EMAIL EDITION - VOLUME II, NUMBER 12 - March 25, 2010
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Despite French court convictions more than a month ago, Red Bicyclette’s 2008 “Pinot Noir” remains on store shelves throughout California with no substantiation that the wine in the bottle is what the label professes.
- Gallo's Red Bicyclette "Pinot Noir" Still On Store Shelves - Legal or Not?
Wine Industry Insight asked an E. & J. Gallo spokesman on Monday if the company planned to recall the wine. An additional request for comment was made Wednesday. The company failed to respond to the question.
FRENCH FINES & APPEAL, AMERICAN LAWSUIT, FEDERAL INVESTIGATION - NOTHING CLEAR
On Feb. 18, a court in the southwest France city of Carcassonne convicted eight Languedoc-Roussillon vintners and wine cooperatives for their roles in a scheme to pass off Merlot and Syrah wine as Pinot Noir. They were charged with deception and forgery in a series of transactions dating from January 2006 to March 2008.
Among those receiving the mislabeled wine was E. & J. Gallo, the importer of the Red Bicyclette brand produced by Sieur d’Arques.
Ducasse wine trading company head, Claude Courset was given the stiffest sentence: a six-months suspended prison term and 45,000-Euro fine (approximately $61,000). He is appealing. Sieur d’Argues, was fined 180,000 Euros ($244,000) while others received sentences that varied from one-month suspended prison terms to fines up to 40,000 Euros.
A lawsuit alleging fraud has been filed in Los Angeles Superior Court against E. &.J Gallo and Sieur d ‘Arques.
The U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is conducting an investigation and had no comment.
GALLO ISSUES NON-ANSWER ON WHETHER THE 2008 VINTAGE IS GENUINE PINOT OR NOT
While Susan Hensley, Gallo’s Vice President of Public Relations previously stated that the company believes that only the 2006 vintage contained bogus wine she also said that “there is no way to chemically test wine to establish its varietal composition with certainty.”
Wine Industry Insight contacted a spokesman on Monday and asked directly:
“Will E.&. J. Gallo be recalling the 2008 Red Bicyclette Pinot Noir from retailers?”
WII never got a direct reply, but Gallo’s web site posted a vague March 24 response that failed to address the question. The document (in its entirety, below) was a slightly reworked version of its earlier written statement:
“We were deeply disappointed when we learned that our supplier Sieur d’Arques has been found guilty of selling falsely labeled French Pinot Noir. 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 will continue to work with the appropriate U.S. authorities to determine any next steps required for potentially mislabeled Pinot Noir in the marketplace.”
The statement left a direct question unanswered: If Gallo was confident that the 2008 Pinot Noir still selling was genuine, then a simple, “No we do not have plans to recall it,” would have been a sufficient and definitive answer. The non-answer, then, continues to beg the question of what is actually in that bottle calling itself Pinot Noir.
CALIF ATTORNEY GENERAL INTERESTED, “REFUSES TO SPECULATE”
A spokesman for California Attorney General Jerry Brown told Wine Industry Insight that, “we can’t speculate on the legality of potentially misbranded merchandise being offered for sale. We’re not in the business to speculate. However, I would refer you to California Business and Professional Code 17500 and the provisions pertaining to false advertising.”
An investigator with the office who spoke with WII separately, said he found the situation, “interesting in the so-far unresolved equivocations regarding the absence of certainty. It would make an interesting decision if it were determined that the wine company really had no proof of what was actually in a bottle they represented as Pinot Noir. That ignorance or uncertainty doesn’t resolve them of the misleading label, of course. But I might suppose they would want to recall the bottles with uncertain contents as a good faith effort on their part.”
GALLO WAFFLES ON WINE INTEGRITY MEASURES
As for determining the varietal nature of wine using lab techniques, Hensley’s previous written statement is carefully hedged and, according to multiple university, corporate and independent labs, only partly correct.
That statement, quoted here from The Wine Spectator, said, “We continue to believe that we have operated in good faith to provide a high-value experience to our consumers. It’s important to know that our contract with our French supplier guaranteed to us that the wine we purchased would be Pinot Noir. There is no way to chemically test wine to establish its varietal composition with certainty.”
While methods to determine the varietal of wine do exist, enological laboratory experts say the the science is still in its infancy and limited. See two of the many possible examples here and here.
