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Court sentences wine dealers for selling fake Pinot Noir to US firm

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2010-02-18

A dozen French wine producers and traders have been found guilty of supplying US firm E&J Gallo with wine they claimed was Pinot Noir but which was made with inferior grapes. Six of the wine dealers were handed suspended prison sentences.

AFP - French wine-makers and dealers were convicted Wednesday of selling millions of bottles of fake Pinot Noir to the US firm E&J Gallo in one of the biggest scams ever to rattle the world of wine.

A court handed out suspended jail terms and hefty fines to 12 people for selling 18 million bottles (135,334 hectolitres) of wine they said was Pinot Noir but which was in fact made from far cheaper grape varieties.

The convicted included executives from wine estates, cooperatives, a broker, wine merchant Ducasse and the conglomerate Sieur d'Arques.

"The scale of the fraud caused severe damage for the wines of the Languedoc (region) for which the United States is an important outlet," the judge told a packed courtroom in Carcassonne in southwestern France.

He said that the accused made seven million euros (9.8 million dollars) in profits from the scam, with Ducasse raking in 3.7 million euros and Sieur d'Arques 1.3 million euros.

The fines he imposed ranged from 1,500 to 180,000 euros, while the suspended jail sentences went from one to six months.

Millions of bottles were sold in the United States under Gallo's popular "Red Bicyclette" Pinot Noir label, which in 2006 was marketed as having "aromas of dark fruit flavours" and whose palate was said to be like "black cherry and ripe plum."

Gallo, which was neither a defendant nor a plaintiff in the case in Carcassonne, said after the verdict it was "deeply disappointed" at its supplier Sieur d'Arques.

"We believe that the only French Pinot Noir that was potentially misrepresented to us would have been the 2006 vintage and prior," the firm's vice-president of public relations, Susan Hensley, said in a statement.

Gallo also said that -- based on details from the French trial -- it imported less than 20 percent of the falsely-labelled Pinot Noir involved, "and is no longer selling any of this wine to customers."

US authorities are investigating potential infractions.

The Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau has been in discussions with the French authorities for the past year, a spokesman said, and will review court documents to decide whether to take any action.

Gallo said in its statement it "will continue to work with the appropriate US authorities to determine any next steps required for potentially mislabeled Pinot Noir in the marketplace."

It is not yet clear whether Gallo purchased the wine at a lower price than the market rate for Pinot Noir which would normally sell for around 12 dollars a bottle.

The scandal broke in March 2008 when France's fraud squad, the DGCCRF, became suspicious during an audit at the wine merchant Ducasse.

Ducasse had been buying Pinot Noir at 58 euros per hectolitre when the official market price was 97 euros, and generic local grape varieties were selling for 45 euros.

Meanwhile, the volume of wine from the renowned Pinot Noir grape being sold to Gallo far exceeded the possible supply from the region.

After a year-long judicial investigation, the defendants were accused of substituting wine made from less expensive local grape varieties for the Pinot Noir, which is hugely popular on the American market.

Jean-Marie Bourland, a lawyer for Sieur d'Arques, did not rule out an appeal. "There is no prejudice. Not a single American consumer complained," he argued.

Pierre Dounac, lawyer for three defendants including Ducasse's director Claude Courset, argued that his clients had done no harm as they had delivered a wine with the characteristics of Pinot Noir.

But the industry fears the swindle could undermine the credibility of fellow French winegrowers in the United States.

"What worries me the most for my country are the economic consequences," prosecutor Francis Battut told AFP during the trial.

Business association Ubifrance said on Wednesday that French wine exports plunged by almost a fifth in 2009 to 5.5 billion euros (7.5 billion dollars), back to the same level as a decade ago.

The wine trade is not new to fraud.

In 2007, French Beaujolais producers were caught dosing their wine with sugar, while in 2005, South African Sauvignon Blanc was doctored with fake aromas.

A 1985 case revealed that Austrians had spiced up their cru with a substance also found in antifreeze.

Date created : 2010-02-18