"There's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip," an ancient Greek once wrote. He didn't know the half of it. As wine prices have escalated to a point where wine now is called liquid gold, the temptation for some winemakers or merchants to cheat at various points between the vineyard and the table has proven irresistible.
The latest international wine scandal, which was uncovered late last fall and broke in the European press a week ago, involved shuffling cheap wine from France into Holland, changing its identity and reshipping some of it to the United States.
While U.S. officials are not talking, pending possible criminal indictments, no one has stepped forward to counter a report in the Sunday Times of London that perhaps 250,000 bottles of wine falsely labeled as Pouilly Fuisse, a popular white Burgundy, reached this country. The New York Times said later some of it was sold under the "Michelet" label in New York City at $10 to $12 a bottle. (The wine in the bottle is thought to be ordinary French table wine purchased originally for about $1 a bottle.)
Seattle, Los Angeles and Houston also have been mentioned as destinations for shipments of the suspect wine. So far, Washington has not been included. A leading local retailer said yesterday government authorities had made no inquiries at his store about the wine.
Call it "The Dutch Connection," said officials of the French government bureau that tries to prevent or sniff out wine fraud. Led by their inspector general, Roland Pisani, a Clouseau-shaped figure with a gift for rhetoric, the French were here last week to consult with their American counterparts at the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and "to set the record straight."
In the course of an hour-and-a-half interview with The Washington Post, setting the record straight seemed to mean putting as much distance between France and the scandal as possible.
"France is the victim of these affairs," Pisani said. "The American consumer is likely to say he was misled when he bought French wine. It's a stigma. But the wine left France with documents that defined it accurately. The difficulty began elsewhere."
Would France seek return of the wines, the inspector general was asked."Recover the wines?" he said in surprise. "They're not ours, these wines. They were sold as vin de table at a fair price, so there is no reason for them to return to France. Our role was simply to furnish a list of the suspect wines. They had departed legally."
What happened, as pieced together by the Sunday Times, is complicated. Since the establishment of Common Market trade in wines, certificates of one color are issued for ordinary table wine and certificates of another go with higher-quality appellation controlee wine. For some time, the Dutch government provided blank forms to any wine trader requesting them.
The wine was bottled and given false labels. Papers were filled in giving the wine aristocratic status. Some wine was sold in Holland. Other shipments went to the United States via Germany, Belgium or England. The tip-off occurred in Liverpool, England, when a customs inspector noticed that the queen's portrait on a Dutch certificate was reversed. The forgers had merely applied a Dutch coin as a seal.
The French visitors were quick to point out, in defense of their colleagues, that cooperative enforcement on wine matters within the Common Market is quite recent. "It is becoming like a wine Interpol," Pisani said. "We cooperate more and more."
"Furthermore, one of his colleagues said, "incidents such as this prove the system of control works."
The French have used similar logic after the 1974 Bordeaux case called "Winegate" and a different incident last year in Burgundy involving the shipper Bernard Grivelet. They contend that relations with their sister Common Market countries and the United States in wine-regulation matters are "excellent."
Sources here outside the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms disagree. They hint that the French dragged their feet in the current investigation until it surfaced and are motivated less by concern for their colleagues than by the dramatic erosion of France's position in the American wine market. (France now trails Italy in both volume and dollar value of wine imports.)
Pisani did indicate that Americans, in his view, have a stronger guarantee of the "quality and origin" of a French wine if it is imported directly from France, and one of his associates indicated that the common Market rules are similar to the French regulations, "but not enough."
"The number of bottles involved is not as great as some say" (a speculative figure of million was used by The New York Times), Pisani said, "but if even one bottle were involved, we would be concerned. The number is not important. It is the fact [that fraud has been committed]."
In the meantime, there are broad hints that more will be forthcoming in the current affair. The French, in fact, spoke in the plural, of lesaffaires, and said at one point, "everything is still not decanted." U.S. authorities suggest there may be charges placed against merchants on this side of the Atlantic.
"Only God knows" who may be involved, Inspector General Pisani said. "The object is not to stop circulation of wine, but for everyone to be more vigilant. When you are given a chance to buy a kind of wine at a price twice lower than it should be . . ."
He shrugged, as only the French can shrug.