Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Red Bicyclette: First Impressions of a Wine Scandal

Last month some French wine businessmen were sent to jail on charges they substituted for cheap Pinot Noir a volume of even cheaper wine, Syrah I believe, maybe with some Merlot mixed in, nobody's sure. They sold this in large volume to American bottlers, mainly Gallo, who put it in some of their low-cost wines, most notably something called Red Bicyclette.

The idea that the Gallo buyers couldn't tell cheap Pinot from cheap Syrah has generated guffaws in the industry. The ease with which the French traduced the gullible Gallo Americans must have been a point of pride in France. But it does leave one to wonder how Gallo could have been cheated in this way. Can't Gallo's buyers tell Pinot from Syrah, however cheap? Don't they have people along the supply line to taste-test random bottles from time to time, checking for just such funny business? Has no one learned from the repeated scandals in Italian wines a couple of decades ago?

Apparently not.

So what has become of all this even-cheaper falsely labeled wine? Did Gallo withdraw it from the retail pipeline? One assumes. After all, fraudulent sales in France are equally fraudulent labeling offenses in the U.S. of A.

Well, as the man says -- evidently not!

Alerted by Lew Perdue, publisher of the Wine Industry Insight newsletter, on Mar 22, 2010 I bustled over to my local Safeway, in Castro Valley, California, to purchase two bottles of Red Bicyclette, one of many Gallo subsidiary labels. 2008 Pinot Noir, says the label; Produit de France (nice touch!); Vin de Pays D'oc. Bottled in France. Damage: $6.99 each.

I decorked one of the bottles to see what's up with that.

Cheap Wine Is Cheap Wine, As You'd Expect.

This isn't the worst cheap wine I've ever drunk; on the other hand, it sure doesn't look, smell, or taste like any Pinot I've ever drunk, either.

The nose has that odd lightly funky note that hints at Syrah, in the French style. Not offensive, nor attractive.

It's clear, but a little darker than I would expect. Or is that suggested to me by my knowledge of the sketchy history of this bottle?

On the tongue, again this isn't offensive for a wine in this price range: The acid isn't overdone, there's some tannin-body without going overboard, and there's some flavor, too; it's not thin, insipid, and sharp-elbowed, as is so often the case with $6 wines. It lacks complexity and has limited interest; but Trader Joe's has done me worse with its own label of French import, at a similar cost.

But it's not a Pinot -- I'm no expert, but even I can taste that much. I'd guess a Syrah blend, but my guess is influenced by the news reports. It doesn't have that light flavorfulness that can be such a joy in a French Pinot; it sits too heavily in the glass for that.

I can imagine customers here reacting with the same shrug: I dunno what it is, exactly, but it's not awful, and the price ain't awful either. I'm not spitting it out. Not sure I'd want to trudge through a case of this -- it's plonk; acceptable plonk, but plonk nonetheless. If it were $1.99, it could give Charles Shaw a run for his money.

I can also imagine the perpetrators rationalizing in the same way: Americans wouldn't know Pinot from Syrah or Merlot with a map and a flashlight; their sophistication stops at whether it's red or white. The kind of Yanks who shell out six bucks at a grocery chain aren't looking for typicity; they're looking for a cheap drink that won't gouge their tongues out. If the occasional quaffer notices this isn't what they're used to in a fine Red Bicyclette vintage, they'll probably blame themselves.

And they're probably right.

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