Several parties in the Languedoc have been formally charged with selling millions of euros of fake Pinot Noir to Ernest & Julio Gallo for its Red Bicyclette brand.
Following an investigation that lasted over a year, French public prosecutor Francis Battut arraigned the accused before a three-person tribunal in Carcassonne, recommending prison sentences and heavy fines.
The 13 defendants include executives from two wineries and five co-operatives, as well as negociant Ducasse and conglomerate Sieur d’Arques. Only the latter denied the charges.
‘The executives from Sieur d’Arques maintain they were unaware the wine they were selling to their American client was not Pinot Noir, even though one of their own winemakers admitted it,’ Battut told decanter.com.
‘I think they were mocking the court.’
Between 2006 and 2008, Sieur d’Arques allegedly sold 135,000 hectolitres of vin de Pays d’Oc labelled Pinot Noir to E&J Gallo for €4m (£3.5m).
However the total production from those supplying the French distributors amounted to 15,000 hectolitres a year.
Battut said the case proves the defendants were knowingly involved in cutting the Pinot Noir with much less costly Merlot and Syrah, delivering the equivalent of 16m bottles, or 460 oil tankers – and making a profit.
According to French newspaper La Dépêche, one of the accused said that had the suppliers ‘been asked to put Yoplait on the label, they would have’ in order to satisfy customer demand.
Battut has recommended fines and gaol terms approaching the maximum allowed: a year in prison and a fine of €40,000 (£35,000) for broker Claude Courset of Ducasse; €180,000 (£157,000) against Sieur d’Arques; and various fines and terms (some suspended) for the others. French customs, too, has demanded symbolic fines of €750 (£655).
‘The economic consequences of this case could be critical,’ said Battut.
‘Not only might it lead to a loss of confidence in French suppliers, but American clients may start demanding guarantees from the French government.’
A spokesperson for Gallo would only say they were awaiting the judge’s ruling, while nobody from Sieur d’Arques was available to comment.
The tribunal will announce its verdict on 17 February.
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Written by Maggie Rosen