Pinot evil: French court finds 12 guilty in Gallo faux pinot

A French court found 12 executives guilty of selling the equivalent of 18 million bottles of cheaper wine as pinot noir. The buyer was California’s E&J Gallo for their Red Bicyclette brand, which sells for about $9 a bottle.

AFP reports that generic red wines fetched 45 euros (about $62) per one hundred liters while the premium pinot noir fetched 97 euros. One of the firms involved had been paying 58 euros for the wines it sold to Gallo. The accused made seven million euros ($9.5 million) in the scheme.

The defendants, from two firms, received suspended jail sentences and fines between 3,000 and 45,000 euros. Reuters reports that one firm, Sieur D’Arques, had to pay a fine of 180,000 euros.

Gallo issued a statement saying that they were “deeply disappointed” to learn of the fraud at one of their suppliers. The statement continued: “We believe that the only French Pinot Noir that was potentially misrepresented to us would have been the 2006 vintage and prior.” They also added that there was no health risk and that they would be withdrawing the wine from the market.

On the Red Bicyclette website, they tout the pinot noir as “world acclaimed” and point out that the 2006 vintage received a score of 83 points from Wine Spectator and the 2005 received various medals at wine competitions, including a bronze San Francisco International Wine Competition and a silver at both the Taster’s Guild International Wine Competition and Finger Lakes International Wine Competition.

“If Americans lose confidence in French wine production, particularly the Languedoc region, which is already going through a serious crisis, the consequences could be terrible,” Francis Battut, the prosecutor, told AFP.

A lawyer for one defendant told AFP “Not a single American consumer complained.” Another defense lawyer said that the wine had delivered “Pinot Noir characteristics.” On Marketplace Morning Report this morning, a commentator said that consumers don’t even know what pinot noir tastes like.

But it hardly seems like consumers’ fault. Does $9 pinot really taste like pinot noir? It’s worth noting that federal regulations allow blending of up to 25 percent other varieties into a wine labeled by its grape variety.

What does this faux pinot ruling mean for you? What with counterfeits on the high end and Brunello blending, rule-breaking and fraud seem to be making the rounds in the wine world.

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39 Responses to “Pinot evil: French court finds 12 guilty in Gallo faux pinot”

  1. I would argue that if no one noticed the difference, how could it be fraudulent? No-one actually lost out. Of course it’s wrong, but the blame doesn’t so much lie with the merchants.

    I argued further in my blog about this, saying that we all bear some of the blame in this case – that so many of us desire a label for our wine that we have stopped thinking about what it really is.

    Another aspect of this case is that perhaps wine critics are failing huge numbers of people by not paying enough attention to low-priced, mass-market wines.

    Either that, or wine critics think it was the consumer’s fault for buying such cheap wine in the first place.

    Both stances don’t say a lot for the relationship between the wine critic and the general public – a big issue in the UK at the moment with wine writer Tim Atkin’s column getting cut down.

    Still, swings and roundabouts, eh?


  2. I think in an ethical sense, the label should be reflective of the contents, but the fact that it took so long to figure out the wine wasn’t what it claimed to be speaks volumes. Obviously Gallo was tasting their stuff, how did they not know? Did they know about it and are now playing the innocent, “oh how could we be deceived?” angle? It’s a fascinating case of people enjoying something and it turning out to be a scam..But at the end of the day, the consumer was still enjoying a the wine, so was anyone actually harmed? Just my thoughts on the matter.

  3. Ever read “The Jungle”?

  4. Climbing up on my soapbox once again, I would like to beseech consumers to ask retailers who grew their wine, just as you might ask a vendor at a farmer’s market. If your retailer does not know and can not find out, chances that you are being taken for a (bicycle) ride are high.

  5. Damien, are you suggesting most major Champagne houses are taking us for a ride?! I’d put a lot of money on any given retailer being unable to give you the names of the growers for any major Champagne houses. Additionally, knowing who makes the wine once it’s in the winery doesn’t help either because you can’t guarantee it won’t be fiddled-with there (ref: Duboeuf or Brunello scandal).

    But you’re right that we should definitely ask more questions of the wine we drink.


