THE RECENT allegation of fraud in Burgundy may turn out to be far more than another cops-and-connoisseurs caper.
So far it involves only one shipper, Bernard Grivelet, and a small amount of wine. But unlike the celebrated Winegate scandal that tarnished the image of Bordeaux five years ago, Grivelet's suspect wines were shipped to the United States.
Reaction here is building slowly. As long as Grivelet alone is involved, the case will not cause a sensation. But he has claimed that others are guilty of similar violations of France's strict wine laws. The names being whispered about include several of the most prestigious houses in Burgundy.
Grivelet admits to giving appelation names such as Chambolle-Musigny and Morey-St. Denis to more wine than he was legally entitled to. The wine regulations - based on the idea that limiting production would improve quality - allowed only a certain amout of wine from a designated area to carry that name. Excess production was supposed to be sold off or labeled as generic "burgundy," thereby reducing its value considerably.
Grivelet is not apologetic, claiming the wine is what the lable says it is, that others do the same and even extend their production further with cheap wine purchased in Italy.
French authorities disagree and say the accusation shows how well wine law enforcement works to protect the consumer.
All this comes at a time when American wine writers, and some merchants, have been increasingly shrill in criticising the quality of famous French wines - prompted, in part by the severe upward spiral of prices. Presumably consumers are disturbed too, though a fall-off in retail sales has yet to materialize.
With the scandal as a rallying point, the critics appear ready for war. Robert Finnegan, an intelligent critic, has written that a number of the 1976 Burgundies arriving in this country are not the same wines he tasted in France. In an "emergency report" just issued he declares the classified wines of Bordeaux - with a few exceptions - are difficient in quality also, and recommends that his readers look to other countries for their wines. Not long ago an article in Vintage magazine castigated Bordeaux for producing a 1973 vintage that the author judged unworthy of crossing Americans palates.
A week ago, Dennis Overstreet, a Beverly Hills wine merchant, gathered together several California writers and wine scientists to sample two bottles of Grivelet's Chambertin wines in a blind tasting with other French burgundies and one California pinot noir.
It was planned as something of a kangaroo court. Overstreet announced in advance that if the wines did badly, he intended to initial legal action against the French shipper.
Instead, Grivelet's Chambertin were Judged best.
"Both the Grivelet wines were definitely not 70-cent wines," overstreet said. "They were chosen as the best representing Burgundy, but it is a hit-or-miss thing." The bottles Overstreet's panel tasted may not have been ones produced from excess, he acknowledged.
According to Overstreet, the action against Grivelet produced a sudden run on his remaining stock of Grivelet wines: "This could only happen in California. People started buying the wine because they heard it was a fraud. They wanted it for the novelty."
Overstreet said he notified Grivelet of the encouraging results, but the French government had already contacted the Bureau of Alchohol, Tobacco and Firearms, requesting that all Grivelet Burgundy be removed from American shelves.
There is, it seems to me, a good deal of danger in all these carryings-on. Certianly wine writers and conscientious merchants should deliver their judgements on quality and speak out when a wine - or the wines of a region - no longer represent good value for money. But should they judge the wine-makers of a region - or of an entire country - through the "evidence" found by a subjective tasting?
Wine quality is not constant. The wines of Italy and Spain may be cheaper than those of France, but are they better? In my own recent samplings of Italian red wines, for example, disappointments have outnumbered pleasures, and there have been inconsistancies even among the wines of a single shipper. California has good quality control, but some rail against the quality of what is being controlled.
Instead of crying "J'Accuse!," critics and retail merchants might more constructively encourage consumers to experiment and to pay no more for wine than a price that allows them to empty the bottle without anguish. In the long run inflation may be beneficial. It should force merchants to find new wines at reasonable prices and free the public from dependence on outmoded classifications and hierachies.
If you pay $10 - or even $5 - for a wine and don't like it, don't buy it again. That action, taken cohesively is the best weapon consumers have to bring down prices and force quality up.
However, the current situation has been made more complicated by the arrogant belief of at least some members of the French wine trade that Americans can't judge quality and don't deserve the best wine.
We Americans, of course, take pride in our new-found passion and our eager assimilation-of wine and wine lore. Yet if we flock to the store to buy expensive wine that apparently is illegally labeled, if we continue to pay any price and drink famous labels regardless of quality, won't we simply prove the French cynics right? Won't we seem to be a nation of petulant wine snobs?" And won't the writers and merchants who take such pride in directing American taste be painfully embarrassed?
No wonder they are striking back so fiercely. They feel they have a great deal at stake.