Scandal in the Languedoc this week, as a dozen people employed in its world-famous wine industry were convicted by a French court of orchestrating a extraordinary scam: between January 2006 and March 2008, they sold more than 18m bottles of cheap plonk masquerading as French pinot noir to giant US winemaker Ernest and Julio Gallo – pocketing about €7m in the process. We’re not sure who comes off worst: the cynical, arrogant and greedy French wine-makers, who clearly thought that Americans were far too dumb to notice that their pinot was virtually undrinkable – or Gallo, for failing to spot this subterfuge for more than two whole years…
The back-story to all this is that French pinot noir became hugely popular in the US after the 2004 comedy Sideways, and soon Gallo (the world’s most powerful winemaker) was getting in on the action with its Red Bicyclette brand. But with appetite for Languedoc pinot noir outstripping demand, some local wine-makers clearly got greedy. In a scam apparently orchestrated by a wine merchant called Claude Courset, they started making wines from the cheaper and more plentiful merlot and shiraz grapes, and then sticking a pinot noir label on the front. This was then sold to E&J Gallo via an intermediary.
All in all, 13.5m litres of the fake stuff was shipped to the US over a two-and-a-bit year period. Then in March 2008, some bright spark apparently cottoned on that Gallo was buying its pinot for almost half the going rate, and that the region was suddenly producing far more wine than it used to. Eventually, they put deux and deux together and made quatre. None of which speaks volumes for Gallo’s tasting, quality control or procurement processes. The cynic might suggest that the giant US firm isn’t exactly known for the quality of its wines, but you can’t blame customers for being aggrieved that they didn’t get what they paid for. After all, if they wanted cheap plonk, they could have bought Gallo’s normal stuff.
But perhaps the biggest losers will be the Languedoc wine region, whose image and reputation have taken a hammer blow. And it’s not helped by the feeble punishments the French have handed out to the guilty parties – despite clocking up an estimated €7m profit, most will only have to pay a measly €5,000 in damages, while even ringleader Courset only got a €45,000 fine and a six-month suspended jail sentence. We imagine there’ll be some sour grapes at E&J Gallo about that.
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