French traders sentenced for mislabeling wine

CARCASSONNE, France (Reuters Life!) - A dozen wine producers and traders were found guilty of having supplied an American trader with mislabeled “pinot noir” wines and six were handed a suspended prison sentence.

A wine selector tastes red wine in the village of Brestovitsa, about 150km (93miles) east of the capital Sofia, December 8, 2009. REUTERS/Oleg Popov

In a rare case pitting some local French producers from the southwest of the country against big U.S. traders E. & J. Gallo, the president of the criminal court in this medieval walled town said on Wednesday that “there has been fraud.”

In 2008, French customs found that during three years some 13.5 million liters of mislabeled wine had been sold to Gallo.

The producers and traders were accused of deliberately mislabeling the wine with a more expensive variety of grape.

The ordinary wines from the region sell at some 45 euros ($62) per 100 liters against 97 euros for Pinot Noir -- well known abroad for its use in Burgundy wines and prized by American drinkers who favor single-grape wines over blended wines like Bordeaux.

Claude Courset of the Ducasse wine traders was sentenced to a six-month suspended prison sentence and has to pay a fine of 45,000 euros. The prosecutor asked for a firm prison sentence.

Five other people were sentenced to fines of between 3,000 and 6,000 euros and the remaining six for less than that.

The Sieur d’Arques trading firm of Limoux was ordered to pay 180,000 euros in penalties.

Courset was not present at the court case.

“The sentence was below what was asked by the prosecutor, that is re-assuring,” said his lawyer Pierre Dunac, adding he was likely to appeal.

E. & J. Gallo, the largest family-owned U.S. winery, had bought the wine for its Red Bicyclette Pinot Noir line.

“We are deeply disappointed to learn today that our supplier Sieru d’Arques has been found guilty of selling falsely labeled French Pinot Noir as recently as March of 2008,” said Susan Hensley, a spokeswoman for E. & J. Gallo Winery.

Hensley said that based on the information in court the only French Pinot Noir that was potentially misrepresented would have been the 2006 vintage and prior.

“We want to assure our consumers that this is not a health and safety issue and that we will continue to work with the appropriate U.S. authorities to determine any next steps required for potentially mislabeled Pinot Noir in the marketplace,” she said.

The U.S. regulator, The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau “does not have recall authority,” according to its spokesman Art Resnick. “We don’t ordinarily ask for a voluntary recall unless there is a health issue.

“We will review the final court documents when they become available and determine an appropriate course of action following our review,” he said.

Additional reporting by Leslie Gevirtz; Writing by Marcel Michelson; editing by Myra MacDonald