Comment - The Losh Cause - Gallo's Pinot No-No

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There are certain sentences I never thought I’d write, and the following is one of them: I feel sorry for Gallo.

I mean, let’s take a look at the facts. They unwittingly paid Pinot Noir prices for a mish-mash of cheaper grapes, got caught up in the fall-out when the whole thing came to light (the ensuing publicity can’t have done their Red Bicyclette brand much good) and are now, according to the latest reports, to be sued by a Mr Mark Zeller in the US who, presumably, is citing mental trauma for drinking Carignan instead of Pinot.

To be honest, I doubt the lawsuit will come to anything, since to have any hope of success it would need to prove that Gallo were in some way complicit, and there’s no evidence at all that this was the case. The whole thing looks more like a bit of good ol’ fashioned ambulance chasing.

More perturbing is the faintly sinister release from the Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) that intoned that is has “begun investigating to determine the appropriate course of action”. Now that’s an organisation you really wouldn’t want on your case...

The thing about wine scandals, of course, is that they’re not really scandals at all – they occur far too regularly for that. In the same way that an extreme weather event can’t be deemed extreme if it occurs year in year out, so the wine industry has a truly impressive record of mislabelling, adulterating and generally turning a blind eye to all manner of nefarious activity.

Burgundy has seen producers mixing cheap AC Bourgogne into Grand Cru wine – or even simply putting generic Burgundy into bottles with more prestigious labels. South African wines were caught up in the whole ‘pepper essence’ scandal a few years back, where otherwise bland Sauvignon Blancs were given a little added cool-climate zip with the addition of methoxypyrazines. While in Italy (as you might imagine) bending of the rules has become an art form.

So serious is the problem there that, in 2007, the government set up a dedicated wine fraud task force. In 2008, stocks of Brunello were impounded by police, and as recently as December there were fears about Tuscan wine being beefed up by reds from outside the region.

None of the above mentioned scandals were physically harmful (though i seem to remember an Italian scandal in the 1970s involving methyl alcohol that was). Adding a bit of Merlot to a Pinot Noir is not like finding ground glass in baby food, or discovering that the accelerator on your Toyota sticks to the floor.

The problem, of course, is mental rather than physical; when they come to light the public feels conned.

It would be particularly true of the Gallo Pinot-that-wasn’t story, since the grape has acquired a demi-god status among the US wine drinking public on the back of the film Sideways. How bad do you think punters felt that the wine they had been drinking to prove their sophistication was not a chi-chi Pinot, but an undistinguished chimera?  It would simply underline how little they actually knew. No wonder they’re angry...

And yet, you can turn the whole ‘trust’ issue round. The reason there seem to be so many more wine scandals these days is that more people are getting caught, whereas 20 years ago they would probably have got away with it. There is an irony that as the industry does its best to clean its house, it looks dirtier than ever.

There are two further issues, as well. Firstly, I would imagine that some of the fly practice that we see at the producer end is, at least in part, a reaction to the kind of ever-more stringent demands made by the buyers, whether a supermarket or a big brand.

If you’ve been beaten down and down on price, or told that you need to fatten up that skinny mid-palate, it must be tempting to tip in something cheaper or richer, even if it’s not meant to be there.

Secondly, all of these scandals simply show how incredibly open wine production actually is. Make yoghurt or burgers and your industry will be regulated to the nth degree. For wine, much of it is still done on trust – even for big orders like Gallo’s half-a-million litres of Pinot.

It is time, I would suggest, for more producers to put their credibility beyond doubt and sign up for ISO accreditation. A few wineries have done it, but they remain very much in the minority. And until companies take the traceability of their products seriously and can actually guarantee 100% that what is on the label is also in the bottle, the scandals will keep on coming, and the public’s trust will keep on being eroded.


Sectors: Wine

Companies: E&J Gallo

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