Wine: Red Bicyclette isn't what you thought it was
Do you really know what you're drinking? Headlines this week screaming fraud in wine production in France for a popular brand sold in the United States may make you wonder.
Yesterday, a French court in Carcassonne convicted 12 people from the Languedoc-Roussillon 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 percent 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 percent grenache and 5 percent 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 percent 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 “pinot 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 an article in 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:
“We 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 “intoxicating 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 “Californian wine buff” sniffing his glass of plonk for hints of “dark fruit aromas” and “flavors 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 “engaged in clever export marketing,” it quoted The Washington Post's “wine critic” as writing that “The 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 Sept. 16, 2009, column. But the paper didn't mention that in the column I also 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 “South 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.
Maybe we Americans deserve a little bit of ribbing, though. After all, we did buy a lot of Red Bicyclette.
-- Dave McIntyre
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