There was a good deal of buzz about this when I was in France the week before last, and now the shoe has dropped on a dozen French wine producers and traders in one of the biggest wine scandals to hit the country in years.
The growers and businessmen in the Languedoc-Roussillon region claimed to be supplying pinot noir to, among others, E. & J. Gallo, the California-based wine giant, for its hugely popular Red Bicyclette brand that sells for about $9.
Yesterday, a court in the region found the 12 guilty of fraud for churning out several million gallons of wine that was labeled pinot noir but was, in reality, much less expensive merlot and syrah, which are common to the region while pinot noir is not. The defendants received suspended jail sentences and were fined up to $244,000.
The story is getting a good deal of attention here and in Europe, with The Guardian, in its lead, summing it up exquisitely: “The Californian wine buff testing his glass of wine in the sunshine might have noticed many things from his mouthful of Red Bicyclette pinot noir: "dark fruit aromas," as the website proudly proclaims, or "flavours of black cherry and ripe plum.” But if he had paused a little longer and maybe sniffed a little deeper, the connoisseur might have detected another, rather different note: the bitter taste of being had.”
In a statement, Gallo said it was “disappointed” to learn of the guilty verdicts. It said it was no longer selling any of the wine in question to its customers and that the only pinot noir “that was potentially misrepresented to us would have been the 2006 vintage and prior.” It’s doubtful that much of it still around.
Here's the bigger problem: the French are trying mightily to improve their market share and to overcome the inherent difficulties that Americans and others have in deciphering the language of the labels and the country's complicated and highly regulated appellation system. Buying up millions of gallons of cheap “pinot noir,” bottling it as “Vin de Pays” and putting the grape variety and a cute picture on the label, as Gallo did, was a blessing for the French -- a way way of making their wine more accessible to the American masses. At least that’s what everyone figured until what was in the “pinot noir” bottles turned out to be fake. Americans hate feeling cheated and I suspect that both the French defendants and Gallo will share the blame in the minds of consumers.
There has been no suggestion that people were harmed by drinking the phony wine, at least not physically. The harm is in the fact that everyone who bought a bottle of fraudulent Red Bicyclette Pinot Noir trusted that they were getting what they paid for – from the growers and the brand. That trust was broken.
The French make some of the very best wines in the world, as I was reminded in a week of tastings in the Loire Valley earlier this month, mostly with small family-owned producers. For them and the vast majority of French growers and industry executives, integrity and reputation are everything. It will be a shame if they have to suffer because of the dishonesty of a few bad players. And yet, this is also a wakeup call to the fact that the misdeeds of a few can end up hurting many more.