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Linda Murphy June 2010 issue column

Not long after 12 people were convicted of fraud for selling millions of gallons of French ‘Pinot Noir’ to E&J Gallo for its Red Bicyclette brand (the wine was actually Merlot and Syrah), the Californian company announced it would focus its European export efforts on five core brands: Barefoot Cellars, Carlo Rossi, Gallo Family Vineyards, Redwood Creek and Turning Leaf. Some US readers responded to decanter.com’s Red Bicyclette reports with claims that Gallo was being singled out unfairly as a victim of fraud (‘Letters’, May 2010). I won’t touch that argument, yet when the distribution direction is reversed, with Gallo sending Californian wines to Europe, I have no trouble in saying that I’m disappointed.

Depending on what you read, Gallo’s new focus on Europe, and the ultra-price-conscious UK market in particular, is either a bad-economy-driven retreat from broader export efforts (Gallo’s sales reportedly fell by 26% in the UK in 2009) or an ‘exciting opportunity’.

‘We’re looking to expand our route to market and will heavily invest in the on-trade despite difficult market conditions,’ said Gallo’s UK and Ireland sales director Mark Tinsley, sounding on the chipper side. ‘Rosé continues to drive growth and the top five rosés in the UK are branded. Gallo has two of the top three.’

Californian rosé, eh? Sounds suspiciously like White Zinfandel and White Grenache, with accents. The US wine consumer has become surprisingly savvy about blush wine vs rosé, recognising the latter as being dry and more ‘serious’.

Make no mistake, many US wine drinkers prefer sweet blush wines, and God bless ’em for choosing these over Coca-Cola. Yet Gallo’s new rosé focus in the UK is targeted at bottom-shelf shoppers seeking sweet pink plonk costing less than £4. Rosé is a misnomer.

That it is also talking up the ‘Gallo Rosito cocktail’ – White Grenache, ginger ale and fruit – as a UK marketing effort is further proof that the world’s second-largest wine producer is dumbing down its products for Europeans, at a time when more sophisticated Californian wines should be showcased.

I’ve said it before: wines can be seen as world-class only when the world can taste them, and the UK is ground zero for recognition. Gallo’s best Californian wines – Louis M Martini’s Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (grown in Sonoma and vinified in Napa), and MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir and Rancho Zabaco Sauvignon Blanc from Sonoma, are unlikely to be seen in the UK, now that Gallo has decided to focus on its most commercial, and less distinctive brands. If any company can afford to lose a bit to gain in image, it’s Gallo. Sadly, it seems uninterested in this approach.

Gallo calls Barefoot Cellars ‘one to watch’ in 2010. ‘It will be the most exciting brand in the UK and Europe this year,’ predicted George Marsden, former head of Gallo’s Europe, Middle East and Africa division, who recently relocated to the US. Will it dance on table tops, I wonder? ‘We have very aggressive marketing plans for the brand and we will be investing heavily in it.’

While the Barefoot range – comprising bulk-method bubblies and non-vintage, Californian-appellation wines in the usual flavours (Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc) – isn’t bad, the wines aren’t interesting, either. These cheap-and-cheerfuls sell largely on the casual, common-man branding (everyone goes barefoot, right?).

Redwood Creek, Turning Leaf and Carlo Rossi are equally dull, priced at £5 or less. Meanwhile, the Gallo Family Vineyards brand – of which a few high-quality, single-vineyard and estate wines have been sold in the UK – is rumoured to be undergoing a makeover, so who knows what wines will be sent to Europe?

While I applaud Gallo for offering wines for every palate and pocketbook, I wonder why a company that is so smart, so well funded, so devoted to research and so savvy in sales and marketing, settles for mediocrity in the wines that it sends to the UK.

Now back to Gallo’s Red Bicyclette collision. Whether or not the company was aware the wine wasn’t Pinot Noir, I bet that most US consumers who purchased the wine enjoyed it, believing they’d found an amazing ‘Pinot Noir’ value at $10.

Gallo may have suffered a black eye from the scandal, yet it will continue, likely unfazed, to sell wines – particularly abroad – that are less about terroir and authenticity, and more about cheap thrills and dollar bills.

So here’s an idea: Gallo keeps its Red Bicyclette Pinot Noir – whoops, I mean Merlot-Syrah – in France, adds some white wine to it and then ships it, inexpensively, to the UK, as a £4 French rosé. Chacun gagne!

Written by Linda Murphy

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