Ever since the success of “Sideways,” Pinot Noir has been the wine of choice for many in the U.S. If you’re a frequent wine drinker, it’s likely that you’ve consumed some in the past week or two.
Or have you?
Back in February, a dozen members of the French wine trade were arrested for selling fake Pinot Noir to E & J Gallo for their popular Red Bicyclette brand. They were later convicted by a French court. The evildoers included employees of wine merchant Ducasse, as well as the large firm of Sieur d’Arques. Altogether, a total of 18 million bottles (1.5 million cases) of Merlot and Syrah were passed off as Pinot Noir.
Even though they were the targets of fraud, there were cynics who felt that Gallo could not possibly be blameless in this case. They have been the leading American wine company since the 1930s, controlling nearly 60 different labels and a rumored one-third of U.S. production; they are masterful at agriculture, blending and marketing. How likely is it that they couldn’t tell the difference between Syrah and Pinot Noir?
Nor is the story over. A class action lawsuit has been filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, this time against Constellation, the world’s largest wine company, which controls such brands as Clos du Bois, Ravenswood, Estancia and Mondavi Woodbridge. The suit alleges that Constellation knowingly bought Merlot and Syrah from Sieur d’Arques and passed it off as Pinot Noir. “Constellation is one of the largest and most sophisticated wine manufacturers and sellers in the world,” asserts the lawsuit, “and its wine experts can easily examine the wine and discern from its characteristics the difference between wine made from Pinot Noir and wine made from inferior, less expensive grapes.”
Coincidentally, I’ve been tasting a great deal of inexpensive wine recently while working on my ebook, The Affordable Wine Guide to California and the Pacific Northwest, which will be released this fall. I had a bottle of Estancia Pinot Noir the other night. While the wine was pleasant, it bore little resemblance to Pinot Noir, and in fact displayed the aroma profile and earthiness of Syrah.
All of this is important because it relates to the essence of how we choose wine in America. Most Americans make their selections based on grape variety—Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, etc. They’ve been trained to do this over a period of several decades, and they make their choices based on a perceived aroma and flavor profile they expect to receive.
There’s nothing wrong with horsemeat, either . In fact, some people like it. But it’s cheaper than steak, and should not be sold as such.