Wine fraud grips Old World, but who are the real criminals?
The announcement that lawsuits are to follow in Burgundy, France, after the unearthing of what is believed to be a bogus wine racket has dealt a painful blow to the reputation one of the world's most respected wine-producing regions.
Louis Trebuchet, the President of the BIVB (Bureau Interprofessionel des Vins de Bourgogne) has been duly swift to recognise the damage done and to condemn the allegedly corrupt actions of a few.
He said: "The BIVB strongly and unreservedly condemns these [fraudulent] practices which are aimed at deceiving the consumer. They are damaging to the image of quality and authenticity of the wines of Burgundy and besmirch the good name of the entire wine industry whose members are the first to suffer the consequences."
Yet while news of criminal activity is bad enough on its own, such scandal sits even more uncomfortably when it is viewed in conjunction with the fact that Burgundy prices are likely to rise by at least 10% in the coming year.
Readers of just-drinks.com will already have been aware of the reports emanating from Burgundy, but perhaps more significant and potentially more damaging was the hushed-up disclosure last month of an alleged fraud in Tuscany, which makes the French affair look like child's play.
The silence surrounding the six-and-a-half million bottles of "falso Chianti" that slipped out of Italy last year has been deafening.
Six and half million bottles of "Chianti" is equivalent in volume to 10% of the total annual Chianti production. Yet somehow, this vast production has managed to escape the country with next to no fuss from the international press and global industry. Ridiculous but apparently true.
Despite the colossal size of the reported scam, the Italian Trade Commission in London declined to hand over to just-drinks.com details (in English) of the criminal investigations that have led to the arrest of nine suspects. What now remains is complete confusion.
And though reports in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica seem to confirm the story, no guidance has been given to merchants, consular officials know nothing and reports in the press remain few and far between. Can a scam of this size simply be ignored?
To add to the woes of Italy's wine exporters, the world's fine wine sippers are still reeling from the discovery back in June 2000 of a fake haul (worth $200,000) of southern Italy's most valuable wine, the "Super Tuscan" Sassicaia.
All together it paints a pretty grim picture for the European wine trade in general. And with the New World bearing down on its European rivals with growing confidence, meticulous regulations must now be instituted if confidence is to be restored.
The ISO 9002, a hitherto optional stamp of approval that is obtained from the EU's federal government in Brussels, may be the way forward.
The mention of ISOs is like a self-destruct button when it comes to engaging journalism, but I beg you to make an exception in this case as the 9002 is a piece of legislation that might just provide the wake-up call the European wine industry requires.
A spokesman for Societe Goichot, one firm wrongly implicated in the Burgundy fiasco, believes the price of establishing the controls needed for the maintenance of the ISO 9002 would be in the region of FF750,000 per company. But the cost is possibly worth it.
According to the esteemed Bordeaux negociant Charles Sichel his firm is the only one in Bordeaux certified with ISO 9002 in every department and he remains confident about its use. Not only does it provide legal transparency of all the company's transactions (to an extremely fine degree) but Sichel claims it also sharpens up his staff and the firm's overall market edge.
He told just-drinks.com: "If there's a problem with an order we can go through our system with ease; we can trace it back to how it was prepared when it was prepared and by whom it was prepared.
"The reason we introduced it (the 9002) was because it would help us improve and streamline our business to make it more cost effective.
"For people working in the company who have had the company's runnings explained to them, they understand why they have to do a particular task. And it is amazing how people who have understood what they are doing become so much more motivated. They don't want to screw up (a particular task) because of the knock-on effect they know it will have for someone else in the company."
But of course fraud in the international maze of the wine trade is relative, which is what makes it such a difficult subject to debate. What is fraudulent in the Old World is not necessarily a crime in the New World. While for traditionalist, much of the New World's wine is fraudulent.
According to the strictures of "terroir" and the extreme protectionism that encapsulates the Old World philosophy, an Australian vineyard, for instance, is "hors sol" (literally "out of the soil"); that is to say that if the grape grower did not water the plants they would wither and die. IN reality they would say, nature does not want Wolf Blass.
To your average French Vigneron, the idea that Australia's finest wine, Penfold's Grange, is made from grapes grown all round the country is undoubtedly fraudulent - as such practices would be in Bordeaux or Rioja if it was discovered that grapes were moving in from neighbouring districts.
If the Old (European) World were to stick to its identity of being the bastion of tradition - which does not seem likely - its reliance on legislation that guarantees provenance would remain huge. As would the potential to be defrauded of course.
Similarly, if the New World were to stand by its image of being inexorably stationed in the vanguard of modernisation - which is equally unlikely - then its need for legislation and the risk of fraud would remain almost none.
So, as was said, in the world of wine, fraud is a relative concept and while in one another's eyes both New and Old World are fraudulent (the one defrauding nature and the other the consumer) both zones look set to play the villain.
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