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French plonk scam spreads to world?s top wine group
Fri, Feb 19, 2010
AFP

PARIS (AFP) - One of the biggest scandals ever to hit the wine trade spread on Thursday after it emerged that Constellation Brands, the world's top wine group, bought some of the fake French pinot noir sold in tanker-loads to the United States.

Constellation's implication in the massive transatlantic swindle was revealed in court documents seen by AFP after 12 French wine-makers and dealers were convicted Wednesday of passing off cheap wine as pinot noir to US clients.

The US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, part of the US Treasury Department, confirmed that Constellation bought some of the wine made from cheaper syrah and merlot grape varieties.

"We are aware of Constellation's receipt of some of this wine and will determine an appropriate course of action following our review of the (French) court documents," spokesman Arthur Resnick wrote in an email to AFP.

The US federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) said its agents were not yet involved in the affair because the fraud had not yet not been shown to be on US soil.

But a spokeswoman said the ATF would investigate Constellation and E & J Gallo, another US wine giant that bought the fake pinot, if it were alleged that that they were aware of the fraud and then sold the wine to US consumers.

Constellation spokeswoman Cheryl Gossin said the group cound not immediately confirm that it had bought any of the fake wine and said it was checking its records and would try to confirm or deny the matter later
Thursday.

She said that the pinot noir it is currently selling is from 2008 and was shipped in 2009, noting that the court case concerned earlier vintages.

The court documents seen by AFP said Sieur d'Arques, a trading company fined 180,000 euros in Wednesday's ruling, sold a "significant quantity" of fake pinot to Constellation and E&J Gallo. Gallo said after the court verdict that it had bought less than 20 percent of the falsely labelled pinot noir and was no longer selling any of this wine
to customers.

It had sold it under the popular "Red Bicyclette" Pinot Noir label. Pinot noir became hugely popular in the United States after the 2004 film "Sideways" about two friends who go on a wine-tasting trip of self-discovery in
California.

The court in southwestern France handed out suspended jail terms and fines to the 12 people for selling 18 million bottles (135,334 hectolitres) of fake pinot noir.

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

The judge told a packed courtroom in Carcassonne that the accused made seven million euros (S$13.38 million) in profits from the scam, with Ducasse raking in 3.7 million euros and Sieur d'Arques 1.3 million euros.

"The scale of the fraud caused severe damage for the wines of the Languedoc (region) for which the United States is an important outlet," he said.

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

Jean-Marie Bourland, a lawyer for Sieur d'Arques, did not rule out an appeal.

"Not a single American consumer complained," he argued.

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.

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