“Yes, you have a very good chance of identifying the varietal in the laboratory as long as you’re working with a pure sample,” said one widely-respected laboratory authority. “But once you blend more than about 10 percent of other varietals, then all bets are off.”
That said, every laboratory expert — academic, corporate and independent — agreed that easy, fast and inexpensive methods exist for chemical testing that will ensure that a wine purchased is the wine delivered.
On Monday, Wine Industry Insight asked the Gallo spokesman:
“Did E.&. J. Gallo have a laboratory sampling program for the imports that periodically checked the wines
received against original samples? I am talking about looking at a chemical profile of the tested sample
against a sample of the wine purchased, _not_ a test for varietal identification. I do understand that
varietal identification is iffy at best.”
No response was received.
WINE INTEGRITY ANALYSIS: FAST, EASY, CHEAP
While easy and cheap, chemical methods to assure wine integrity all begin with a known sample.
“If you’re tasting a blend, you have to have some idea that the wine is genuinely what you think it is when you taste and capture the samples. All the lab can do right now is assure that the profile of the wine received matches the sample captured.
“If your palate can’t tell the difference between Syrah and Pinot, then all we can tell you is that what you got is what you drank.”
The process of insuring that what is tasted is that which is received begins with capturing a sample. That sample is lab tested for a standard — and relatively simple — set of parameters that include:
- Alcohol percentage
- Titratable acidity
- Volatile acidity
- Metals (most commonly iron, copper & calcium)
“It’s really hard to meddle with that set,” said a hands-on lab authority. “In my experience, it’s impossible to start with another wine — or a very different blend — and create a profile that matches top to bottom. It’s fast and easy. We do it every day in our own company lab, but it only costs aboutn a hundred bucks to have an independent lab perform it.”
“Some very careful companies go as far as to have three samples sealed: one for the seller, one for the buyer and a third entrusted to the care of a disinterested third party. If a disagreement happens where the buyer and seller can’t agree, then the third bottle is the tie breaker.”
FAST, EASY, CHEAP LAB ANALYSIS OFTEN IGNORED
“We’re a small industry, globally speaking, and people get burned all the time,” said one private lab authority. “I am amazed that people who demand escrow accounts, inspections and other verifications for a home mortgage don’t apply the same degree of due diligence to a multimillion-dollar wine deal — import or domestic.”
“Most still rely on the honesty and integrity of their partners,” said a well-known import consultant. “Some of those use integrity analysis and virtually none of them get swindled. But I can guarantee that virtually 100 percent of those who get taken are those who didn’t pay the hundred or two hundred dollars to make sure their million-dollar — or more — wine shipment is what they’re paying for.”
TRUST IS USUALLY MERITED BUT PROTECTION VITAL
Most experts — including wine brokers, corporate executives, lab authorities and others — say that scams are the exception rather than the rule.
“Yes, scams do happen,” said one wine broker who regularly deals in large domestic and international wine transactions, “which is why you have to know the people you are dealing with, have dealt with in the past and whom you trust. And make sure you verify the integrity of your wine in the lab every time.”
Regrettably, he said, only the most button-downed companies still rely on trust alone. “And that’s like failing to use a condom with some stranger you just picked up in a bar.”
TESTING, TRUSTING, TASTING
Of course, after all the testing and trusting are done, the ultimate test is in the tasting.
The fact that it is hard for anyone who knows Pinot Noir to confuse Red Bicyclette Pinot with Pinot has led to a profusion of articles, tasting notes and blog posts accusing Gallo of sins ranging from enological incompetence to far worse.
Perhaps an equal number of posts have applied variations of H. L. Mencken’s proverb that, “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”
Below, a sampling of notes.
Cheap Wine Is Cheap Wine, As You’d Expect
“This isn’t the worst cheap wine I’ve ever drunk; on the other hand, it sure doesn’t look, smell, or taste like any Pinot I’ve ever drunk, either….On the tongue, again this isn’t offensive for a wine in this price range: The acid isn’t overdone, there’s some tannin-body without going overboard, and there’s some flavor, too; it’s not thin, insipid, and sharp-elbowed, as is so often the case with $6 wines.”
Uncorked: The case of the Great Wine Fraud
“I purchased a bottle of the 2008 vintage for $8.99 from our local Target. Although the 2008 vintage is supposed to be pinot noir, when I served it blindly to my tasting panel, none of the assembled experts guessed it to be pinot noir. One panelist thought it might be gamay from Beaujolais. Other panelists tended to agree, but none thought it possessed any pinot traits.”
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