Category:Wine news

French pinot noir scandal

image Or, what happens when the wine you ?re drinking isn ?t made from the grapes that are listed on the label.

French authorities say that millions of gallons of wine from southern France were fraudulently sold as pinot noir and exported to the U.S. over the last four years. This comes from Decanter, the British wine magazine, which reports that the non-pinot pinot was sold by winemakers and cooperatives in the Languedoc region to the Ducasse negociant firm, which in turn sold the wine to distributor Sieur d'Arques for sale in the U.S. The authorities aren ?t sure where in that chain the fraud occurred, and they aren ?t sure which wines in the U.S., if any, contain the fake pinot.

Why does this matter? Because inexpensive pinot noir from the south of France has become quite popular in the U.S. this decade, with labels like Red Bicyclette, Lulu B., Fat Bastard, and French Maid producing pinot for $10 or $12 a bottle. Again, there is no indication at this time that any of these wines have the fake pinot.

That price is one-half to one-third the price of most of the least expensive pinots made in Burgundy and California. In fact, a southern French pinot style has emerged in the last seven or eight years, distinctly different from those in Burgundy and California ? it ?s juicier, fruiter and less sophisticated.

After the jump, comment from some of those producers and details about how the fraud could have happened:

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Tuesday wine bits 64: Wine web awards, Las Rocas, Aussie wildfires

? American Wine Blog Awards: There was some doubt this year whether the awards would happen, but apparently they ?re on (with sponsors, even). I don ?t mention this so you can support the Wine Curmudgeon, since I don ?t think I was nominated — I ?m too shy to nominate himself. I mention this because the awards are a terrific way to see who is doing good wine writing on the Internet (or bad writing, as the case may be). In addition, if wine blogging is to advance in the world, we need to take it seriously, and these awards are one of doing that.

? Gallo buys Las Rocas: This is big news, and probably even more shocking than it is big. Las Rocas is a well respected Spanish label. Its $12 garnacha, with the makes a lot of best cheap wine lists). It was imported by the even more well respected Eric Solomon, who is one of the top names in Spanish wine. I don ?t know anyone in the business who isn ?t shocked that Solomon sold the brand. Whatever the reason, expect to see more sales like this as the recession deepens. Big producers like Gallo have the deep pockets to pick up labels if the owner needs cash.

? Wildfires scorch Aussie wine country: As if the Australians didn ?t have enough problems, the wildfires that devastated the country and killed more than 180 people last week also destroyed vineyards and wineries, especially in the Yarra Valley. The Yarra is one of the most important regions in southeastern Australia.

Tuesday wine bits 63: K-J layoffs, 2006 Bordeaux, cult winemakers

? The recession hits Jackson Family wines: The major U.S. producer, best known for its flagship Kendall-Jackson brand, laid off about 170 people over the last two weeks, culminating in what employees called Black Friday on Jan. 30. Said a company spokeswoman: ?There are a variety of factors affecting the economy right now and we needed to adjust our staffing levels beyond our annual seasonal temporary help. In light of that there was a needed reduction in force today affecting every area of the organization." Jackson employs about 800 people. This may well be the first of many hits suffered by wineries that have ramped up production for $15 and over wines, as I noted last week. The K-J parent has 36 labels, including La Crema, Cambria, Byron, and Arrowood.

? 2006 Bordeaux tasting: It may well have been the social event of the Dallas wine season, and the wine wasn ?t bad either. Last week ?s tasting, sponsored by the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux, attracted 500 people from throughout the middle of the country. It was part of a four-city tour featuring almost 100 Bordeaux wines. I ?ll write more about the wines later (I ?m on the track of an outstanding $15 red Bordeaux), but what struck me was not only the turnout, but that literally everyone who has anything to do with wine in the Dallas area was there. That almost never happens. It was much social hour as wine tasting.

? From the not having enough to do with your life department: Some wine drinkers are starting to treat cult winemakers the way other people do celebrity chefs, ball players, and the like. They ?ll wait in long lines to shake their hands at tastings or plan their vacations around visiting wineries. In this, we have another horrible legacy from the movie Sideways.

