Thu 26 Jan 2012
The “pinotgate” scandal is old news, but the settlement in the class-action suit occurred a few days ago.
Wine industry giants E&J Gallo and Constellation Brands agreed to a $2.1 million payout to consumers who purchased bottles of their inexpensive California wines filled with merlot and syrah passed off as pinot noir by a wily French entrepreneur. That’s right, whoever bought bulk wine for Gallo and Constellation between 2006 and 2008 was fooled by the plonk that would be pinot — 20 million bottles-worth — and approved it for sale under several labels selling to American wine-drinkers for $5 to $8. The Gallo labels were Red Bicyclette, Redwood Creek and Turning Leaf; the Constellation brands were Farallon, Rex Goliath, Talus and Robert Mondavi Woodbridge. (Constellation acquired Robert Mondavi in December 2004.) The fake pinot noir, from the Languedoc-Roussillon region, was shipped to our shores by a firm called Sieur d’Arques, who had purchased the bulk wine from the culprits in the deal, Ducasse Wine Merchants. A dozen Frenchmen were convicted of the fraud last year but got off (seems to me) with slaps on their manly French wrists. You can practically hear the argument: “Zut alors, it’s just a bunch of Americains. What do ze know about le vin anyway?”
Consumers may receive up to $21 even if they do not have receipts from purchasing the wines mentioned above. I know that I certainly saved my receipt from the bottle of Red Bicyclette I bought in 2007. For details of the settlement — and to see if you are entitled to a few bucks — visit frenchpinotnoirsettlement.
What tickles my admittedly perverse funny-bone is the idea that the buyers at Sieur d’Arques, Gallo and Constellation had no idea that they were purchasing bottles of merlot and syrah with perhaps a bit of pinot noir blended in. Perhaps they should have followed the advice on how to tell if a wine is pinot noir from the folks on the website of Sunset magazine, quoted by Jill Krasny writing for Business Insider:
Check the color. Pinot grapes should be nearly transparent.
Break down the flavor. “Sniff for cloves and cinnamon, violets and mint, mushrooms and loam under the fruit. And taste for licorice, olives, espresso?…”
Scrutinize the weight. Pinot should be delicate and silky, not full-bodied and “dramatic.”
(Olives and espresso? Those qualities seem rather anomalous for pinot noir.)
‘Scuse me while I fall off my chair laughing. When was the last time you tried a pinot noir wine whose color was “nearly transparent”? (I assume that the intention was to say “wine” rather than “grapes.”) When was the last time you tasted a pinot noir that was “delicate and silky”? I’m talking particularly about pinots from California and Oregon, where alcohol levels of 15 percent or more are common, where the wines are deeply extracted for opaque, brooding color and super-ripe, syrah-like flavors, where “full-bodied and dramatic” pinot noirs are as reckless as deductions on Mitt Romney’s tax return. Every week I taste purported pinot noirs that display all the character of a syrah or zinfandel in their darkness, richness, extreme spicy qualities, extravagant textures and burdensome tannins. I recently came across a producer of limited edition, high-end pinots whose motto is “Bold Decadent Daring.” Whatever happened to “Reticent Elegant Balanced”?
No wonder the noses and palates at Gallo and Constellation couldn’t tell that the “pinot” they were buying was actually mostly merlot and syrah. (We have to assume, of course, that they cared. Would I be cynical enough to suggest that the big deal for Gallo and Constellation was not that they bought fake pinot but that they were bamboozled by the French?) What’s a nose and palate to do when so many pinot noir wines, even made from 100 percent pinot noir grapes, carry all the effects of merlot or syrah or zinfandel? And if the result of farming the vineyard and tinkering with the wine is a pinot noir that resembles syrah, why bother with making pinot noir in the first place? Just make freakin’ syrah and be done with it.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it today and probably in the future too. Winemakers who do not try to bring out the best qualities of their grapes, that is the character inherent in the grapes grown in the most sympathetic and advantageous soil and climate, are making wine in bad faith. A high-alcohol, deeply extracted, super-ripe, excessively spicy pinot noir of which one is compelled to say, “That certainly is a syrah-like [or zinfandel-like] pinot noir,” does not have the right to the name pinot noir. I’m not saying the all pinots not made in Burgundy must slavishly follow the Burgundian model; obviously geography, latitude, elevation, climate and soil will impose their subtle or not-so-subtle influences. The pinot noir grape, however, performs at its best when it is allowed to assume its gratifying and paradoxical blending of elegance and power, of delicacy and sinew, nuance and structure, transparency and luster. Winemakers should pay heed to what grapes know best about themselves and want to express most eloquently; everything else is an exercise in ego.
By the way, the composition of the Red Bicylette Pinot Noir 2009? 86 percent pinot noir, 7 percent syrah, 7 percent merlot.