Does wine fraud matter?

Wine fraud only seems to matter if the wines being counterfeited are well-known labels. Robert Joseph wonders why.

Photo by Jadon Barnes on Unsplash

The news that 50 Italian wine producers are accused of faking their wine, in collusion with a number of consorzios has been greeted with the usual blend of groan and yawn. This is a story we’ve all read far too often. The only element that changes is the nationality of the alleged wrongdoers. Last year they were French. Who knows? Maybe next time they’ll be Spanish. And we’ll all groan and yawn, and get on with what we are supposed to be doing.

Now, just in case of any doubt, I’m absolutely not condoning wine fakery. Anyone buying anything deserves to get what they believe they are paying for - whether it’s a cheap bottle of Chianti in a supermarket, or a Chateau Lafite that was supposed to have belonged to a long-dead US president.

But… assuming this story is like most of the ones that perceded it, the wines I question will be cheaper examples of the DOCs involved rather than significant brands, for the simple reason that there are so few real wine brands of any kind.

Now, when a properly branded product of any price is found to be wanting, the brand owner has to worry about its reputation and quite possibly its share price. And it has to react - by handling the media and if necessary renaming, ceasing production, or delisting the item concerned.

In 2010, Gallo was highly embarassed by the revelation that - unbeknownst to them - their Red Bicyclette Pinot Noir was made from other varieties. Despite having invested millions of dollars in the brand before and after its launch, the company quietly decided that its efforts were better spent on untainted products like Barefoot and new launches like Apothic and Dark Horse. Today Red Bicyclette is a name from the past.

But that won’t be the case for the Chianti or Montepulciano d’Abbruzzo, Barolo or Brunello that may be involved in this case - even if officials working for the relevant consorzios were to be charged, found guilty and imprisoned. (Though, this being a European wine scandal, the chances of anyone actually doing time behind bars is very slim.)

Are shoppers in discounter stores pausing even momentarily before reaching for the Chateauneuf du Pape following 2017’s scandal surrounding the French bottler, Raphaël Michel? Did supermarkets even, for a second, consider removing Côtes du Rhône from their shelves in fear of a consumer backlash?

One big explanation for this lackadaisical approach involves the cynical knowledge, acquired over time, that most wine buyers are either unaware of, or simply don’t care about, whether their French AOC wine has a bit of a Spanish accent, or its northern Italian wine owes its flavour to grapes grown in the south. Unless the crime involves an entire country like Austria and an eye-catching, familiar but worrying, chemical substance like ‘anti freeze’, they simply get on with their lives.

Today, Austria’s 1984 scandal that caused no major health issues, is still occasionally talked about by people who weren’t even born at the time. But it’s the exception to the rule. How many people who were around just two years later recall that 23 people died and 80 were hospitalised after wood alcohol was added to Barbera and Dolcetto in Italy?

The implication that wine drinkers who opt for cheap bottles of premium appellations or grape varieties are ignorant saps was well expressed by the prominent US blogger, Blake Gray when offering a ‘contrarian view’ about the Red Bicyclette story:

“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.”

Gray was not alone in his view. When it was discovered, in 2013, that the UK supermarket, Tesco and the frozen food brand Findus had been selling horse meat as beef in the UK, there were similarly disparaging implications that the kind of people who bought cheap food didn’t really deserve any better.

Gallo paid a price for not being pickier with its Pinot , but food fakery carries a much heavier reputational cost: in Tesco’s case, £300m ($393m) was wiped off the value of its shares, while the owners of Findus had to rename and relaunch their 60-year-old brand.

The only equivalent I know of in wine, was the decision by the Coteaux du Tricastin appellation in France to relaunch itself as Grignan-Les Adhemar in 2010, following a number of incidents at the nearby Tricastin nuclear power plant. Radioactive red - even if there was never any evidence of the wine having been affected - apparently proved to be a tough sell.

But bogus Barbera and counterfeit Chianti give far fewer grounds for concern, so, as I say, we groan and yawn…
Robert Joseph

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