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Wine: This bicycle took consumers for a ride

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By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

We all want value in wine. For most consumers, that means we want the cheapest possible wine that tastes good. If that wine is trendy, all the better. Make it French, which carries the cachet of quality, and slap on a cutesy label that plays on Americans' cliched images of the French -- say a beret-clad Frenchman on a bicycle with a basketful of baguettes, trailed by a dog with a baguette in its mouth -- and you have a recipe for market success.

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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.

Here's the rub of the U.S. investigation: Gallo, like any other importer or U.S. winery, had to apply to the TTB for approval of the Red Bicyclette label, including the cliched imagery and any information displayed and, most important, the words "pinot noir." Under U.S. law, if a wine is labeled as a single grape variety, only 75 percent of it has to be from that grape; but the argument here is not that Red Bicyclette pinot noir was diluted. Rather, it was mislabeled as another wine altogether.

For Gallo, this obviously is a public relations nightmare. Either the company was duped, and its winemakers couldn't tell the difference between pinot noir and merlot, or the company knew what it was buying and knowingly sold mislabeled wine in the U.S. market. It's a lose-lose situation for the largest U.S. wine company.

Should we consumers care? After all, Red Bicyclette cost only about $8 a bottle. At that price, all we really want is a pleasant drink; does it matter whether it's pinot noir or merlot?

Yes, it matters. We don't like to be cheated and played for dupes. We should not let our thirst for inexpensive wine limit us to inferior or fraudulent wine.

The Red Bicyclette scandal highlights the importance of the importer. Instead of looking for a cute label, we should be checking the name of the importer, printed on every label of foreign wine. People such as Bobby Kacher of Robert Kacher Selections, Roy Cloud of Vintage 59, Ed Addiss of Wine Traditions, Didier Simonin of Simon N Cellars and Fran Kysela of Kysela Pere et Fils are just a few of the importers based in the Washington area who specialize in French wines. There's no guarantee they aren't being cheated by their suppliers, but they travel regularly to France to meet with the winemakers and the cooperatives that produce their wines. Their personal relationships with the producers are better signs of quality than a pretty label on a wine purchased on the bulk market.

We don't have to pay a lot for good-quality wine. But we do have to pay attention.

McIntyre can be reached at food@washpost.com.


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