed to be pinot noir. Apparently the Ducasse
firm purchased cheaper merlot and syrah from various cooperatives around
Carcassonne and passed it off as the more expensive pinot noir. French
authorities believed the scam amounted to about 7 million euro profit
from January 2006 through March 2008, according to the British newspaper
the Guardian.


How did the French authorities cotton on
to the scam? Well, someone noticed that more pinot noir was being sold
from the Languedoc-Roussillon than the entire region produced. That’s
pretty easy math.


Responding to my inquiry, a Gallo company
spokesman e-mailed this statement from Susan Hensley, Gallo’s vice
president for public relations:


€œWe are deeply disappointed to learn
today that our supplier Sieur d€™Arques has been found guilty of
selling falsely labeled French pinot noir as recently as March of 2008.
Based on the available information of the pinot noir that the French
courts have investigated, Gallo imported less than 20% of the total and
is no longer selling any of this wine to customers. We believe that the
only French pinot noir that was potentially misrepresented to us would
have been the 2006 vintage and prior. We want to assure our consumers
that this is not a health and safety issue and that we will continue to
work with the appropriate U.S. authorities to determine any next steps
required for potentially mislabeled pinot noir in the marketplace.€


Not surprisingly, the British press
reacted to the news of the convictions with glee as a chance to show
that Americans really don’t know anything about wine. The Guardian
gloated that Gallo had been duped into buying 18 million bottles of
plonk thinking it was the €œintoxicating red feted with such style in
the Oscar-winning 2004 wine comedy Sideways.€ (That would be news to
Santa Barbara pinot producers.) The paper sneered at the unsuspecting
€œCalifornian wine buff€ sniffing his glass of plonk for hints of
€œdark fruit aromas€ and €œflavors of black cherry and plum.€


The London Times
even took a swipe at me. After noting that producers in the Languedoc
had improved quality and €œengaged in clever export marketing,€ it
quoted The Washington Post’s €œwine critic€ as writing that €œThe
Languedoc and Roussillon have shown tremendous improvement in quality
over the past decade, and they remain a source of high-value wine at
reasonable prices.€


Accurately quoted from my September 16, 2009, column.
But the paper didn’t mention that I discussed the fraud investigation,
then in its early stages, or that I cited the influential French wine
magazine, La Revue des Vins de France, as touting the region’s success.
Never mind that my recommendations that week were from small
quality-driven wineries in sub-appellations of the region, with nothing
labeled €œSouth of France.€ Nor did the Brit press mention that
British wine writer Jancis Robinson, columnist for the Financial Times,
has lavished praise on some of the region’s better wineries.


Go ahead guys, make fun of us. Maybe we deserve it. After all, we did buy a lot of Red Bicyclette.

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2 Responses to French Wine Fraud – Do You Know What You’re Drinking?

  1. fotorules says:

    I remember during the white zin zenith that folks implied that Gallo
    bottled more wines with zinfandel grapes than was produced in the state
    … just saying it was ‘alleged” conversation, not accusing.

  2. Meanwhile, lawyers are circling the E&J Gallo Winery. Yesterday
    Kingsley & Kingsley filed a class action complaint in Los Angeles
    Superior Court (BC 432711). It will be interesting to see if they can
    argue that Sonoma Winemaker Gina Gallo who makes Pinot Noir and her
    brother Matt Gallo who grows Pinot Noir grapes should have known what
    Pinot Noir tastes like.

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