Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Red Bicyclette fraud -- a contrarian view

By now you have probably read that 12 members of a French consortium were convicted of fraudulently selling Merlot and Syrah as Pinot Noir to Gallo, to be bottled under the Red Bicyclette label.

I've been reading the finger-pointing stories, such as Dave McIntyre's piece in today's Washington Post, and maybe it's jet lag, but I can't help feeling contrarian.

I know it's a crime, and I'm glad the French authorities are taking it seriously. But I don't feel sorry at all for consumers who were duped.

Here's why: Why would anybody expect Pinot Noir from the Languedoc region from Gallo for $8 to be good in the first place?

If you only have $8 to spend on wine, you should be looking for competence, not greatness. And you most definitely should not be looking for Pinot Noir.

Taking it one step further, anybody who thinks an $8 bulk-wine Pinot Noir from the Languedoc is worth drinking would never notice that it's not Pinot Noir, which is exactly why the crime took so long to detect.

Moreover, while I think Gallo does a great job with some of its cheap labels -- some of the Twin Valley line are excellent -- I have never liked Red Bicyclette. If somebody falls for that silly label with the cartoon Frenchman, rather than buying a real French-run value wine from the same region (and there are plenty), then I just don't feel all that sorry for them.

It's a crime, for sure. But it's more of a crime against the rest of the industry than against the consumers who bought the bottles. The French conspirators, as well as Gallo, gave some Americans an unrealistic expectation of how cheap Pinot Noir can be. That hurt legitimate growers all over the world who were unable to move their $25 Pinots -- and even $25 is pretty cheap for drinkable Pinot. I'll cry for struggling vintners, but my eyes are dry for Red Bicylette buyers. It's just like when somebody sidles up to you and offers you a Rolex for $50: You get what you pay for.


Jack said...

Isn't what mattered to Gallo was being able to label/sell their wine in the US as pinot noir?

Why even for the moment assume that Gallo didn't know? Aren't they, in general, damn smart?

I mean, com'on, is someone going to purchase 2,000,000 gallons of Mendocino Lagrein, and then later realize, oh, they don't make that much in total there? I don't think so. Not at all.

Anonymous said...

Blake -
"Self-righteous" or not, I think we actually agree on this. If you read my piece to the end, you will see that I give a plug for small importers who bring quality wines into the market - even at $8 from the Languedoc. (These aren't pinot, of course, but grenache, syrah and cinsault ... )

Dave McIntyre

W. Blake Gray said...

I'm willing to accept that Gallo didn't actually "know" -- the risk would be pretty great if they did. But they also didn't actively suspect a price that really was too good to be true.

W. Blake Gray said...

Dave, I'm sorry, I think I'm jet-lagged and cranky, and "self-righteous" is unfair. I'm editing it out. Thanks for being the adult in this room.

Dave McIntyre said...

And our disagreement is where?

Dave McIntyre said...

That's OK - you can leave it in, I can take it. I think we're on the same side of this though!


Mike Dunne said...

Despite your jet lag, Blake, you leapfrogged right over "competent" on your way from "good" to "great." Granted, consumers shouldn't expect "great" pinot noir for $8 the bottle, but "good," "competent" and with at least a recognizable element of pinot noir, yes. Certainly, anyone marketing pinot noir with a straight face should know whether it's pinot noir. What what I really want to know is why Gallo says it has no way to identify scientifically one varietal from another, but Constellation says it does.

W. Blake Gray said...

Dave: I think our disagreement is in my greater disdain for the whole concept of the wine in question. But it is perhaps just a matter of degree.

Mike: That's a very good point, and one I hope the TTB will ask.

But in answer to both of you, and furthering my cranky jet-lagged image, ever since the 2004 presidential election, I tend to blame not the system, the government or the corporations, but the American people. We know better than to do some of the stupid stuff we do, but we do it anyway.

It may seem like a leap from re-electing GW Bush to buying $8 Gallo Languedoc Pinot Noir -- or, acting shocked, SHOCKED that Mark McGwire took steroids; or believing we won't gain weight eating a whole vat of sugared frozen yoghurt because it's not ice cream. But they're all willful ignorance.

Somebody on this blog needs to sleep now ...

Anonymous said...

When a company that made its fortune selling "Hearty Burgundy" and "Chablis" decides they need to put Pinot Noir on a bottle, of even Languedoc wine, in order to sell it, the company needs to know for certain what is inside the bottle.
Otherwise, they should call it French Red Table Wine and let their ad agency generate demand for it. Which is what E&J Gallo did until G3 came along.

Peter Minde said...

I've had a couple of Languedoc "pinot noirs," neither of them Red Biciclette, that tasted nothing like PN should taste. This is what can happen when there's a mad scramble to bottle something that happens to be the flavor of the moment.

I can't imagine why anyone would plant pinot noir in the Languedoc to begin with when there are so many great varietals more appropriate for the terroir.