TOULOUSE, Frances — Worse than a faux pas, that embarrassing slip of the tongue, this was a case of faux pinot involving French wine traders and local vintners that duped the California wine-making empire of E.&J. Gallo.
The faked red wine produced more than a blush. A court in the medieval town of Carcassonne in southwest France has convicted a dozen people in the scheme in which local wine exported to the United States was pased off as more expensive pinot noir.
The scheme hit every level of the chain that takes the wine from the vine and gets it to U.S. consumers.
Claude Courset of the Ducasse wine trading company, portrayed as the kingpin of the scheme, was given the stiffest sentence in Wednesday's decision, a six-month suspended prison term and $61,000 fine.
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"Our wines are irreproachable," he said in a telephone interview Thursday, adding that he "reserves the right to appeal."
The company that sold Ducasse's wine in the United States, Sieur d'Arques, was fined $244,000.
They had been charged with "fraud in the quality and composition of the wine."
Eight vintners and wine cooperatives in the Aude and Herault, part of the larger Languedoc-Roussillon region, all charged with deception and forgery, were given sentences ranging from a month suspended prison to fines of euro40,000 ($54,000).
The Carcassonne court described the fraud as "organized and structured."
Prosecutor Francis Battut said in a telephone interview Thursday that merlot and syrah grapes were passed off as pinot noir in a scheme dating from January 2006 to March 2008.
A spokeswoman for Gallo said the company is "deeply disappointed" that its supplier, Sieur d'Arques, was found guilty, adding that Gallo is no longer selling that wine to customers.
Gallo officials said Wednesday that the only French pinot noir that was potentially misrepresented to Gallo was the 2006 vintage.
Languedoc-Roussillon is not known for its production of pinot noir, a thin-skinned grape difficult to grow if conditions aren't suitable and referred to by some as the "heartbreak grape."
Its base is the Burgundy region, although the vine that produces a rich, fruity wine is grown elsewhere in France and around the world.
"We scrupulously respected the contract terms of our client," Courset said in a telephone interview.
He has contended that the investigation went off course, concentrating on the wine-growing situation in general amid the global economic crisis "but also with obscure regulations that fluctuate from country to country."
Battut, speaking by telephone, was of another opinion.
He called the case a "very important fraud" with cooperatives selling their "local wine to Ducasse-labeled pinot at his request and modifying accompanying documents and bills."