Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"California Champagne" is now illegal, right?

I'm not a lawyer, so I'm not sure about this, but I think the federal government might have made "California Champagne" illegal last week.

What happened was that the TTB (Alcohol Tax & Trade Bureau) finally published a rule on the application for Calistoga as an AVA. The TTB made the right call, requiring wines that say "Calistoga" on the front label to actually be made from at least 85% Calistoga grapes.

An important part of the decision was that Calistoga Cellars requested to be "grandfathered in," and was denied. Even though the winery was using that brand name before Calistoga became an officially recognized wine region, it will have to change its name if it doesn't use Calistoga grapes.

Moreover, this new rule applies to all AVAs, not just Calistoga.

Regarding Korbel and Cook's California Champagne -- why wouldn't this ruling also apply to them?

"Champagne" is a viticultural area recognized around the world. Korbel has always successfully lobbied the US, in trade talks with Europe, to allow it to continue calling its wines "California Champagne" because it established its business using that product name, even though almost every other sparkling winemaker in the world doesn't need that crutch.

But "Champagne" is not Korbel's brand name, or Cook's. If Calistoga Cellars has to change its brand name because of this ruling, why wouldn't Korbel have to simply take the word "Champagne" off the bottle?

As I said, I'm not a lawyer. I welcome those who are to read the ruling here in the Federal Register and find a clause that preserves Korbel's and Cook's right to continue misleading consumers. I can't find one.

And for my readers in France ... time to hire some lawyers of your own and chew into this ruling. Bon appetit.



17 comments:

Michael Farrow said...

And what about ports?

W. Blake Gray said...

It's a good question, as they're usually linked on this issue.

To me, Champagne has an airtight case under this new regulation because it's a growing region, whereas the grapes for Port wines are grown in the Douro Valley. But I'm not a lawyer.

Paul Ahvenainen said...

Blake, with all due respect as the Director of Winemaking for Korbel I must disagree with your analysis. I do not want this to degenerate into a he-said, she-said finger pointing session, but I would like to set the record straight.

First, the "airtight case" actually supports Korbel. The use of the term champagne in the US is primarily controlled by two documents. The first is the Internal Revenue Code as published by the Treasury Dept in the 1930's, which defined champagne production and taxation in the US. The second document is the 2005 bilateral trade agreement between the US and the EU.

In the bilateral trade agreement, the use of the term champagne and other terms such as port are grandfathered for producers using them before 2005. Korbel has been making California champagne for over 120 years. By the way, the CIVC did not even exist until 1941, and the EU did not even exist until 1973.

I would also like to point out that champagne is not a US AVA. Your comparison of the TTB's action on the Calistoga AVA, with champagne, port etc is simply wrong.

The real issue is that certain parties are uncomfortable with the simple fact that the term champagne has become a wine catergory rather than an appellation. Many in the wine world will disagree with this statement. However, if those who do disagree would just take a moment to think about it, they might gain a little insight.

We at Korbel are proud of our 120 years of California champagne heritage, and would hope that you and others could respect that, even though we might not always agree.

Paul Ahvenainen

W. Blake Gray said...

Paul: Thanks for commenting. I'm a longtime fan of your Brut Rose, as you may know -- but not your insistence that geography doesn't matter.

If Champagne is a state of mind, then so is California, and I don't see what would stop Australian vintners from making a [Yellow Tail] Napa Cabernet Sauvignon other than the courtesy your company refuses to provide to winemakers abroad.

I'd like to ask you a question: Do you think people would stop buying your wine if you called it Korbel California Sparkling Wine?

Jason said...

Paul - why are you trying to confuse the argument with things like facts? It was much clearer before you muddled it with logic and reason. Now, you've got WBG backpedaling furiously (you should offer him a 12-speed).

Yellow tail can make a Napa Cab if they use Napa grapes, pretty simple. The fact that "Cabernet" and "Napa" haven't been commoditized like "Champagne" should be quite obvious.

Is this really an issue for consumers of Champagne or is this just something to fill space on a blog?

W. Blake Gray said...

Jason: Backpedaling? Where?

I stand against misleading consumers, which is what calling wine "California Champagne" does.

Paul Ahvenainen said...

Hey Blake,

Place matters very much in winemaking. I completely support a strong AVA or AOC system both here in the US and the rest of the world. I have personally worked to protect the integrity of the Russian River Valley AVA. I find no conflict between my feelings about champagne vs. the RRV. However unpleasant it may seem to some, the fact is, Champagne is a victim of its own success. Due to the combination of about 150 years usage of the term “champagne”, or similar variants, by countless wineries in dozens of countries the term has simply lost its status as a place. To the vast majority of consumers worldwide, champagne is a style of wine.

If you were to walk into a party and someone handed you flute with a sparkling pale yellow/bronze liquid in it, would you think “sparkling wine” or “champagne.” Like it or not, the vast majority will answer “champagne.”

