Embarrassing Moments in Wine History
In 1863, Englishman Thomas George Shaw published a delightful book entitled Wine, the Vine, and the Cellar that painted an insider’s picture of the British wine trade in the early and mid-nineteenth century. He recounts how, in the 1820s, as a young clerk and salesman for a London port and sherry house, he used to play a trick on the venerated wine tasters who worked alongside him at the docks, where wine arrived from the continent. He would pour two glasses from exactly the same wooden barrel, give them to two tasters, and ask which they thought was better. The men would sample each wine, then try it again and again until they invariably declared that although the two were similar, one glass had “rather more of this or that than the other” and was therefore definitely superior. Shaw wrote, “I kept my own counsel, but was convinced forty years ago, and the conviction remains to this day, that in wine-tasting and wine-talk there is an enormous amount of humbug.”
As the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they remain the same). So-called wine experts still pour out their views on paper, on the Internet, and anywhere people will listen, and those opinions can determine whether a wine consumer will spend hundreds of dollars on a prized bottle for some special evening. And much of the tasting and talk, then and now, remains humbug.
Blind wine tastings, when people cannot see the brand of the wine they are drinking, are unfailingly honest. They can also be very humbling. When the identity of a wine is unknown, nothing stands between the person’s taste buds and what’s in the glass. The taster is forced to decide whether he or she likes the wine only on the basis of his or her senses. Does the wine taste like some wondrously exotic fruit or does it resemble nondescript sugar water?
Seeing a wine label dangerously prejudices anyone’s opinion. As Jancis Robinson has written, “It is absolutely staggering how important a part the label plays in the business of tasting. If we know that a favorite region, producer, or vintage is coming up, we automatically start relishing it—giving it every benefit of the tasting doubt.” Judges are only human and have their predilections, whether they will admit them or not. That’s why there is no substitute for a blind tasting, where the taster knows little more than the color of the wine and perhaps the grape variety. Michael Broadbent, a famous British taster, admitted, “A sight of the label is worth fifty years’ experience. A cynical truism, for what an impressionable lot we are! Even the most disciplined taster is biased by the mere glimpse of a label, even the shape of the bottle.”
Thomas George Shaw’s tastings at the London docks were not the last instances of people mistaking a wine when they didn’t know its origin. In an oft-repeated anecdote, Britain’s Harry Waugh, a leading wine expert from the 1940s to the 1960s, who traveled the world drinking great wines and writing books about them, was once asked if he had ever mistaken a red Bordeaux, which is made usually with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, for a red Burgundy, which has only Pinot Noir. His quip answer: “Not since lunch.”
I was lucky enough to be the only journalist present at one of the most famous cases of wine confusion, which took place in Paris in May 1976. It was an event that Anthony Dias Blue, the American food and wine critic, has called the “most important wine tasting of the [twentieth] century.” The wines being sampled that day were some of the best Chardonnays from Burgundy, such as Bâtard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon and Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles Domaine Leflaive, and leading Bordeaux reds, including Château Haut-Brion and Château Mouton Rothschild. The French wines were tasted blind alongside unknown California Chardonnays, including Chalone and David Bruce, as well as Cabernet Sauvignons, such as Mayacamas and Ridge Monte Bello. The judges included some of the world’s most eminent wine experts: sommeliers at prestigious French restaurants, the editor of France’s leading wine magazine, and famous winery owners. But during the tasting, those prestigious judges became totally confused and couldn’t even accurately distinguish which wines were French and which were from California. At the end of the day, they selected a California Chardonnay (Chateau Montelena) and a California Cabernet Sauvignon (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) as best in the white and red categories. The Californians were delighted, while the French judges were shocked and suffered the wrath of their compatriots, who condemned them for rendering such an outrageous decision.
Hardy Rodenstock, a German collector of old bottles of wine, was well known in the 1980s for uncovering wine treasures, although some of those finds later turned out to be fakes that left experts with red faces to match the red wines. Thomas Jefferson had supposedly purchased the most famous of the Rodenstock bottles in the 1780s, when he was the American minister to Paris. Rodenstock wouldn’t reveal how he had uncovered the bottles, saying only that they had been recently discovered in a Paris building that was being demolished. The bottles even had Jefferson’s initials on them. What more proof of authenticity did anyone need?