Judging a wine competition

Judging a wine competition is not an easy thing. This does not mean that the Wine Curmudgeon is complaining about doing it; as noted several times, what I do beats working for a living. Rather, I mention it in context with a study in a learned journal that says wine competition judges are not always consistent.

This is particularly relevant because I judged a competition last weekend, the San Antonio Wine Competition, part of the city ?s very well received wine festival. I ?ll post a podcast later this week, featuring San Antonio wine critic John Griffin. My thanks, also, to John Costello, who put together a fine event, for asking me to judge.

The study, which looked at the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition between 2005 and 2008, found that just 30 of the 65 judging panels produced similar results. In other words, judges gave the same wines different scores, including one instance when a panel gave one wine a double gold after rejecting it in two previous tastings.

Which makes perfect sense. Competitions, by their very nature, don’t allow for leisurely discussions of a wine’s merit. It’s sniff, sip, swirl, and spit, and then move on to the next wine. If there are inconsistencies, they aren ?t intentional. My panel judged about 120 wines in six hours on Saturday, including a category with 20 pinot grigios and 29 merlots.

Working through 29 merlots is a difficult task ? they taste alike, they look alike, and you don ?t have a lot of time to poke around for differences. And that doesn ?t include what ?s called tasting fatigue, in which the more wine you taste makes it harder to tell what you ?re tasting.

In this, I think judging is more honest than wine scores, since judging is more collaborative and is done blind. All we know is that this is a merlot, and we go from there. But that doesn ?t mean that we wouldn ?t like to improve the system.

The study ?s author, Robert Hodgson, says that ?s one of the reasons he did the study. The California competition ?s chief judge, G.M. Pucilowski, told Wines & Vines magazine that he hopes other competitions do similar studies, with the goal of establishing a baseline for judges that would reduce inconsistent results and improve the quality of results.

Everyone should be in favor of that.

2009 wine sales: Don’t expect much

The Wine Curmudgeon thought he would follow up his look at what ?s going to happen to prices and sales this year with some better numbers, courtesy of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, a California company that tracks sales.

In 2008, its research found that U.S. wine sales increased less than one percent, compared to four percent in 2007. That was the smallest increase this decade. The big winner was regional wine, up 3.4 percent, and the biggest loser was imported wine. It fell nearly 3 percent, thanks to the weak dollar. Said analyst Jon Fredrikson: “Frugality suddenly has become hip as consumers face uncertain economic times.”

Actually, as I noted in my two-part series, frugality has been hip for a while. It ?s just that the people trying to sell us pricey wine didn ?t want to believe it. The more I think about this, the more I ?m convinced that the recession will give the wine business a chance to remake itself in a more consumer-friendly direction, focusing on value and quality instead of scores and bloated, overpriced wine.

It said that the multi-nationals that dominate the business, like Gallo, Constellation, and Diageo, and companies that focus on cheap wine, like Bronco, makers of Two Buck Chuck, will continue to do well. The report noted that Gallo had 10 of the top-selling 25 wine brands in the country last year.

Frederikson, who was speaking at a major wine trade show, said grocery store brands are benefiting because more of us are eating at home. We ?re buying what we see in the supermarket when we buy the ingredients for dinner. And not only are we not going out to eat as much, but we ?re not buying as much wine when we do.

Wines that have built their business on wine lists at exclusive restaurants are in trouble. Wineries selling to high-end restaurants can’t expect a quick recovery, and will probably need to find new markets for their wine, such as direct-to-consumers or at retail with deep discounts, Frederikson said: ?The (restaurant) business is not going to come back to its glory days for quite some time. ?

Tuesday wine bits 62: South African wine, leaves Michigan, cheap wine gold medal

? Good news for South African wine: And from Eric Asimov at the New York Times, no less. Asimov, who has seen many of the same problems with South African wines that the rest of us have, writes that ?I want to tell you straight out that South Africa, of all places, is one of the greatest sources for moderately priced cabernet sauvignon on the planet today. ? This is, as Asimov notes, big news, since the quality of South African wine has traditionally been spotty. He recommends the cabernets from De Trafford, Rust en Vrede, and One Stroke One.

