The French wine fraud scandal crossed the Atlantic last week, as federal regulators said they are investigating U.S. importers who sold French “pinot noir” that was actually made from different grapes.
As reported here last week, a French court on Feb. 17 convicted 12 people in the Languedoc region of southern France of passing off merlot and syrah wine as the more expensive pinot noir to the U.S. firm E&J Gallo. Gallo sold the wine as pinot noir under its popular Red Bicyclette label.
Gallo bought the wine from the French wine brokerage Sieur d'Arques. Although Gallo was not implicated of any wrongdoing in the French court case, U.S. officials are investigating whether the California wine giant violated any U.S. laws in selling the wine as pinot noir.
The Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) “has begun investigations to determine the appropriate actions to take regarding the American importers of these mislabeled wines,” the agency said on its Web site.
When the convictions were announced, Gallo said it would “continue to work with the appropriate U.S. authorities to determine any next steps required for potentially mislabeled Pinot Noir in the marketplace.”
Importers must apply to the TTB for approval of wine labels, including the images and information conveyed on them. TTB spokesman Arthur Resnick would not comment directly on the investigation or confirm its targets, citing bureau policy. But he said that even if the U.S. importers were duped by their French suppliers, they may have violated some U.S. laws. “Under our laws, importers are responsible for label approvals [from TTB], so they are responsible for what goes in the bottles,” Resnick said. He then used a classic Washington phrase: “We will be going to these companies and asking what they knew, and when they knew it.”
These companies? The French court case centered on wine sold to Gallo, but the other U.S. wine giant, Constellation Brands, acknowledged last week that it had also purchased pinot noir from Sieur d'Arques and another supplier implicated in the French case. Constellation said it had independent experts test the wine before it was shipped from France and they confirmed the wine was indeed pinot noir.
However, that does not convince the TTB, as it waits for official translations of documents in the French fraud investigation. Constellation is clearly part of its initial inquiries, and more companies could be involved. “I think there are others, but we won't know for certain until we see the French documentation,” Resnick said.
This report appeared in slightly different form Feb. 26 on The Washington Post's All We Can Eat blog.