In December 1985, the billionaire media mogul Malcolm Forbes bought at auction one of the bottles, a 1787 Lafite, for $156,000, which remains the highest price ever paid for a single bottle of wine. Although there were some doubts about the authenticity of the Rodenstock bottles, some of the most famous names in the wine world, such as Robert M. Parker Jr. and Hugh Johnson, were enthusiastic about the wonderful wines. Broadbent, the world’s foremost authority on historic wines, gave them his unofficial stamp of approval by running the auction of Rodenstock’s bottles, implicitly vouching for them. The fight over the authenticity of the wines is still going on in court, but it is now generally believed that they were all fakes. Rodenstock insists the wines are authentic, but skeptics say he most likely put wine of unknown origin and quality into old bottles and passed them off as historic masterpieces. Benjamin Wallace recounted the story of this great wine hoax in The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine.
On June 3, 1986, Rodenstock and several top wine experts were at Château Mouton to taste a 1787 bottle of Branne-Mouton, the prior name of the winery. Broadbent sampled it and described it as having a “rich, warm, whole meal, gingery smell.” Going over the top, he said it smelled like “dunked ginger nuts.” Rodenstock said it resembled “lovely coffee.” Jancis Robinson was smitten, calling the wine “the most exciting liquid I ever expect to drink.”
No one in the room voiced any doubts about the authenticity of the 1787 wine, and Broadbent provided the final judgment: “I thought it would be a bit acidic, a bit decayed, but there wasn’t a trace. . . . The wine is genuine. No doubt about it.”
It is now generally believed that Rodenstock had taken in all those experts, and the 1787 Branne-Mouton was a fake.
E. & J. Gallo is the largest wine company in the world. Its labs in Modesto, California, have been called the best private enology research center. Gallo wines might not rank among the world’s finest, but no one says anything against the expertise and professionalism of the winery’s staff.
In the aftermath of the 2005 hit movie Sideways, Pinot Noir, which the film celebrated, became the hot wine for American consumers. They couldn’t get enough of it, and wineries scrambled to keep up with demand. Gallo’s Red Bicyclette Pinot Noir, which proudly noted on its label that the wine was made with French grapes, cost about $7 and flew off shelves. Between January 2006 and March 2008, Gallo bought 135,334 hectoliters of Pinot Noir from Languedoc-Roussillon, enough for 18 million bottles of wine. Cost: €4 million ($5.2 million).
French wine inspectors, however, began suspecting that something was amiss. The whole region traditionally produced only about 50,000 hectoliters a year, but Gallo was buying nearly three times as much. Moreover, a wine merchant who played a key role in the Gallo purchases was paying just €58 ($87) per hectoliter for Pinot, while the official price was €97 ($145). The cost of other grape varieties at the time, though, was €45 ($68). Experts suspected that Gallo was getting a mix of Merlot or Syrah, although the three types of grape are entirely different. Pinot Noir is delicate and known for its elegance, while Merlot has a medium body and Syrah is big and powerful.
In February 2010, a French court convicted a dozen people of selling fake Pinot Noir wine. The companies received fines ranging from €3,000 ($4,000) to €180,000 ($250,000), and jail terms of between one month and six, which were all suspended. The court said those convicted had illegally pocketed €7 million ($9 million).
Gallo was never accused of being part of the scam, unless you consider it a crime to be unable to taste the difference between Pinot Noir and Merlot or Syrah. Gina Gallo, winemaker and granddaughter of the family, later said, “I haven’t tasted the offending wine that often, and we’re committed to the Languedoc, especially Limoux, as a source of Pinot. But I admit it was something of a disaster.”
Why didn’t the Gallo empire pick up on something in the eighteen million bottles of supposed Pinot Noir? How could all those experts not recognize the difference between Pinot Noir and Merlot or Syrah? In addition, why didn’t one of the millions of Americans who drank the Red Bicyclette Pinot Noir lodge a complaint? A lawyer for one of the condemned French firms attempted to explain the scandal away by saying, “Not a single American consumer complained.”
There have been many other occasions when people misjudged wines because they didn’t have the comfort of knowing what had been poured into their glass. If the world’s best experts sometimes mix up a rarefied Bordeaux First Growth with pedestrian plonk, how are average consumers supposed to tell them apart? That is not to say that any $5 bottle is just as good as a 2005 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet that costs $4,000 a bottle. It isn’t. Yet these incidents raise questions about the professional tasters and other experts who tell average consumers what wines they should drink. Clearly, wine consumers should not be buying a bottle simply because it is expensive or because some famous person says it’s good. People should decide for themselves which wines to drink no matter the price or the pedigree. They may be pleasantly surprised by what they discover.
© 2011 George M. Taber