  6. @Beau Carufel: I also think they are playing the innocent role. They must have known that the wine was not pinot noir!!

  7. No harm, no foul? I don’t think so. As a consumer, if I were sold and paid for a pinot noir, I believe I should get a pinot noir, regardless if I enjoyed it or not. The fraud, as well, is thousands now believe that pinot noir should taste unlike a pinot noir.

    Gallo, I think, just didn’t want to derail the gravy train. They had a legal shield that they were victims as well.

  8. Speaking as a critic/reviewer, I can tell you I’ve tasted the Red Bicyclette wines – usually in a peer group setting with other line-priced, supermarket brands. Did I warn my readers to avoid the pinot because it tasted like pondwater? No I did not. But I didn’t think it tasted like pinot, and I didn’t recommend it either. I think you are onto something else with this statement:

    “On the Red Bicyclette website, they tout the pinot noir as “world acclaimed” and point out that the 2006 vintage received a score of 83 points from Wine Spectator and the 2005 received various medals at wine competitions, including a bronze San Francisco International Wine Competition and a silver at both the Taster’s Guild International Wine Competition and Finger Lakes International Wine Competition.”

    Hmmm… Unless I’m wrong, all of these reviewers and competition judges were tasting these wines blind, correct? Blind tasting is supposed to be the most fair and objective, yes? Seems as if it didn’t live up to its billing as fair and objective in these instances. Just sayin’…

  9. Olivier –

    You make a good point, and one that I think supports my own. As I am sure you are well aware, Champagne is at the historical heart of the AOC push because the major houses were screwing growers and bringing in fruit from outside the AOC to meet demand. The grower uprising lead to the AOC system, and lots of violence.

    Today, visitors to the best districts in Champagne are treated to plastic and trash strewn about the vineyards because garbage was long thought to be a cheap source of fertilizer. For a region with a checkered past, I think nothing is healthier than conumer demand for accountability and a connection to the land. Thierry Thiese’s push for Grower Champagnes underlines what a positive this can be, and I have noticed that sales of these smaller houses have not dipped whereas the big conglomerations are suffering.

    If no one in the chain knows or cares who grows the wine one drinks, bad things seem to happen a lot faster than when accountability is in place.


  10. Patrick – I agree with you here. My first thought was that if I am ever faced with a scandal like this one, or I am arrested for the murder of Nicole Simpson, I’ll have to remember the names of the lawyers used in both cases.

  11. I just saw this op-ed from The Guardian. Here’s a snippet:

    “The comedy comes from Gallo’s clumsy attempt to ride the post-Sideways pinot noir craze by peddling Red Bicyclette as an authentic French pinot when it turned out to be anything but. It doesn’t say much for Gallo’s professionalism that its buyers couldn’t tell the different between pinot, merlot and shiraz.”

  12. Tell me Hob Nob is French Pinot Noir.Maybe Pinfandel

  13. Damien,

    Couldn’t agree more.


    PS – unless you’re my grandmother, it’s Olly or Oliver, not Olivier ;¬)

  14. Olly –

    Apparently from my soapbox I was aiming for a certain tone in my reply.

    Duly noted, and confirmed that I am not your Grandmother posing as a American distributor.


  15. It’s not a matter of “no complaints” or the lack of basic education about varietals in the US, but about honesty and paying hard earned money for a product that is what it is purported to be. Giving in to this line of thinking will lead us down a path of blending whatever to get whatever, which is not part of the experience of drinking wine. Thinking otherwise is giving in to the marketing powers, further undermining an ethical base that has been hit hard the past few years, and taking away from all those that work long hours and days to give us a taste of the terroir.

  16. People who buy Pinot Noir for under $10 are looking for an easy-drinking, soft, umcomplicated wine. A sub-$10 Pinot is guaranteed to have who-knows-what in the blend up to the 25% allowed by law. So these buyers may never have tasted a varietally-correct Pinot, and might not even love it if they did. But it’s still the wine industry’s responsibility to deliver what they promise to deliver. I’m a wine retailer, and I have to hold my suppliers accountable for delivering good product. The problem with the Bicyclette situation is that none of us can see as far back in the chain as the French supplier of those Bicyclette grapes. Those suppliers should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law in order to protect wine sellers and especially wine drinkers.