Look at it another way, can we reasonably expect Wisconsin and New York to stop making cheddar? I doubt that many people know or care that this style of cheese originated in England.

Regarding the question of Korbel’s sales being tied to the word champagne, I do not know what the impact of changing to sparkling wine would be. I do know that our company has invested millions of dollars over the last 120 years promoting California champagne. I would guess that we have spent more and put more effort into this than the vast majority of Grand Marque houses.

By the way, I also stand against misleading the public. We have always been very clear and proud of our California heritage.

I would also like to say that I realize that many people will disagree with my position. I will respect their position, and would hope that they would do likewise.

Lee Newby said...

The French can whine all they want about protecting the name Champagne as a distinct terroir (it is not) but when things were good they had no qualms about increasing the AOC (terroir) so the producers could access more grapes, I see they may be looking to reduce the AOC area due to a glut on the market. Also the word Champagne appears on all of the Cognac I drink because it comes from the “other” Champagne, now why didn’t they change their name, oh right they are in France. The Port, Sherry, Champagne, Burgundy question will be with us for a while. Nobody that cares really thinks the 1 gal for $10 of red they bought is really Burgundy, and who looking for a red Burgundy would make the mistake of picking up the wrong one??

Anonymous said...

I would hate to see wines like korbel be put in the same category as Andre or cooks givin the fact korbel uses methode champenoise. I under stand the region difference maybe another name for cal. Methode champenoise wines.

kuy said...

I would hate to see wines like korbel be put in the same category as Andre or cooks givin the fact korbel uses methode champenoise. I under stand the region difference maybe another name for cal. Methode champenoise wines

Andy said...

I'm living in Japan. In Japan, the term Champagne is regarded as sparkling wines made in Champagne region. Cava made in Spain, and Spumante made in Italy. It's a shame that US still has California Champagne. I think it is one of the reasons California wines are regarded as second tier in Japan.

Aaron said...

Paul hits the nail on the head if you ask me, with this comment:
"the term has simply lost its status as a place. To the vast majority of consumers worldwide, champagne is a style of wine.

If you were to walk into a party and someone handed you flute with a sparkling pale yellow/bronze liquid in it, would you think “sparkling wine” or “champagne.” Like it or not, the vast majority will answer “champagne.”'

The fact is Blake, no one, and i mean NO ONE is being misled by the term California Champagne. The vast majority of American consumers don't expect what they call 'champagne' to come from a particular region, and those that do know that California Champagne comes from . . . California.

It is really disingenuous to argue that consumers are somehow duped by the usage of little 'c' champagne. No harm, no foul.

W. Blake Gray said...

Aaron: If the vast majority of Americans think that any wine with bubbles is Champagne, then they have been misled.

What you're saying is that if enough people give the wrong answer, that answer becomes right.

Aaron Toomey said...

Blake, that's exactly what I'm saying, and I think it's true when it comes to language. Words and usage evolve over time, and there's little practical use stopping it. The distinction between Champagne and sparkling white whine is a meaningful one for those of us who care about wine and drink it regularly, and we will maintain the original usage. For most Americans, it's a distinction without a difference. You could correct them, but they'll probably just think your being pedantic, because frankly, they don't care, and they've adopted a term they are going to use whether you like it or not.

Even if you get your way and Korbel has to stop using Champagne, the next time I walk into a party with a bottle of spumanti, cava, or prosecco, someone's going to thank me for bringing the Champagne. And because I know it's not worth my time or their's to correct them, I will say thank you and smile.

The fact is, it's no skin off my nose if people want to use the word for something it didn't originally mean. The people who come to love wine will learn what place means and why and when it matters, and the rest of them can have their Cali Champagne and Carlo Rossi Chablis.

Mark Cochard said...

What you're saying is that if enough people give the wrong answer, that answer becomes right.

Blake, Seems like this has already happened, think of the usage of the term varietal.

BTW in the EU the term methode champenoise is now protected and wine producers in the EU who make sparkling wine outside of Champagne that is fermented in this bottle can use the term method traditional but not methode champenoise.

Regardless of what the masses think Champagne used on a non champagne wine label is absolutely misleading. As someone who teaches it is incumbent upon me to set the record straight when it comes to correct terms.

Austin Beeman said...

To Mr. Paul Ahvenainen

As a retailer, I appreicate the powerful brand that Korbel has built and the sales they producer for my store. In fact, the brand is so prominent that some of my customers confuse Korbel with any cheap Cali Sparkling Wine.
Truly, I have been asked for the '$5 Korbel.'
I correct them, because Korbel is not Cooks or J Roget.

But Korbel is not Champagne.

Presley said...

I take Blake's position as pure and simple pedantry. Ahvenainen's assertion that the term "champagne" has been a victim of Champagne's success is a clear and accurate assessment of the situation. Anyone who cannot grasp that concept should have a look at this Wikipedia entry in order to understand the concept of "genericized trademarks." It happens. Language evolves. Deal with it.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_generic_and_genericized_trademarks