The Burgundy negociant Labouré Roi has been charged with fraud. Apparently, some 500,000 bottles of its wine did not contain what the label promised. I have no idea whether the Cottin brothers who run the company are or are not guilty of the crimes of which they have been accused. Over the years I have had some very enjoyable bottles of their wine and several pleasant conversations with them. I have also encountered numerous bottles that were far from impressive examples of their appellations. Most of the latter were sold under supermarket own-labels at prices that were lower than anyone who knows anything about Burgundy would expect to pay.
I remember in particular tasting an attractively priced Gevrey-Chambertin with the buyer of a major UK chain and suggesting that, to my taste, it was not only worse value than the cheaper Bourgogne Rouge and Chilean Pinot Noir he was also selling, it was actually a significantly poorer wine.
“Oh I agree 100%” came his disarming reply..”I’d never drink that stuff myself, but we have customers who’d never pay the right price for Gevrey-Chambertin but want to be able to buy it. So we have to offer one”.
Of course, being in the market for a regular supply of the cheapest possible example of a product – any product – that normally commands a premium price does not mean that you condone fraud. Or in the case of meat or fish, that you are turning a blind eye to abusive farming methods. Or, if we were talking about clothes or toys, the use of sweatshop or child labour. But, let’s face it, you’re certainly increasing the odds of corners having been cut somewhere. As my father used to say, you may not always get what you pay for, but you very rarely get what you don’t pay for. There really is no such thing as a free lunch and suspiciously cheap meals should be treated, well, with suspicion.
All of the chatter about the Labouré Roi affair has so far inevitably been about whether fraud was committed, and whether for example that bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin had been cut with basic Bourgogne Rouge. While I wouldn’t want for a moment to condone a crime, frankly, that isn’t what bothers me. I’m actually more interested in another form of cheating the consumer: of allowing him to create a false and ultimately unsustainable impression of the nature of something and what it should cost. This is just as true of water- filled, factory-farmed poultry or pork as of unfeasibly cheaply-produced bottles of wine from a famous region.
And that, in its essence is one of the fatal flaws in the traditional system of wine packaging and distribution. Everybody knows the ” right” price of their favourite brand of toothpaste, car, or whisky. Even members of the wine industry would struggle to say how much a bottle of Chablis or Chianti should cost. Everything depends, they would say, on the producer and the vintage. Which is just fine and dandy for everyone with a comprehensive knowledge of either wine region, and pretty useless to everybody else. Most normal wine drinkers still go out looking for a name they recognise at the most attractive possible price. And for as long as those names belong to appellations with vast ranges of qualities and prices and production standards, they stand a high chance of being confused, disappointed – and on occasion, defrauded.