Taste This. What Is It?

*This article contains a clarification about Red Bicyclette pinot noir. Please click here.*

Americans are great readers.

Well, not so much of daily newspapers and news magazines, much to publishers’ chagrin. And really not of the grand classics of fictional books. And actually not all that much of nonfiction material, preferring instead to hear the basis of the thesis from somebody else’s lips on talk shows.

See, Americans are great readers of labels. Food labels don’t provide plot points, but they do tell us what we are shoving into our bodies. Our federal government has obliged our desire to know how much fat and salt our foods contain, as well as noting the percentage of how much of the vitamin, mineral or substance we are supposed to have each day.

Even the bottled water we drink has the required dietary information, although most values on the label come to 0 percent.

Now pick up a wine or a liquor bottle. Try to get information on what’s in the mix, how it was processed and what the calorie count is.

You will receive more label information on the contents of a hot dog (suggestion: Don’t read the ingredients) than you will on a $150 bottle of wine. I will leave it for you to decide who has the better lobbying group in Washington, D.C.

Personally, I have always held that we deserve to know what grapes, all of them, are in the wine; where they are from; and where they were vinified. When it comes to wine or spirits, if you want information like that printed right on the package, you are mostly out of luck.

“But,” you say, “the wine bottle says ‘California cabernet sauvignon,’ so what is it I don’t know?” What you don’t know is that chances are very good there are other grapes in the bottle. In America, in order to qualify for designation as cabernet sauvignon on the label, the winemaker only needs 85 percent of that grape in the mix. That’s the law.

Then there’s the matter of California being a very big place. Did your grapes come from the northern part of the state, which is cooler overall and provides cabernet sauvignon with a particular style (think Napa), or did it come from the central portion of the state, around Paso Robles, which will taste and age another way?

Now let’s consider the Water Rule: A few years ago California said it was all right for winemakers to add water to the fermenting grapes in order to help the winemakers control fermentation. But once you add water, you can’t get it out of the wine, and the wines now have some liquid other than grape juice in the mix.

Winemakers also are allowed to add artificially contrived grape-concentrate substances such as Mega Purple or Mega Red, agents that add depth to color and offer some flavoring, but these chemicals don’t taste like real grapes and instead make wines that receive this artificial treatment taste pretty much the same, no matter what the grape.  

The point is that if the winemakers choose to introduce other grapes into the blend to make wines that they will be happy with or if they add water to assist in the process of making wine or if they add a product developed in the laboratory to beef up the wine, fine. I just want to know about it. And I certainly deserve to know the specific point of origin of the fruit. It all makes a difference.

If I can get these facts, and others, I may still buy the wine because I have had it before and liked it or the price point is attractive or I think the label designer did a great job. All of that is fine, as long as I have access to the information, noted on the back label.

You should feel the same way. Again, you may not use the information presented, but it is always better to have immediate access at time of purchase.

The issue is not as cloudy with wines from Europe. Their laws are stringent and must be obeyed. European wines are denoted by the location from which they originate. Then you know what grapes are used and how they have been treated. You also know, in a general sense, what the aromas and the tastes are because the Old World wines have been made in these areas for many generations and the rules and laws are followed.


A few years ago, Gallo, a very, very large American wine company, went to some producers in the southwest part of France, the Languedoc region; made some agreements to purchase pinot noir grapes; and created a line of wines, primarily for the American market, known as Red Bicyclette, the red bicycle. Cute.

The wines were never wonderful, but they were from France, and they were pinot noir-designated. And they were reasonably priced.

Turns out they were also not pinot noir. Recently the French courts sentenced 12 winemakers and wine traders to jail terms and hefty fines for falsifying product content and selling to Gallo at incredible profits wines labeled pinot noir that were not pinot noir at all.

Oh, they may have had a little pinot noir in the blend, but the wines met no recognized standards to be labeled as such.

How did the culprits get caught? Did Gallo recognize that it was not receiving the grapes it was paying for? Did neighbors in Languedoc tell the tale to authorities? Did American consumers recognize that this wine could not possibly be pinot noir?

None of the above.

French authorities noted that the amount of “pinot noir” being exported to the United States from this region, 18 million bottles for Gallo, far outstripped the total output of pinot noir grown in the region –– by a factor of 4. Four times more “pinot noir” was exported to America than was grown in the whole of the Languedoc.

Where was everybody on this? Where were our import authorities who should have been testing this wine as it entered the country? Where was the quality control laboratory from Gallo when these shipments arrived? And for years, where were the French authorities, both at the national and the regional levels?

The Languedoc is one of those areas where there are very few winemaking laws and regional designations. It is a wild west show, not unlike the entire American wine industry.

Incidentally, Gallo has stopped selling the entire Red Bicyclette line of wine and will probably never do so again. **Please click here for a clarification from Gallo and more information on this affair.

The consumer is dependent on winemakers of character to provide us with good wines in the price point we choose to frequent.

We would also benefit from knowing all that goes into the wine, and we should be able to learn those facts from the label on every bottle. Label disclosures may not have helped us on the Gallo situation, but this unfortunate and highly illegal episode is an exception.

I mean, if it’s right to demand ingredient labeling for hot dogs, then …


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