Sour Grapes

At Tony's Wine Warehouse, there's a sucker born every minute

But what of the other substances Bernard alludes to? According to Boulton, it is illegal to use glycol, penicillin or non-wine-derived colorings or flavorings in the standard winemaking process. Added sugar is legal in some states, such as New York and Texas, but is prohibited in California. Asbestos filtration, he adds, hasn't been in use since the 1970s.

"They're all standard wine, whether it sells for $3 for a four-liter box or $100 for a 750-milliliter bottle," says Rich Gahagan, a wine consultant and former wine technical advisor at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, precursor to the TTB. "They're all standard wine, and if you use any coloring materials, it's no longer standard wine."

The addition of colorings and flavorings, Gahagan explains, changes the product designation from table wine to formula wine such as wine coolers or fruit-flavored wine products, and such additives must be declared on the label by law. With respect to wine-related allergies and headaches, he adds that the triggers for such maladies are largely unknown, but it's far more likely the culprits are organic byproducts resulting from yeast or bacterial fermentation than chemical residues that might remain from the wine-making process.

Mass appeal: "People like our message," says Tony's owner Michel Monzain. "The wine snobs don't like our message."
Mass appeal: "People like our message," says Tony's owner Michel Monzain. "The wine snobs don't like our message."
Chemical slander? Wine instructors at Tony's insist large wineries, especially U.S. producers, illegally use substances such as glycol and penicillin in their mass-produced wines. Sources in the California wine industry say such charges are false, even libelous to large California producers.
Chemical slander? Wine instructors at Tony's insist large wineries, especially U.S. producers, illegally use substances such as glycol and penicillin in their mass-produced wines. Sources in the California wine industry say such charges are false, even libelous to large California producers.

Yet Monzain insists these chemicals are used in large-production wines, especially in the United States. "I had a former winemaker from one of the major wineries claim that animal fat preservative was added to their wine," he says. "But I won't give you his name." Monzain repeats Bernard's assertion, insisting some winemakers use penicillin, asbestos filters and glycol. When told the use of such substances in wine violates federal law, he is dismissive.

"You're not supposed to make phony dollar bills either," he says. "I say wines...mass-produced have been known to use those methods. I don't say they are using it."

"That is just all scare tactics," counters James Wolpert, chairman of the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis. "To go down this road that says those guys are poisoning you with their products so buy ours because we don't poison you isn't a good thing to hear. Since they're saying that European wines are better, that aims directly at California's large producers...it's libelous."


Libelous, perhaps. But is Tony's retail strategy illegal? It certainly doesn't violate any law to charge whatever price the market will bear, especially if through hard work and clever marketing you've unearthed a customer base willing to pay it. "The kicker on this is everybody knows he's doing it," says a Dallas wine salesperson. "He's been doing it for years...the question is what's up with the people that buy into that. That's really more a story about Dallas than anything else."

Still, does dispensing false information to justify inflated prices violate Texas law? According to Lou Bright, general counsel of The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the Texas alcoholic beverage code has a rule stating that advertising may not be false or misleading in any respect. But he says he can't determine if Tony's retail materials and practices run afoul of that rule.

Monzain says any questions about his business practices amount to little more than persecution. "Again are you following up on Vichy collaborators or are you following up on finding out facts for yourself?" he asks, alluding to the French client government during WWII that collaborated with the Nazis. "This is basically a McCarthy witch hunt...Would we have 83,000 customers if all of those things were being done? I mean, some of those people would be real dumb to buy from us."

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