March 2, 2010
Counterfeit wines? Bogus barrels? The subject has been a dark tale in the world of winemaking and wine marketing for decades if not longer.
It seems that every few years we learn that authorities are investigating new reports that vintners and wine merchants in prestigious regions are involved in a large-scale fraud where vintage wines are being blended with low-quality grape varieties.
A few stories of such grape debate have surfaced over the past in California. Some have reached headlines, and on occasion the guilty vintners were ordered to pay fines and serve jail time. All for selling a few tons of grapes you ask?
The ugly truth popped up again when the BBC reported (Feb. 17) that a dozen “French winemakers and traders have been found guilty of a massive scam to sell more than 3.5 million gallons of French Pinot Noir to a leading US buyer.” Sacrebleu!
The wine in question was sold as a 2007 vintage Pinot Noir for E. & J. Gallo’s Red Bicyclette label. Pinot Noir is regarded as one of the world’s noblest of wine varieties and is considered the hottest wine variety in the marketplace today. It is responsible for the outstanding reds of Burgundy’s C te d’Or.
French customs had found in 2008 that in over three years, approximately 13.5 million liters (3.6 million gallons), of mislabeled wine had been sold to Gallo, the largest family-owned U.S. winery. The producers and traders were both accused of mislabeling as a more expensive grape variety.
“The ordinary wines from the region sell at some 45 euros, or $62, per 100 liters against 97 euros for Pinot Noir – well known abroad for its use in Burgundy wines and prized by American drinkers who favor single-grape wines over blended wines like Bordeaux,” reported the New York Times.
Claude Courset of the Ducasse wine traders was given a six-month suspended prison sentence and has to pay a fine of 45,000 euros. Five other people were sentenced to fines of between 3,000 and 6,000 euros and the remaining six for less. The Sieur d’Arques trading firm of Limoux was ordered to pay 180,000 euros in penalties.
The prosecutor had asked for a tough prison sentence. The judge said: “The scale of the fraud caused severe damage for the wines of the Languedoc for which the United States is an important outlet.”
A lawyer for Sieur d’Arques, Jean-Marie Bourland, told Agence France-Presse: “There is no prejudice. Not a single American consumer complained.”
A lawyer for three other defendants argued his clients had delivered a wine that had Pinot Noir characteristics. Gallo said it was no longer selling any of the wine.
Pinot typically produces its best results in cooler, often fog-prone regions including Oregon’s Willamette Valley and several premium California regions including Chalone, Mount Harlan, Los Carneros, Russian River Valley, Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, Santa Lucia Highlands, and Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County. Pinot Noir also serves as a base for excellent traditional method sparkling wines.
Upon reading the news, I first thought this is the perfect pinot puzzler for Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau, the incompetent police inspector of the French S ret . Kidding aside, the issue begs the question: What’s really in the bottle that you just purchased?
“Once upon a time you could figure it came exclusively from fresh grapes romantically harvested by cheery field hands, who would sing their way to the winery,” shared wine author and competition chairman Dan Berger of Sonoma County.
“Sorry to burst the bubble, but in the last couple of decades, what passes for some wines may well not be all from fresh grapes. And some of the processes, while entirely legal, sound nefarious. For instance, in an unheralded ruling, the state of California (which produces roughly 90 percent of America’s wine) began to permit water to be added to grape juice before fermentation.”
According to Berger, who publishes his weekly wine newsletter “Vintage Experiences,” the state may have been sweet-talked into this ruling by some wineries that alleged it was needed to add water to facilitate the completion of fermentation.
“The argument was that grapes occasionally get picked so late that sugars are high, so fermentations can’t complete to make a totally dry wine. Water added to the tank helps a fermentation to dryness, so went the argument. But many growers saw this as nothing more than a nasty ploy to pay less for grapes and still make the same amount of wine,” said Berger.
“They said that by allowing grapes to stay on the vine until their sugars were very high, the grapes lost water weight. Since grape growers are paid based on the weight of the fruit they sell, they argued some wineries were turning water into wine.”
I can remember when I was young, watching the winery workers add water to the tons of Zinfandel grapes as they were being moved onto the destemmer by conveyor. Wow I thought!
Winemakers utilize other techniques or “tricks of the trade” as Berger states, for influencing wines “to make them fit a profile that has been determined by market research to be what the consumer wants.” Agreed. Among these are the use of oak barrels for flavoring wine, as well as oak chips, oak staves, shavings, etc.
“Again, these are legal methods, but they contribute to produce wine in a way that robs it of the flavors of the grape and the soil that were once the soul of fine wine,” said Berger.
Wine consumers may assume that the above-mentioned techniques are used in the cellars to improve “only” lower-priced wines. “But a savvy Sonoma County winemaker recently said he was shocked to learn how many very expensive wines are manipulated in some of the above ways. No wonder some people want to see a list of ingredients on all wine labels,” said Berger. Misleading wine labeling?
Sounds like a job for Chief Inspector Clouseau.
Enjoy a glass of wine tonight!
Off the Vine “Thanks” to Dan Berger for his assistance. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Gino L. Filippi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org