TWENTY-FIVE years ago, if you called an American an oenophile it might have gotten you a punch in the nose. Today, many millions of people in this country are proud to be known as lovers of wine and may even feel some social pressure to know the differences between various regions of France and varieties of grapes.
For a sign of how truly serious the country has become about wine, consider the indictment last week of two grape growers in California's San Joaqin Valley on charges of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud and false statements to the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms -- transgressions carrying a maximum penalty of 130 years in prison and a $6 million fine. Their alleged offense was to have sold large quantities of one sort of grape -- something cheap and plentiful -- under the pretext that it was another, more fashionable and expensive variety.
In a country that doesn't have many chateaux, certain varieties of grape have taken on a cachet: zinfandel and chardonnay are currently big; cabernet sauvignon is a perennial favorite. But as one California vintner points out, when you're buying grapes, it can be difficult to distinguish among varieties, and "sometimes even professionals can't tell for sure. Just looking at the grapes, it's hard to tell. You have to analyze the seeds."
The federal indictments are an outgrowth of what a Los Angeles Times writer called "the California wine industry's worst scandal in two decades." Californians watched in horror last summer as one revelation followed another: French colombards sold as chardonnays! Barberas passed off as zinfandels! Fake chenin blancs! The state filed a number of lawsuits, but that wasn't enough for some. "There are 6,000 honest, hard-working grape growers in California, and a couple of cases like this make all of us look bad, and that is causing a lot of bitterness in the grape-growing community," said a leading grower in Sonoma County.
Now the federal indictments show that this sort of thing is indeed taken seriously, as perhaps it should be; it caused much grief to wine makers and cost some of them heavily in lost production. Still, 130 years in the big house for grape fraud seems a bit stiff; we doubt that even the French would go that far. And long after this scandal is over, one nagging question will remain: How much of that ersatz zinfandel and cheap chardonnay actually got into the nation's winestream, and who, among all those oenophiles who profess to know the difference, actually knew?