Drinkers of fake Pinot Noir get a break from sour grapes

Tue Jan 17, 2012 6:52pm EST

(Reuters) - Looks like E&J Gallo wines and Constellation Brands Inc, which produces Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, will be buying more than a round this spring for lot of wine drinkers.

A California judge has tentatively approved a class-action settlement entitling many wine drinkers to a refund nearly a year after a dozen Frenchmen were convicted of selling fake Pinot Noir to the two companies, who then bottled it under various brands and sold it in the United States.

Consumers bought tens of thousands of cases of the fraudulently labeled Pinot Noir under the brand names Red Bicyclette, Talus, Redwood Creek, Farallon, Rex Goliath and Woodbridge, which generally sold for between $5 and $8 a bottle.

The vintages in question for the various wines range from 2005 through 2008. Full details of the settlement will be available at a website - www.FrenchPinotNoirSettlement.com - for no more than 180 days after the settlement is finalized. The judge, Carl West, is expected to approve the final agreement in April.

Under the settlement, the companies will set up a $2.1 million pool to be divided among anyone in the United States of legal drinking age who files a claim.

The top payment for most, those who lack proof of purchase, will be limited to no more than $21. The three people who brought the lawsuit in California Superior Court in Los Angeles will share up to $58,000; their lawyers will get up to $400,000 in legal fees; and the company handling the claims and disbursement will also receive $400,000.

French customs officials uncovered the massive scam to sell more than 18 million bottles of fake Pinot Noir when they realized the region was exporting much more of the grape than it could grow.

The dirty dozen bought the juice of inferior grapes and sold it as Pinot Noir, reportedly making almost $10 million in profits before being caught.

"Our best research is that you can probably tell if something has no pinot noir in it or if it has pinot noir in it, but there is no way to tell whether it has 20 percent pinot noir in it or 80 percent," said Cory Fein, the lawyer for the trio who brought the suit.

Under French regulations, if the name of a single type of grape is used, the wine must be at least 85 percent from that grape.

Neither Constellation nor Gallo returned calls seeking comment.

"Well, first of all this occurred almost two years ago and we have not noticed any particular decrease in demand," said Prune Jakob, a spokeswoman for the trade group Sud de France Export. "There have been similar scandals in Italy and other places, so we don't feel like it's very specific to Languedoc."

(Reporting By Leslie Gevirtz; editing by Andre Grenon)

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