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Fake pinot noir case may soon yield refunds

Los Angeles Times

Need a decent bottle of pinot noir?

Customers who got sour grapes from drinking phony pinot noir that French wine traders sold to some Gallo brands, Robert Mondavi and other labels could get enough money back this spring to buy a bottle of the real stuff.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge gave tentative approval this week to a $2.1-million settlement of a class action accusing E&J Gallo Winery, Mondavi owner Constellation Brands Inc. and a subsidiary, Constellation Wines U.S. Inc., of fraud, misrepresentation and other violations of state laws.

Each customer could get up to $21 without proof of purchase if the settlement is approved. Those who, seeing a bargain, bought more of the faux pinot would need a receipt to claim more from the pool of money Gallo and Constellation have set aside. A final court hearing is set for April 23.

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“People are on the honor system” in filing claims without receipts, said Eric B. Kingsley of Encino, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs. Any money left over would go to charity.

The wine sold for $5 to $8 a bottle under these labels: Gallo’s Red Bicyclette (2005), Redwood Creek (2005-07) and Turning Leaf (2006) and Constellation’s Farallon (2006), Rex Goliath (2005-08), Talus (2005-07) and Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi (2005-08).

The three named plaintiffs who brought the class action suit would share up to $58,000, and their lawyers would receive a total of $480,000, under the settlement. An additional $400,000 goes to the company handling the refunds, leaving a little more than $1.1 million for others who bought the wines.

Terms of the settlement, including a claim form, are at www.frenchpinotnoirsettlement.com.

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French regulations stipulate that in wines labeled as from a single type of grape, such as pinot noir, the primary grape must make up at least 85% of the wine. California law requires a 75% minimum.

“There is no way to determine scientifically if the wine did or did not contain the required amount of pinot noir,” Gallo spokeswoman Susan Hensley said. “Regardless, the wine companies involved are working together to reimburse customers who purchased the wines in question.”

A year ago, a court in Carcassone in southwest France convicted a dozen people in a scheme to export a local Merlot-Syrah blend to the U.S. and pass it off as more expensive pinot noir.

Claude Courset, the head of the Ducasse Co. wine trading company, was portrayed in court as the kingpin of the scheme, according to the French Wine News website. French supplier Sieur d’Arques also was a defendant.

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Over several years, bulk wine for nearly 20 million bottles of fake pinot noir were shipped to Gallo and Constellation, reaping a reported $10 million in profits for the group.

France’s Fraud Squad uncovered the operation in a 2008 audit of Ducasse after noticing that the volume of wine sold far exceeded the possible supply of pinot noir for the region and that the asking price was surprising low.

“The French authorities did some really good gum-shoe detective work,” Kingsley said.

In total, eight vintners and wine cooperatives in the Aude and Herault, part of France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region, also were charged with deception and forgery. Punishment for the individuals ranged from a month of confinement, suspended, to fines of $61,000 for Courset.

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In October, a French judge extended the suspended sentences and reduced the fines of Courset and another defendant. A lawyer for Ducasse said he would appeal, according to the wine news website.

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