Reason Freely

Followup: Pinotgate

Posted in news by reasonfreely on February 23, 2010

The new wine fraud scandal (Pinotgate?) makes a good follow-up to my review of The Wine Trials 2010 because it shows us another angle on the authoritative statements the wine industry makes, and how they often don’t know what they’re talking about.

The kerfluffle in sum:  People believe Pinot Noir to be a more complicated, challenging wine to produce, and a more complex wine on the palette so brands can charge more for it.  Sieur d’Arques, a French company, criminally defrauded US importers by mislabeling wine as Pinot Noir as demand was rising for the varietal.  The mislabeled wine was sent from France and sold in the US for years as, among others, Red Bicyclette Pinot Noir, when it was in fact Merlot and Syrah.  The 2006 fraudulent Pinot Noir got an 83 pts rating from Wine Spectator online according to the Red Bicyclette website.

Apparently the fraud was easy to pull off, because the major red wine varietals are so similar that nobody has developed a reliable scientific test to tell them apart!

“…there is no way to chemically test wine to establish its varietal composition with certainty.” – Gallo spokesperson on Red Bicyclette (SFGate)

And Constellation Brands, which resold the wine tried some of those tests:

“Constellation Brands confirmed Friday that it may have sold some of the wine found in a French court this week to be phony pinot noir.

The Victor-based company insisted its own tests found the product, bought between 2006 and 2008, to be genuine. Constellation refused to name the company brands under which the wine was sold in the United States.”  (Democrat and Chronicle)

Nobody would have known, and the fraudsters would have gotten away with it, if not for their own greed:

“In 2008, during an audit by the French fraud agency, officials found several inconsistencies. Ducasse had sold 53,889 hectoliters of Pinot Noir when the entire region only produces around 53,000 hectoliters a year. In addition, the wine had been sold for 58 euros per hectoliter, much less than the typical bulk-wine market price of 97 euros per hectoliter for Vin de Pays d’Oc Pinot Noir.”  (Wine Spectator)
So accountants found the wine fraud when chemists and wine experts couldn’t.  To be fair, the accountants had pretty clear numbers, and the tasters had to go by the subtle flavors in wine.

Wine Spectator also quotes Gallo saying that the American consumer wasn’t too badly defrauded:

“[Gallo VP Susan] Hensley added that they ‘believe that the only French Pinot Noir that was potentially misrepresented to us would have been the 2006 vintage and prior.'”  (Wine Spectator)

But I’m not so sure I believe anything they say.  Check out the detailed winemaking notes on this imported third-party wine sold by Gallo middlemen purporting to be the origin winery on their official site! This pdf is an example of how the wine industry occasionally engages in pretty lies.  In this case, they imported thousands of gallons of mass-produced french wine, re-labelled it, and re-sold it with details of its production that they couldn’t possibly know if they also didn’t know what grapes were used.

From this little fraud case, we have learned three things:

1. People believe that Pinot Noir is so distinctive that they can charge more money for it.  Pinot Noir is said to be a distinctive and complicated grape.  Pinot snobs have been touting this line for years (see Sideways).  Wine snobbery is the voice of authority — bold statements from an expertise that depends largely on the subjective.  I’m no postmodernist, but what is true for you is not necessarily true for me when it comes to the subtle flavors of wine.

2. There is no reliable scientific sensory or chemical test that can tell Pinot Noir wine from Merlot or Syrah wine.  The chemical testing Constellation Brands conducted did not find a difference.  The tasting Gallo conducted did not detect a difference.  This does not mean that there is no difference between Pinot Noir and Merlot or Syrah, but it means that the differences are very subtle.  At the very least, the differences exist, but most people including some wine experts, and most chemical tests, can’t distinguish them.  I do believe that it is possible for people with extremely well trained, naturally talented, and experienced palettes to differentiate varietals in wine, but I have very little evidence to support this belief.

3. Wine Spectator’s reviewers cannot tell Pinot Noir wine from Merlot or Syrah wine, having graded Red Bicyclette without noticing that it wasn’t Pinot Noir.  Funny thing…  the Wine Spectator article on the fraud doesn’t mention their 83 pts rating for the only vintage even Gallo admits to being fraudulent…  See my previous book review for further pie on Wine Spectator’s face.
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5 Responses

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  1. greymaiden said, on February 23, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    I don’t really consider my palate especially well trained, but I can definitely tell the difference between, say, a Merlot and a Cabernet. I would never describe Pinot Noir as a distinctive flavor. I tend to like the varietal as a good all purpose red table wine that goes with anything red wine generally goes well with. It’s more subtle and tends to be less tannen-y than other reds, which means it is palatable to a wider audience of tasters.

    That’s just my experience though. I’m rather rusty at my wine snobbery. This report is hilarious.

    • reasonfreely said, on February 23, 2010 at 10:34 pm

      I’d love to get together a group for a grab bag blind tasting, where anything goes. The only distinction will be between reds and whites. Say, 4-5 red and 4-5 white table wines (not dessert wines, sweet wines, icewines or ports). People can try to guess varietal, age, and region, and ordinal rank them by their own preference. 10 people can bring a bottle each, and we’d pour 1 or 1.5 ounce tastes (using a bar jigger). We’ll see if I can find the time!

      • Andy said, on February 24, 2010 at 5:08 pm

        Idea for a prank:
        1) Fill empty wine bottle with grape juice and vodka.
        2) Bring to blind wine-tasting.
        3) If caught, claim it is the “control sample,” else, mass-market as Pinot Noir and profit.

      • greymaiden said, on February 24, 2010 at 7:26 pm

        Sounds like fun. I’m in.

  2. reasonfreely said, on February 23, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    I should hit the liquor stores. The ’06 Red Bicyclette could be a collector’s item in the future.


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