As reported by the AFP, a French judge has convicted 12 industry executives for their part in selling millions of bottles of wine that was labeled as Pinot Noir but in actuality was other grapes entirely, or at the very least had less than the legal allowable percentage of Pinot in them. These wines went to the Gallo company where they were bottled under the Red Bicyclette label. According to an article on Decanter.com, the other grapes blended into the wines included Merlot and Syrah. Sentences included suspended jail sentences and fines of up to 180,000 Euros. In total, the conspirators are estimated to have made about seven million euros of profit while apparently defrauding Gallo.
Here's where I get curious. How does Gallo, the biggest winemaker in the world, not know they're getting wine that isn't Pinot? I would expect them to have professional tasters and winemakers look at what was coming in, taste it, analyze it, ensure it's up to their standards before releasing it into the market. That seems reasonable right? Any good company that cares about it's brand and image has checks built into the system to ensure their product integrity. Well, Toyota apparently doesn't but that's another story, people died there. To my knowledge, no one was hurt in any way by the wines, and from what I understand, no one complained. Apparently the consumer really liked the blended wine, since the Red Bicyclette brand is a huge seller, accounting for millions of cases over the past six years or so. Back on topic, I do not buy the Gallo side's argument that they had no idea this was happening, not for one moment. They posted a statement about how disappointed they were, but it's all boilerplate material put together by their PR machine. Now, I don't drink Gallo wines and have only tried the Red Bicyclette a couple of times so I cannot say that the "no harm no foul" rule is in effect, since I'm not a consumer of their brand(s).
My point is this, I do not for one second believe Gallo was ignorant of what was going on. I happen to agree with an excerpt from the Decanter.com article: "Writing in today's Guardian newspaper, Decanter editor Guy Woodward labelled the episode a 'comedy' saying that this was Gallo's 'clumsy attempt to ride the post-Sideways Pinot Noir craze by peddling Red Bicyclette as an authentic French Pinot.'
'The world's biggest single wine producer being hoodwinked by a group of errant French vignerons is funny and depressing at the same time.
'It doesn't say much for Gallo's professionalism that its buyers couldn't tell the different between Pinot, Merlot and Shiraz,' he said."
It's more than that to me though, it's about a big company falsely representing wine to the American consumer. I feel that the industry is in a crucial position right now, getting more and more people to enjoy wine and incorporate it into their daily routines. This benefits everyone, and if Gallo foisted fake Pinot onto the consumer, that raises a lot of questions. Were they just out to make a buck? Did they feel that their consumers wouldn't care? With the Pinot craze in full swing, were they hoping to capitalize on that to the detriment of being honest with their customers? The last thing we all need is for the perception of the Wine Industry to mirror the airlines, banks or automakers, especially at this growth stage and in these economic times. Now that may sound alarmist, but this could theoretically be the tip of the iceberg, or the snowflake that turns into the snowball rolling down the hill. I don't think it will end up that way, but how many times has history shown us that a small act can easily morph into something huge. In this interconnected age, where image is so valuable (another debate entirely), the wine business needs to strive to maintain an image of openness and warmth. One that helps the consumer learn about wine, explore it, drink it and not be deceived by what's on the label. I say, shame on Gallo and shame on the French conspirators. The French winemakers, vineyard managers and estate executives put the profits before the people, which time and again just will not work. I hope two things happen, one that this blows over quickly and two, that people start demanding more comprehensive labeling laws. Gallo should also be investigated, if they haven't been already, for their role in the whole fiasco. In any case, what happened wasn't a catastrophe by any means, just something that didn't have to occur and hopefully won't (at least on that scale) in the future.