  17. hmmm, didn’t Boisset sell a bunch of pinot noir from the languedoc to that program??

  18. Beau Carufel I agree with you, Dr Vino i think you need to go after Gallo, I mean how do you run a company with experts and not know its not Pinot Noir, I bet they knew and because it was selling like hot cakes from Sideways then Gallo should be exposed. Like I’ve heard the normal people will think all french wine is like this and we can’t trust them ie back to Freedom fries *sigh* what about Gallos Blame there jail time and fines

  19. Once I started to notice that many California producers were sourcing their pinot from Languedoc, Corsica and other parts, I had no faith that wines like the bicycle were legit – not that I ever did. Their consumers are no more aware of real pinot than McD consumers know what animal beef comes from.

    Nothing could convince me that Gallo wasn’t aware of every step of source and production. They always cross their t’s and dot their i’s. Nobody can make that quantity of pinot and be legit. If it’s too good to be true – then it is. Hello! Most pinot doesn’t taste like pinot. Is this news?

    I also think that any publication that reviews any wine like the bicycle should be admonished. The bicycle has plenty of marketing backup – they don’t need any write up or acknowledgment. They long ago discovered that a rural looking figure with a beret and baguette would be appealing to US consumers.

  20. Olly wrote, “I would argue that if no one noticed the difference, how could it be fraudulent? No-one actually lost out. Of course it’s wrong, but the blame doesn’t so much lie with the merchants.”

    This is such a silly argument.

    Let’s say, a diamond ring you purchased for your girl friend was a fake, but both of you didn’t have a clue that was a fake. Many years later, you learned it was a fake stone. Now, you put on some responsibility on your girlfriend because she didn’t know?

    What about this. Say, a poor soul who has never tasted Pinot Noir before, purchased a bottle of this fake Pinot Noir thinking this is what French Pinot Noir tastes like. You also tell this guy that he bears some responsibility too?

    A cheat is a cheat. All blame should be squarely put on the people who participated in this crime. Period.

  21. This just in: Constellation also bought some of the Faux Pinot (Pi-faux?) [WSJ]

  22. Olly – Consumers can’t be blamed. They wanted Pinot. They thought they were buying Pinot. Apparently, they were not. Whether they liked the wine is another matter since it could have had some other, accurate labeling (e.g. “red wine from Languedoc”).

    Paul – someone had asked on Twitter whether the wine had received a score or not. I pasted that in from their site because of that question. Do you think that Pinot Noir varietal labeling should have a higher federal minimum, as it does in Oregon?

    James – I don’t know about Boisset. (Incidentally, and unrelated, J.C. Boisset recently married Gina Gallo.) Note the above story that Constellation also bought some of the fake Pinot.

    Weston – I think that op-ed from The Guardian was pretty hard-hitting!

  23. Summerwalk,

    It’s quite nice to have someone openly disagree with me. But you’re still wrong in calling my argument ‘silly’ – here’s why:

    You buy a book you think is by Robert Ludlum, you read it, you love it, it does all the things a Robert Ludlum book does. Only then it turns out it wasn’t written by Robert Ludlum, it was written by a hack.

    The only true fraud or deception that has occurred is therefore in your identification with the presumed author. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the contents of the book.

    So let me just clarify (for Dr Vino too) – I’m not necessarily blaming consumers. What I’m saying, if you read my blog, is that our need to perpetrate a certain mythic aura around wine (ie the label) is what is getting us into this mess.

    Because whether we are buying a ring or a Pinot Noir, we are ultimately trying to tell ourselves (excusing ourselves of the expense) that we are not simply buying a finger-band or fermented grape juice in a glass holder.

    Unfortunately, I have to agree with Guy Woodward in that this is probably a ‘tip of the iceberg’ situation.


  24. Dr Vino,

    ‘Whether they liked the wine is another matter since it could have had some other, accurate labeling’…but as you say: ‘they wanted Pinot’.

    Ask yourself why they wanted Pinot in the first place (and why they obviously weren’t disappointed with what they got) and you’re getting to where I’m coming from.

    Thanks for a great blog.