? Direct shipping takes a hit:, the biggest Internet retailer, says it won ?t sell wine in Michigan, a result of a new state law that bans retailers from shipping wine directly to consumers and prohibits UPS and FedEx from delivering wine. In this way, Michigan retailers and distributors found a way around the Supreme Court decision that made direct shipping easier. And, though it ?s disappointing news for those of us who want direct shipping, it ?s not surprising. Michigan ?s retail and distributor lobby is powerful, and the state has some of the most draconian liquor laws in the country, including state-set prices.

? Box wine wins best of class: Corbett Canyon ?s non-vintage merlot, which comes in a three-liter box and costs about $10, won Best of Class for Merlots below $15 at the 2009 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. In fact, the results were surprising in many ways, with top honors going to New Mexico and Long Island wines.

Wine trends 2009: “$10 wine is the new $100 wine”

This is the first of two parts looking at wine prices and consumption this year, and how they will affect those of us who drink cheap wine. Part II, which with my take on the situation, is here.

It isn ?t very surprising, given the economic doom and gloom around us, that wine prices and consumption will shrink this year. What is surprising is that most of the people I talked to don ?t expect wine to suffer as badly as housing, the stock market or any of the other parts of the economy that have collapsed since last summer.

Their thoughts: First, that we ?ll will drink less expensive wine, but not appreciably less expensive. This is what the business calls trading down. Second, consumption probably won ?t decrease, although sales might ? since we ?re drinking less expensive wine. Third, prices for imported wine, and especially French wine, will decrease slightly, and we should see that by the second half of the year. Fourth, there will be a shakeout among producers, mostly but not limited to Australia and California. Low-end wineries will go out of business Down Under, while we ?ll see California wineries making $35 and up wine close.

In this, so far, the numbers bear out their predictions. The Wine Market Council, an industry trade group, says sales gained 1.5 percent in 2008, compared to an earlier projection of 2.1 percent. Not bad, certainly, but is it the entire picture? Maybe, maybe not.

Consumption matters because it affects prices. If consumption drops, so will prices, as supply and demand work its magic. Consumption could drop because we ?re switching to beer, which is less expensive. It could drop because we order a glass instead of a bottle at a restaurant. Or we could eat at home more often, where many of us don ?t drink wine, instead of going out, where we do. And we could just cut back because we can ?t afford wine.

?There is not going to be a huge drop in consumption, ? says Robert Smiley, professor and director of wine studies in the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, who probably knows as much about this stuff as anyone. ?I think the $12 and up category is going to hurt a little more, because people are going to trade down and they ?re going to eat out less. But unless the economy really goes into a tailspin, there won ?t be a big drop. ?

The first casualty will be wine around $15, which has been the fastest growing price category over the past several years. We ?re already seeing anecdotal evidence of this, as my pal Alfonso Cevola has noted: ?They wanted to send palate after palate of overpriced wine into already bulging warehouses. As if they have been taking a siesta these last six months and think things are just as they have been. Business as usual. What a rude awakening they are in for. ?

And the numbers are starting to look that way, too. In December, wines priced above $11 lost dollar share, and wines priced $5-$7.99 also lost share. Boxed wine gained share along with wines priced below $5 and wines priced between $8 and $10.99. Or, as one headline put it: ?$10 wine is the new $100 wine. ?

The key for producers, says Bill Terlato, the president and CEO of Terlato Wine Group and Terlato Wines International, is not to panic. He says some cult wines, which never had a reason to exist other to get high scores, will disappear. They ?ll be victims of consumers trading down and their own finances, which were based on getting $100 a bottle for their product.

Terlato says he is already seeing some high-end producers dumping their product to generate cash. And some analysts are warning high-end producers and growers to prepare for up to 18 months of bad times, with fewer lenders lenders willing to finance cult efforts.

Two other points for those of us who care about cheap wine: First, Terlato says we will see better prices for imports, and especially French wine, later this year. It will take about six months to work through the inventory that was bought with weaker dollars. Second, Smiley says to expect dull, unimaginative wine lists as long as the recession lasts. Restaurateurs, facing a cutback in wine consumption and traffic, will stick with wines they know people will buy and won ?t take any chances.

Part II: Is this all, or will there be more serious ramifications?