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Ernie Whalley: It's easy to look like a plonker in the world of wine

After we'd had a giggle at the thought of Uncle Sam's finest being duped by the French, serious questions began to be begged.

Like 'How did Gallo, with all its expertise, fail to spot the difference between the noble pinot and a plebeian shandy of merlot and syrah?'

To a degree, I can empathise. A few years ago I was on Bordeaux's left bank undertaking a spot of 'assemblage', the blending of different wine grapes from different plots to make a harmonious whole.

Relaxing in the evening, my tutor brought in a bottle, decanted it and asked me to taste and opine. It was harsh and tannic, I didn't like it, venturing "Oh, I dunno. A fifth growth from a bad year?"

It was in fact the prestigious premier cru, Chateau Lafite, just very young and undeveloped. "Want to know how to make this taste good?" my tutor asked. He left the room, returning with a bottle of Languedoc syrah, a measuring jar and a pipette. "Seven per cent". The wine dosed, we retasted, finding it mellowed considerably.

Greater people than I have cocked it up. Venerable member of the British wine establishment Harry Waugh, asked had he ever mistaken Bordeaux for Burgundy replied "Not since this morning". What's far more culpable is that Gallo should have known that there isn't that much pinot grown in Languedoc-Roussillon. Alarm bells should have rung.

The French are no strangers to wine scams. In the 1970s a tanker lorry with an Italian registration was spotted parked up outside a distinguished chateau on the Medoc's Route du Vin. A hue-and-cry followed in which more chicanery was discovered.

The satirical magazine Punch produced a guide to French wine labels that contained a couple of gems -- 'Appellation Controlee', it advised, meant 'This wine is made from French, Spanish, Italian and Algerian grapes'. And 'mise en bouteille au chateau' stood for 'there is a picture of a castle on the label'.

Nowadays, the French wine industry, particularly in fringe areas, is under siege and chances to make a fast buck are hard to pass up.

As one of yesterday's accused, a co-operative head, told the local newspaper: "We would have put Yoplait on the wine if they'd asked us to."