  25. Dr. V – Should minimal percentages on Pinot be raised, as in Oregon? As a theoretical discussion, I would say yes. In fact, I think that 75% is too low for any varietal labeling. But it is especially irksome with Pinot Noir, a notoriously difficult grape, whose stellar reputation rests exclusively on unblended versions from a few select regions. From a practical point of view, I don’t see it happening, except locally. The TTB is more interested in what sort of fish powder you’re using than in promoting meaningful regulations.

  26. […] their defense, the French winemakers said that the Americans with their gauche wine palettes didn’t even notice the difference. Not a single American consumer complained,” said one attorney. Another defense lawyer argued that […]

  27. In regard to the Tasters Guild International wine competition, the tastings are done blind. The only information that is provided to the judges is the varietal, vintage, and the residual sugar. Tasters Guild International has two annual competitions. The competition in the Washington D.C. area takes the price point into consideration whereas the Michigan judging does not.

    I hope this clarifies how Tasters Guild International conducts our wine judging competitions.


    Larry Elletson
    Co-Director, Central Maryland Chapter
    Tasters Guild International

  28. Who is to say it stops with Pinot Noir from Languedoc. I have come across so many wines labeled Pinot Noir that seem impossibly rich, creamy and dark for this particular varietal, that I have taken to calling these wines Syranot Noir. How fitting would it be if these wines were from Bergerac instead of Languedoc??? Perhaps I will take to calling these wines Syranot de Languedoc in the future.

    It seems unfortunate that some in the wine world take a “who cares as long as they enjoyed it” attitude. If you were served pounded pork instead of veal as your veal piccata would you take the same attitude? Would the chef or restaurateur be justified in defending himself if you didn’t notice the difference and seemingly enjoyed the dish (or simply didn’t complain and never came back)? What if this was the only restaurant in which you had tried veal, and you decided you didn’t like it because it was no different than pork (tastes like chicken)? Would you be upset years later when the switcheroo was discovered? What if you had eaten this porky veal while pursuing a kosher or halal diet?

    Too many ethical questions arise to allow ourselves to take the Marie Antoinette attitude. If we in the business don’t care about this issue and hold these producers and suppliers accountable what will we be selling and drinking next? Perhaps Grenache with mega purple sold as Syrah.
    Rather than stick our noses in the air (or heads in the sand) and refusing to review these wines or taking the position that any consumer who expects to get actual Pinot for under $10, gets what they deserve, we should treat this segment of the market with the respect it deserves.

    The problem is not the blending of Pinot Noir with other (lesser?) varietals, it is the deception involved. Justifying or excusing this deception; whether the justification comes from the French growers, Gallo or Constellation, the contest judges or the wine critics having tasted this wine or last but not least the retail and restaurant buyers who tasted and bought this wine, makes you part of the problem not part of the solution.

    O.K. enough with the soapbox, has anyone had the Penner- Ashe Rubeo lately? Delicious, and appropriately labeled.

  29. I have read that the vineyard land used in this case was physically incapable of producing even half the amount of “pinot” sold to Gallo, or at least incapable under VdP regulations on yield. Gallo absolutely knew the score, and had no qualms about buying it. Nor do they have any qualms about touting their Red Bicyjunk as an “authentic” product brimming with terroir. Please. They not only share in the blame they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent if that is even possible. SOAPBOX ALERT! Do we blame the manufacturer of the anti-freeze, or do we blame the company that put the anti-freeze in the toothpaste? Or do we blame the company that sold tainted toothpaste to the world? Sounds to me like there is plenty of blame to go around.

    Companies like Gallo are perfectly comfortable to blow the terroir horn when it suits their purpose, but there are few mega-conglomerates on earth that have more effectively taken sense of place out of wine. For many wine lovers wine is the most genuine and authentic way of experiencing a little slice of another culture, of reaching out and shaking hands with a winemaker or inviting a family over to dinner from 5,000 miles away. Megas don’t care and won’t care as long as they get their share, unless of course they think it will help them to make a few bucks by jumping on a bandwagon. Until there is a true punishment for actions such as these we will continue to get (insert fad grape here) wines filled with (insert cheap grape here) juice.

