Friday, February 19, 2010

Pinot Crisis; or, the Symbolic Weight of Wine

The AFP news agency reported earlier this week that “A French court on Wednesday handed out suspended jail terms and hefty fines to 12 wine industry figures for selling millions of bottles of fake Pinot Noir to US wine giant E&J Gallo.

“The defendants, including executives from wine estates, cooperatives, a broker, wine merchant Ducasse and conglomerate Sieur d'Arques, were convicted of selling 18 million bottles...of falsely labelled wine.”

The report continues: “The wine was sold under Gallo's popular "Red Bicyclette" Pinot Noir label, though made from far less expensive grape varieties.”

Aside from the obvious--and quite serious--problems that this scandal poses for the French wine industry in general and the far more fragile one of the Languedoc in particular, a larger issue is at stake here, at least as far as consumers and American wine culture go.

The problem, it seems, is one of perception (or, rather, the lack of it), and the self-branding role that wine plays for so many consumers. After all, the report says that “the defendants were accused of substituting wine made from less expensive local grape varieties for the Pinot Noir, which is popular on the American market.” So here is my question: Pinot Noir possesses one of the most recognizable aromatic and flavor profiles in the wine world; it is, I’d argue, easier to pick out a Pinot than most of the other grape varieties that are consumed in such overwhelming volume. So how did this not come to light earlier if the juice was not what it was purported to be?

And therein lies the contradiction, the logical disconnect that I cannot seem to wrap my mind around. If Pinot Noir is, as the report says, “popular on the American market,” but Gallo was able to sell what amounted to a falsely labeled Pinot substitute, then do most people really know or pay attention to what they’re drinking beyond assessing whether they like the wine in their glass or not?

In other words: Do most Pinot fans really like the flavors, aromas, and textures of their supposed favorite grape variety, or are they simply responding to the idea of Pinot, to its overwhelming popularity and the what literature professors might call its symbolic weight. After all--and as the film Sideways showed--there is still a vast difference, in terms of perception, between casual wine drinkers saying that they like Pinot best as opposed to highlighting their affections for, say, Merlot. The former has, for some reason, taken on a certain caché of sophistication, whereas the latter, despite its dominant presence in some of the greatest wines in the world (Chateau Petrus, Le Pin, etc.), remains sadly weighed down by too many unfortunately insipid bottlings from California in the last third of the 20th century.

So while this crisis of mistaken grape identity certainly poses a number of very serious problems in terms of commerce and politics, the one that disturbs me most is the cultural issue that it highlights. Why, after all these years, is wine still considered such a potent marker of cultural aspiration and self-branding, and so often utilized as such with little or no regard for what theoretically should be its determining characteristic: The quality of the juice in the bottle.


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