Margaret and Dick   


June 2011: A juicy fraud

In case you hadn’t noticed, I like wine.  A lot.  When we moved to Limoux years ago, it was famous for its bubbly wine, the Blanquette de Limoux, and its Chardonnay was  beginning  to get noticed internationally.  The local reds – that’s what we drink most – were okay for everyday but nothing to put into the cellar.  No problem, we happily enjoyed reds from adjacent terroirs such as Corbières, Minervois, and Fitou. 

But then we began to notice more plantings of Merlot and Cabernet (as in Bordeaux) and Syrah and Grenache (as in our adjacent Languedoc regions).  Whoopee, the Limoux area was declared to have both the Atlantic climate of Bordeaux and the Mediterranean climate of the Languedoc, the best of both worlds.  Any cyclist can tell you that the winds around here alternate from one direction to the other, at roughly three-day intervals.  New mixed Atlantic-Mediterranean blends were perfected, eventually reaching AOC status, which is like sainthood in the wine world. 

Sieur d’Arques, the 800-lb gorilla of Limoux wines, eagerly jumped on the red wine bandwagon, bringing its formidable marketing machine to the party.  Sieur d’Arques (SdA), officially a co-op with 500 growers around Limoux, evolved toward the model of Mondavi or Gallo in the US, producing mostly affordable table wines but also some really fine wine from selected parcels. 

Around 2004, we heard that Sieur d’Arques had signed a contract with Gallo.  Gallo would distribute its wines in the USA under a new label, Red Bicyclette.  Cute name:  Franglais, with a cute bicycle on the label, and attractive selling points:  “Crafted with hand-picked grapes from sun-drenched Languedoc-Roussillon”  (per Gallo website).  They started with grapes that grow well in Limoux:  a red blend of Merlot, Cabernet, and Syrah, plus Chardonnay for the white wine.  This was huge news in our region, where the wine business had long been suffering from ineffective international marketing and distribution.  "Red Bicyclette wines reflect the warmth and charm of the Southern French countryside" (per Gallo ads).

Then along came the movie Sideways, which greatly increased American demand for Pinot Noir wines.   Gallo had to add a Pinot Noir to its Red Bicylette Languedoc wine list.   They offered a lucrative contract to SdA to supply wine labeled Pinot Noir.  Can do, said SdA, and some 18 million bottles were exported during 2006-2008. 

There’s just one problem.  Notoriously difficult to grow, Pinot Noir grapes demand a cool climate and moist weather and risk rot if things go awry.  Burgundy and Oregon, both at the 45th parallel, are just right for Pinot Noir.  Limoux is far to the south and much hotter and drier.  Only a small number of growers have vines at sufficiently high elevations to produce a good Pinot Noir around here.   Gallo wanted more Pinot Noir than the Limoux co-op’s own growers could produce, so the co-op approached some nearby negociant firms, who were happy to help.   

SdA succeeded in exporting to Gallo more than the total amount of Pinot Noir grown in the entire Languedoc region – two-and-a-half times the region’s production, reportedly, and eight times more Pinot than the co-op growers could supply.

It’s a lot like buying Italian olive oil.   Italy produces more olive oil than all Italian olive trees can yield.  But do you really mind that the “Italian” olive oil comes from North Africa or Spain?  It tastes good, doesn’t it?  And the price is right.

Somebody had to blow the whistle here, and finally a French export official noted that SdA was exporting more Pinot Noir than was physically possible to produce in the region.  The perpetrators – SdA and its partner negociants – were tried in 2010 found guilty as charged.  The purported Pinot Noir was made from much cheaper, less finicky grapes. 

The judge ordered fines and suspended sentences.  It was a sad day for the reputation of Languedoc wines.  We admire SdA – and even own a vine in one of their vineyards.

“I would have labeled it yogurt if they had asked me to,” said one of the defendants.
“Nobody was fooled, because everybody knew about it,” said another.
"But no consumer ever complained," said the lawyer for the defendants, with a Gallic shrug.  (That’s my personal favorite.)

Gallo was not a defendant in the case, and Gallo was reportedly shocked – shocked! – by the allegations.

Nobody went to jail, although some received suspended sentences.  The total profit to all French parties from the sales was 7M euros, of which SdA made a profit of 1.3M euro.  Total fines levied by the judge:  less that 300,000 euros.  Does crime pay?

Upon returning to Limoux this year I was surprised to see this “false Pinot” scandal back in the news.  The defendants had chosen to appeal the judgment.  Bad call:  the appeals court confirmed the original guilty ruling and handed down stiffer jail terms (though still suspended).  The press waxed eloquent.  “The Red Bicyclette’s tires are flat, and its frame is broken.”   The Red Bicyclette brand still appears on Gallo’s website , but newsletters in the wine trade note that Gallo has broken off its relationship with SdA,  cutting off the co-op’s lucrative US distribution channel.  As Margaret says in the world of finance, “Pigs get fat; hogs get slaughtered.”  Oh, and also, “Honesty is the best policy.”

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