  30. Syranot Noir. I love it!

    I keep waiting for someone else to bring this up but they don’t, so I will:

    To this day, Gallo markets something called “Hearty Burgundy,” a name which is a double lie, in that it is not from Burgundy and it does not contain any pinot noir. (Last time I asked around among those in the know, it was mostly Barbera, plus whatever else was red and sitting in a tank and not doing anything.)

    So it is hard not to laugh at Gallo’s predicament.

    As to the general spoofulation of pinot noir, what can you say? Whenever a grape reaches a kind of mass-market popularity, it is inevitably over-cropped (see also Merlot) and dumbed-down to meet the requirements of people whose other first choice in beverage is Coca-Cola.

    My main problem these days is warning people off Marsannay and Fixin. They come into the store, tell me they like big Cabernets and Zins, but they’ve heard about this Pinot Noir and they want to try it. I used to just shrug my shoulders, but I had to take positive action, because it was just killing me when customers brought back bottles complaining that the wine was “too thin” and “tasted like water.”

    So you see, I’m not being “elitist.” To the contrary, I’m being as practical as possible, trying to make a living selling wine people will actually enjoy.

  31. ‘I would argue that if no one noticed the difference, how could it be fraudulent? No-one actually lost out. Of course it’s wrong, but the blame doesn’t so much lie with the merchants.’ Olly Styles.

    Commendably ingenious Olly. However, I fancy if you labeled your Spanish wine as Château Pétrus and, even if nobody noticed the difference, your above defence wouldn’t gallop far in a court of law.

  32. Jim,

    Considering my Spanish wine is white, the wine world would have to be in a pretty bad state not to tell the difference ;¬)

    Of course, in a court of law, you are right – there is no discussion.

    But if the notion of ‘Terroir’ didn’t exist, who could you sue for that?


  33. Anyone remotely acquainted with the Languedoc and Roussillon upon seeing the production quantities would know (or would at have to suspect) that the production of this wine was far beyond the capabilities of Pinot Noir planted in these growing regions to produce. If anyone would even remotely believe that the executives at a company as wine savvy as Gallo where not aware of this I have a bridge I would be happy to sell you. It is inconceivable to me that anyone would believe or accept the logic that this isn’t fraud because ‘no one got hurt’.

  34. Looks like the questions of fraud, fake French Pinot, and US Law will be addressed in California courts:

  35. […] continues Consumers have filed a class-action lawsuit in California against E&J Gallo over the faux pinot, Red Bicyclette. [] Permalink | Comments (0) | SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: "Wine trial vials, Chile, […]

  36. […] by RSS, or daily email. Thanks for visiting!Over on HuffPo, there’s a piece up about the Red Bicyclette/faux pinot saga. Jacqueline Friedrich, author of the guide The Wines of France, posted this comment as a reply. As […]

  37. I bought that wine and brought it to friends’ for dinner, and was embarrassed, and now I know why.

    Where’s my reimbursement from Gallo?

  38. […] passing off cheap red wine as pinot noir, that’s another story… Permalink | Comments (0) | SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: […]

  39. I bought this wine on a whim. I have rekindled my romance with the bicycle and I found the label irresistible. In my youth, I was introduced to various cheap bottled wines, including Lancer’s and Gallo. After 18 years of sobriety, Gallo was the first of the sub $10 wines which I chose to enjoy with my choice of premium grilled steaks. My GF prefers the Gallo Sweet Red, and I felt that the Gallo Pinot Noir was at least palatble, until the whim purchase of the Red Bicyclette Pinot.

    If the Gallo Pinot was palatable, then this wine was exquisite! The real (or is it contrived?) controversy is immaterial to me, as the complement between the wine and the prime choice Porterhouse, rustic iron skillet potatoes (with onions and bacon) and american salad w/ Marzetti’s Ultimate Blue Cheese dressing made for a most enjoyable meal and I cannot imagine my next indulgence without the finishing touch of Bicyclette Pinot Noir!

    What is the true purpose of wine anyhow? Is it to reveal the sophistication of our palate, or is it to provide a social lubricant and a release of inhibitions so that we may become genuinely acquainted with those with whom we are breaking bread?

    In vino veritas! Real or not, Bicyclette is my new favorite!


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