Wednesday, March 24, 2010

EJ Gallo Finds Itself Pressed In Wine Mess

EJ Gallo isn't going to come out smelling like wine and roses after this mess. They bought a ton of wine from a group of winemakers in France, who claimed that they were selling pinot noir. It turns out that French investigators found that the wine supplier, Sieur d'Arques, were claiming more sales of Languedoc pinot noir to EJ Gallo than the entire region produced.

That means that EJ Gallo's winemakers either didn't know that they were being duped by the French company - that they were getting merlot and syrah varietals, or they didn't care.
You also have a recipe for trouble. Last month, a French court convicted 12 figures in the wine industry of the Languedoc, in southern France, of selling 18 million bottles of pinot noir to U.S. wine giant E&J Gallo, which sold it under its popular Red Bicyclette label. The crime? The wine was actually a mix of merlot and syrah, two varieties that don't fetch the same price as pinot. French authorities caught on to the scheme when they realized that Gallo's main supplier, a conglomerate called Sieur d'Arques, was selling more Languedoc pinot noir than the region produced.

Languedoc is the Wild West of French wine, an area of opportunity for pioneering innovators as well as unscrupulous types. For centuries, the region was known for producing oceans of inferior wine that often was used to dilute, or to pose as, higher-priced premier crus from Bordeaux and Burgundy. The French appellation d'origine controllee (AOC) system was established as a guarantee against such fraud. Today, quality-minded young winemakers are attracted to Languedoc precisely because the AOC laws there allow them the freedom to experiment with grape varieties and blends. But as the Red Bicyclette scandal shows, fraud is still a problem.

Sieur d'Arques sold the mislabeled wine to Gallo from 2006 to 2008, according to the French authorities. Red Bicyclette debuted with the 2005 vintage, at the height of the pinot noir craze in this country sparked by the 2004 movie "Sideways." You might remember that "Sideways" damaged the reputation of merlot as much as it propelled pinot into favor. The fraudsters must have been laughing all the way to the bank as they passed off cheap merlot as the more fashionable pinot noir. Meanwhile, Gallo and the American consumer lapped it up.

Although Gallo was not accused of wrongdoing in the French case, the U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) said it is investigating U.S. importers who sold the mislabeled wine in this country. Constellation Brands, a rival leviathan, acknowledged having bought pinot noir from Sieur d'Arques but said it had had the wine tested and was confident that it got what it paid for.
If that isn't bad enough, EJ Gallo put the varietals on their wine labels, and that brings a whole different set of consequences of misrepresenting the wine in the bottles. The wine affected is the Red Bicyclette label, which began with a 2005 vintage.

It speaks volumes that no one in the wine industry seemed to pick up on the fact that this particular bottling was not what it appeared to be. Did no one seem to notice that this wasn't pinot noir but rather a blend of syrah and merlot?

I'm not going to claim that I have the best palate (Mrs. Lawhawk can discern flavors better than I can), but the so-called experts certainly can or should. It definitely is something that could be picked up by scientific testing.

No comments: