Well, its now official.  The twelve crafty wine fakers have gotten the French gavel and its off to prison for some and hefty fines for others.  As I wrote last week, E&J Gallo was sold a ridiculous amount of fake Pinot which was passed off on the world as Red Bicyclette Pinot Noir, which was in fact anything but.  After a year of investigations, the twelve culprits faced the music this week.

All in all, its thought that 18 million bottles of fake Pinot hit the market, mostly in the US.  The profits were huge for the swindlers, who are estimated to have reaped a combined profit of 7 million euros (approx. $9.5 million).  The odd thing?  Not a single US consumer complained.

Who's in the stocks? Gallo or the fakers?

But those in the Languedoc are angry; especially the judge, who declared, “the scale of the fraud caused severe damage for the wines of Languedoc for which the United States is an important outlet.”

Fines range from approximately $2,000 to $250,000 and some will spend one month to six months in jail.  The damage to the Red Bicyclette brand is pretty catastrophic and I’m curious to see Gallo’s next move.  According the their website, they are “deeply disappointed.”  Yeah.  That’s the understatement of the year.

I’m still eager to know:  How did this go unnoticed by Gallo?  And for so damn long?  And what exactly was in those bottles of Red Bicyclette Pinot?  We may never know…

I say we do the prison guards in France a favor and save them some money by replacing the convict’s afternoon foie gras snacks with some good old American Spam pucks.  I wonder if they’d notice the difference?

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10 Responses to “Fraud in Languedoc: UPDATE”

  1. Chris says:

    I’m confused on this one. The account by Dana Kennedy, the one that quotes you, suggests that the pinot was cut with ‘shiraz’–does somebody in France call it shiraz? But the Red Bicyclette source lists the wine as 7% syrah/5% grenache anyway. Was the proportion just skewed?

  2. David (pampdog) Palmer says:

    Ok, silly question. If you are a real wine connoisseur, wouldn’t you know something funky was up when you tasted the fake Pinot? Ok, another silly question: what does it mean to say fake Pinot? Does it just mean you poured low grade Pinot into a bottle with a high grade label? I apologize for my explicit vino ignorance.

  3. Josh says:

    This reminds me of the classic Simpsons episode where Bart becomes a foreign exchange student in Paris and becomes a child laborer at a winery. He eventually escapes and tells the police that they put antifreeze in the wine.

  4. Chris, thanks for writing in. I’m not sure where Dana Kennedy got her information about the lesser grapes being Syrah (or “Shiraz” as she called it–you’re right, a Frenchman would never call it that!), but I have read that elsewhere, as well.

    There’s a great write up by the San Francisco Chronicle that says its Syrah and Merlot, both of which sell at lower price points: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/wine/detail?entry_id=57565

    In terms of the proportion being skewed, that is absolutely what has happened. My assumption is that there was so little Pinot Noir actually in the blend that after a a certain point calling it “Pinot Noir” (and charging the higher price-point for such) is fraudulent.

    In the US, the law states that 75% of the wine must be made up of a particular grape to put that grapes name on the label. In the EU, it must make up 85% of the wine.

  5. David, no apologies necessary. I’m sure if you’re confused than many others are, as well. You just had the courage to ask the questions! So, let’s break it down…

    1) Yes, as there is no specific tool for easily testing grape varietal make-up of a wine when you purchase it, you would think that Gallo would have a “connoisseur” in place who would certify the wine when it was bought. (Especially when there is this much money on the line). Granted, its not easy to always identify the grape by taste but that’s no excuse…

    2) At this price point (under $10), Red Bicyclette IS low-grade Pinot Noir. But since Pinot is one of the most expensive grapes to produce, the swindlers were using non-Pinot grapes that were cheaper and passing them off as their more expensive brethren.

  6. Josh, I haven’t seen that episode but I’m sure it was hilarious. There was actually a well-known incident in 1985 in Austria called the “Antifreeze Scandal” where wine brokers were caught adulterating wine with diethylene glycol.

  7. Chris says:

    David, the term ‘real wine connoisseur’ is a loaded one, and that’s a humble enough assessment. I’m recalling a double blind of some 20 years ago when Sonoma cabernet sauvignon was on the docket. Notes were duly taken after the first flight, when it was revealed that accidentally, the bonehead in the back had poured chambourcin. Granted, the notes were interesteing–but not one taster realized ‘wrong varietal’.

    They were all master sommeliers. And 20 years ago, this was a somewhat more elite crowd than it is today.

  8. Lupin says:

    FWIW, local gossip (I am an American expat living in the region) is that the Americans pretty much said, “we want that much wine [huge quantity] at that price [very low price] and we don’t care how you do it, and if you don’t give it to us, someone else will.”
    Actually the locals feel they did provide some very decent plonk for the price. That doesn’t excuse the fraud, of course.
    Just saying.

  9. Lupin, interesting perspective, thanks for sharing. Doesn’t sound too far off base, does it? Ah, yes, the joys of globalization and the race to the bottom. Sounds like how lead paint ends up in a Thomas the Tank Engine toy…”how much for quality paint?! Get the hell out of my office!”

  10. Lupin says:

    I’ve read somewhere that Gallo is like Wal-Mart, always squeezing suppliers with a take it or leave it price. Some brand names have taken to manufacture cheaper (inferior?) versions of their goods just for W-M. That’s what happened here. The real fraudsters are Gallo.

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