The French wine fraud scandal crossed the Atlantic last week, as
federal regulators said they are investigating U.S. importers who sold
French â€œpinot noirâ€ that was actually made from different grapes.
As reported here last week, a French court
on Feb. 17 convicted 12 people in the Languedoc region of southern
France of passing off merlot and syrah wine as the more expensive pinot
noir to the U.S. firm E&J Gallo. Gallo sold the wine as pinot noir
under its popular Red Bicyclette label.
Gallo bought the wine from the French wine
brokerage Sieur d’Arques. Although Gallo was not implicated of any
wrongdoing in the French court case, U.S. officials are investigating
whether the California wine giant violated any U.S. laws in selling the
wine as pinot noir.
The Treasury Department’s Alcohol and
Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) â€œhas begun investigations to
determine the appropriate actions to take regarding the American
importers of these mislabeled wines,â€ the agency said on its Web site.
When the convictions were announced, Gallo said
it would â€œcontinue to work with the appropriate U.S. authorities to
determine any next steps required for potentially mislabeled Pinot Noir
in the marketplace.â€
Importers must apply to the TTB for
approval of wine labels, including the images and information conveyed
on them. TTB spokesman Arthur Resnick would not comment directly on the
investigation or confirm its targets, citing bureau policy. But he said
that even if the U.S. importers were duped by their French suppliers,
they may have violated some U.S. laws. â€œUnder our laws, importers are
responsible for label approvals [from TTB], so they are responsible for
what goes in the bottles,â€ Resnick said. He then used a classic
Washington phrase: â€œWe will be going to these companies and asking
what they knew, and when they knew it.â€
These companies? The French court case centered on wine sold to Gallo, but the other U.S. wine giant, Constellation Brands, acknowledged last week
that it had also purchased pinot noir from Sieur d’Arques and another
supplier implicated in the French case. Constellation said it had
independent experts test the wine before it was shipped from France and
they confirmed the wine was indeed pinot noir.
However, that does not
convince the TTB, as it waits for official translations of documents in
the French fraud investigation. Constellation is clearly part of its
initial inquiries, and more companies could be involved. â€œI think
there are others, but we won’t know for certain until we see the French
documentation,â€ Resnick said.
This report appeared in slightly different form Feb. 26 on The Washington Post’s All We Can Eat blog.