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France vs. USA: The great Pinot Noir swindle

How exactly did Americans get duped into buy 18 million bottles of falsely-labeled French wine?

"I'll bring you some dishwater, you'll never know the difference," quips a Parisian waiter when Chevy Chase's bumbling American tourist orders a glass of red wine in the 1980s comedy "European Vacation." This remark seems to reflect the operating principle of a large wine merchant in the Languedoc region of France, who in recent years has passed off a staggering 18 million bottles of cheap Merlot and Syrah wines to American consumers as a pricier Pinot Noir. Ernest & Julio Gallo, the U.S.'s largest wine distributor, was the unwitting middleman in the scam, selling the bogus product under its "Red Bicyclette" label. Here, a bottled guide to this dizzying international incident:

Who is behind the scam?
French wine industry figures from the Languedoc region, including "executives from wine estates, cooperatives, a broker, wine merchant Ducasse, and conglomerate Sieur d'Arques." According to court records, the 12 people responsible for the racket made about 7 million euros.

How long was it going on for?
Over two years, from 2006 to March 2008. It was uncovered when
French customs officers detected that the so-called Pinot Noir was made up of "an inferior and much cheaper blend of grapes."

Did anyone notice?
No. In the words of one of the defendants' lawyers: "Not a single American consumer complained." Gallo's experts didn't notice either, and at least one wine seller found the fake Pinot Noir to be rich in "dark fruit and smooth tannins" with a "hint of cinnamon from the subtle oak aging."

Does that mean Americans are ignorant about wine?
Yes, says Chris Losh of Imbibe Magazine. "Consumers generally are in profound ignorance when it comes to wine" — in fact, most Americans would "struggle to know what Pinot Noir tastes like." Though Eric Arnold at Forbes points out that mass-produced wine is often "unrecognizable as one variety or another." On taste alone, even the wine experts at Gallo would have been hard-pressed to know for sure what they were tasting.

Why do Americans love Pinot Noir so much?
American drinkers are said to prefer "single-grape wines" like Pinot Noir over "blended wines like Bordeaux." The 2004 film "Sideways" may also be to blame, says Scott Jagow at American Public Media. The main character's hatred of merlot and love of Pinot sent the former's price "plunging" and "jacked up the price of Pinot for no good reason."

What are the chances I've had fake wine?
Not high if you're a true wine lover, says Arnold. "No oenophile in his or her right mind would ever buy Red Bicyclette." But, if you did buy a bottle of Red Bicyclette you may still have got real Pinot Noir. Gallo said only its 2006 vintages were made with the falsely labeled wine, and it is no longer selling them to customers.

Will there be a recall?
It's unlikely. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which regulates U.S. wine imports, says they wouldn't demand a voluntary recall "unless there is a health issue" — and Gallo says there isn't one.

I have a bottle. Can I get my money back?
Gallo hasn't yet said whether it will offer refunds — but to make your case, give them a call at 877-687-9463.

Should I drink French wine again?
Absolutely, says Bill Ward at the Star Tribune. But it's also important to send a message to American wine companies who don't appear to care about the quality of their products. "Boycotting anything with 'E&J Gallo' on the label is a start."

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