In the biggest recent scandal in the wine world recently, 12 people in France have been found guilty of defrauding E&J Gallo, one of the world’s largest wine companies. Over a three-year period, 18 million bottles’ worth of Pinot Noir was sold by a French wine company to Gallo for its Red Bicyclette label. Except it turns out that likely only a third of the wine was actually Pinot Noir, with the balance being made up of Merlot, Syrah, or some other much less expensive grape.
While the scale of the Gallo fraud was breathtaking, it’s yet another chapter in a lively history of wine fraud. There was that Brunello di Montalcino scandal just a couple of years ago. In 2004, some South African Sauvignon Blanc was adulterated to make it taste more like green pepper. In 1985, some Austrian wine producers added antifreeze to their wines to make them taste better (how bad could the wines have been that poison could make them taste better?). And in 1993, Fred Franzia, the famous creator of Two Buck Chuck, was fined and forced to step down as chairman of his company after passing off lesser grapes as Zinfandel. The high end of wine is not immune either. Auction houses are positively paranoid about fraudulent wine. Today’s most high-profile case is that of a rich wine collector and his evidently fraudulent Thomas Jefferson bottles.
I called Cameron Hughes, a California-based wine negociant (he sources quantities of good bulk wine and then blends and bottles it under his own name), and asked if the deception of Gallo surprised him. His answer? “Oh God no,” he said, and continued, “It’s not going to affect anybody.” He mentioned that most wine consumers probably won’t even hear about the case, and added that the wine is already through the system—bought, sold, and drunk. He could also understand how Gallo might have fallen victim to such a scam. “It was during the Pinot Noir heyday. Pinot was so expensive, so on fire, that you had to have it. It looks like Pinot, smells like Pinot, tastes like Pinot … at that price point they were selling that, it was just a light, fruity red wine.”
As it is, California’s official stand on blending leaves a lot of wiggle room. Golden State wine laws stipulate that only 75 percent of the wine in a bottle has to be the grape variety stated on the label, and only 85 percent of the wine has to be from the claimed vintage. While I consider such loose standards to be legalized deception, Hughes disagrees. “Most red wines are not 100 percent varietal. It allows everybody the flexibility to do whatever’s right by the wine,” he said. “If adding 3 percent Syrah gives you a better product, more power to you. We’re always putting ’08 Cabernet into our ’07 stuff. It makes better wine. It just does. It’s when people try to hide the fact and lie about it [that it becomes deceptive].”
I’ve always respected Hughes for his openness about such practices. He firmly believes that he’s able to make better wine at lower prices by blending vintages and varieties, and his wines are good. However I like to know exactly what I’m drinking, because it’s essential to furthering my own understanding of wine. Yet I’m also reconciling myself to the fact that most of the time we can’t know exactly what’s in the bottle. And a good percentage of the time, the wine is probably not quite what we believe it to be. Any purported wine fraudster—selling bulk “Pinot” or bottles said to be owned by Thomas Jefferson—will tell you that the only important question is, “Does it make you happy?” For me, that’s merely the starting point.
Two Wines So Good They Can’t Be Frauds
Domaine du Vissoux Beaujolais Vieilles Vignes Cuvée Traditionnelle 2008—This has got to be the real deal because no one would fake a wine that’s only 11.5 percent alcohol; rather, they’d bump it up with something a bit heartier. But this wine needs no bump. It’s ripe, it’s deep, and it’s delicious. The lack of alcohol is no problem: Drink an extra glass with your pork chop or bean soup and feel no pain. This wine can often be found for $16, and it’s a steal.
Château Guiraud Sauternes 2005—You can’t really fake botrytis, the “noble rot” that makes Sauternes possible (though you can induce its growth). And why would you, when you can get wines like this at such a reasonable price: around $30 for a half-bottle? With great acidity and an amazing diversity of flavors (fruit, honey, and spice), this wine is ridiculously close to perfect Sauternes.