Friday, December 4, 2009

Calistoga is a place, but Champagne is not

Congratulations to the TTB for deciding that Calistoga is a place after all -- but only because the locals speak English.

After a 6 year legal battle, the federal agency in charge of wine labels agreed that Calistoga is a wine region that can be used as an American Viticultural Area.

Anyone who has spent any time in Napa Valley knows this is a just decision -- the climate is much different in Calistoga than neighboring St. Helena. The irony is, I wonder how many producers will put Calistoga on their labels (Chateau Montelena apparently is already planning to). It's a nice town, but it's also one of the hottest parts of Napa Valley. I might be more inclined to buy a Napa Valley Cabernet than a Calistoga Cabernet, because I would fear roasted fruit.

In making the decision, the TTB ruled against Calistoga Cellars, which now has 3 years to either start using Calistoga grapes or change its brand name.

I'm not sympathetic. Calistoga Cellars has only been around for about a decade, and -- how can I put this politely -- it's not that good, either in quality or marketing savvy. It's just one more mediocre small winery in a valley that has no shortage of them, and it was fighting to prevent consumers from learning where their wine's grapes came from.

Now that this decision has been made, can we get the TTB to acknowledge that Champagne is also a place?

The argument is always made that Korbel and Cook's and Andre have spent millions marketing Champagne as part of the names, so they're grandfathered in.

That's just wrong. Korbel is Korbel (I like their brut rose), not Korbel Champagne. If they had to take Champagne off the label tomorrow, does anyone really think some housewife in Iowa will stop buying it? "Oh my God, I thought this was the same as Cristal, but it's only sparkling wine."

I have contempt for Gallo, which owns Andre, and Constellation, which owns Cook's, on this issue. These corporations are simply deceiving consumers. At least Korbel uses the methode champenoise. Andre and Cook's are carbonated wine.

French trade organizations have been complaining about this for years, but the US always digs in its heels to defend Gallo and Constellation. As a nation, we are wrong on this.

The TTB declared Calistoga a place because winegrowers with a few decades of experience think it might have unique terroir. Champagne houses have been making wine for centuries. The rest of the world recognizes its terroir. It's time for us to do the same.


steve stevens said...

I like the Calistoga/Champagne parallel. It's an untenable position for the TTB and for Gallo. The CIVC and the French government can tell you it's not cheap or quick to earn Champagne's quality and cache. Still, that hasn't stopped certain wine companies from trying to shortcut a few centuries of brand-building by writing Champagne on their labels. Adding to the insult, the US government has been a willing accomplice to the theft. It needs to change.

Jack said...

Minor quibble: brut rose? The flower?! Do you not mean brut rosé? Sparkling wine is a must, but a wine writer spelling rosé correctly is not?

Carolyn Jung said...

Thank goodness they came to their senses. It's high-time indeed that Calistoga got its own rightful designation.

W. Blake Gray said...

Steve and Carolyn: Couldn't agree more. Jack: I'm a writer, not a programmer; I don't know how to do the accent marks.