Key lessons from Gallo saga

02 April, 2010

Scandal and wine make for great bedfellows, especially where the national press is concerned. As a journalist, I must admit the well-documented E&J Gallo debacle, whereby the company was conned with Languedoc Shiraz and Merlot for its Red Bicyclette Pinot Noir, had all the components of a cracking story.

Who wouldn’t read: “Sideways sting as cheese-eating surrender monkeys dupe American giant with 13.5 million litres of dodgy wine”? All this dished up against a murky backdrop of serious fraud, delivering a €7 million profit to the French perpetrators, followed by disgrace, a suspended jail sentence and a whopping great fine.

None of the headlines were quite so provocative, of course, but the implication was there that Gallo should have realised, at the very least, that Merlot rarely tastes like Pinot Noir. Not to mention it was buying far, far more “Pinot Noir” than the region produces.

Heady stuff, but speak with the UK trade about issues of traceability and diligence and the responses are far more measured than those of the fourth estate. And for very good reason. There is a palpable sense of “There, but for the grace of God, go I”.

Pippa Woods, managing director at agent and importer Seckford Wines, is more open than many on the subject. “Traceability is a big problem and while this [type of fraud] is much more likely to happen to a big producer sourcing very large volumes, it could happen to anyone – which is why we work with people we trust, with good people at the supply end,” she explains. “The whole trade needs to become more diligent to prevent this from happening.” Seckford, which increasingly employs analytical techniques where an original sample of a blend shown to a buyer in the cellar is profiled in a lab and then tested for variation against the final bottling, is not alone in carrying out increasingly rigorous checks. For the large multiple retailers this type of quality control has long been common practice.

“With major suppliers we visit them at least once a year. We have mystery shoppers buy a bottle of wine from our shelves, take this to the supplier and ask them to do a traceability exercise back from the traceability code to all lots of the wine,” says Clem Yates, one of the winemakers in Sainsbury’s own-label team. “With blending we also check very carefully that nothing happens to the blend or volume in the cellar. We also hold tastings back in Holborn (headquarters), often with the supplier present, for new proposed vintages and blends.” ?Spot the difference?Unquestionably, such quality checks are in place at major multiple retailers. Where this system can go awry, though, is that even with a specialist laboratory analysis it doesn’t identify individual grape varieties in the blend.

A check with Peonie van de Merwe, at UK independent laboratory Corkwise, confirms this. “It’s quite difficult to spot different grape varieties and you need very specific equipment to go down to the molecular level,” he says. “What you can do is clearly show minute differences between different batches of wine.”

So while it may be relatively easy to assess whether the cellar sample from a supplier tallies with the shipped wine in the bottle, if an unsuspecting buyer is, in fact, tasting a Colombard/Chardonnay blend from a tank marked “Chardonnay” he may never know so long as the fraud continues. Asked if this type of partial varietal substitution would be hard to detect, Yates simply says “yes”.

Despite stressing the increasing traceability of the components in the wines reaching our shelves, many in the trade admit (off the record at least) that the human palate is still the major player in determining not just what to buy, but also in checking ongoing quality and consistency in the wines.

Of course, no one wants a robot selecting the components of a blend based on lab analysis. The results would doubtless be awful (although it’d be interesting to know if someone has given this a try). But it does put a little more perspective to why few in the UK trade scoffed (at least openly) at Gallo when its problems in southern France sprang to light. It’s a danger the trade takes very seriously indeed.

“If you look at Europe as an industry then all sorts of skulduggery goes on,” says one senior buyer at a well-known UK retailer. “Look at Italy, the recent Brunello scandal, or the amount of wine labelled ‘Pinot Grigio’, and there are still many dark rumours about tankers heading up the autoroute from the Languedoc to Bordeaux in difficult vintages.” He could well have added a wry comment or two on all those years Chilean winemakers believed their Carmenčre was Merlot, or the far more recent case in Australia where plantings of “Albarino” turned out to be Savagnin. Not to mention that legally, for wine sold in the EU, the stated variety can be blended with up to 15% of other grapes.

“The Gallo case needs to be put into perspective,” the same buyer insists. “At least the wine sold by Gallo was completely fit for human consumption, unlike, say, the ethanol addition scandal which actually killed people.” It’s hardly surprising the national press have had a field day with any fraudulent – or even plain misleading wines. But the point is, as Majestic buyer Chris Hardy says, “these types of problems are not widespread and then it’s usually only minor variations rather than anything that would harm or even worry the public”.

A question of trust?Hardy agrees long-term relationships, built on trust and reputation, are perhaps the most important factors in cementing quality and consistency of supply. “As a buyer and importer you have to place a certain amount of trust in people’s integrity, but this is also backed up by a host of information, including knowledge of grape prices, contact with the supplier, trust built into relationships, comparison of samples with bottled and new batches of wine, and a resort to laboratory analysis if there is any doubt.”?The Gallo affair, it seems, may have a silver lining. It has prompted UK merchants to redouble their already serious efforts to ensure the traceability and provenance of their wines – something that can only be good news for both trade and consumer.

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