Thursday, January 27, 2011

Update: What Calistoga means to Champagne

After my post yesterday suggesting that a new US wine law might make "California Champagne" illegal, I had input from two players: Korbel director of winemaking Paul Ahvenainen and Sam Heitner, director of the US Office of Champagne.

Not surprisingly, they don't agree on exactly what last week's TTB ruling means.

A recap: Calistoga Cellars will have to change its brand name on wines that do not include at least 85% grapes from Calistoga. It will not be grandfathered in, and this will apply in the future to any wineries with geographic terms in their names, should those places become official American Viticultural Areas.

One thing that won't happen is what I speculated yesterday, that Korbel will immediately have to stop calling its wine "California Champagne." Ahvenainen pointed out that Champagne is not a wine region in the United States, and the ruling at present only applies to US wine regions.

But while the US won Korbel's right to continue misleading consumers in trade talks with the European Union in 2005, that concession isn't necessarily going to be the law forever, Heitner said.

Heitner said that, in theory, the 2005 agreement came after the first round of talks that are supposed to have a second round. In fact, Heitner said the sides were supposed to reconvene within 90 days, though apparently that didn't happen.

"In theory, the EU and the US are continuing to talk about this," Heitner said.

Protecting Champagne, along with Burgundy, Port, Chablis and other wine regions whose names are used as brand names in the US, may not be high priority for the EU, but it's not an issue that's going away. And the positions of some of the US players have changed since 2005.

Most of the California wine industry, along with several members of Congress, lined up against Calistoga Cellars in support of the new TTB regulation. It's hard for me to see those folks turning around and strongly supporting Korbel (and Constellation, which makes Cook's) for doing exactly the same thing Calistoga Cellars was doing -- implying that its wine is made some place that it's not.

Heitner pointed out that as recently as 20 years ago, few Americans cared about this sort of law. The growth in power of the US wine industry, and the growing interest among American consumers in wine, has changed that.

"We're very impressed with the great strides the US wine industry has made in the last 20 years," Heitner says. "The protection of the Calistoga AVA is the latest in a series of steps that shows that the US wine industry cares where the wine comes from. I don't think there's any other country in the world that has made as many great steps in the last 20 years. At the same time, it would behoove the US to recognize worldwide regions such as Champagne and Port and others. The United States has a loophole that allows the misuse of Champagne on wines from California. But that is directly in conflict with the majority of other countries in the world."

A major part of Korbel's argument, as made by Ahvenainen, is that "champagne" no longer means a place, but has become a generic word, like Kleenex or Frisbee. That would be fine if growers in Champagne agreed, but they don't. The company that has been telling people for decades that Champagne isn't a place now says its argument is correct because people believe it. I'm always amused when people use the ignorance of the American public as an argument, but just because many people think aliens live among us or President Obama is a Muslim born in Africa doesn't make it so.

The question is, will France, the EU or the Office of Champagne approach the TTB and try to get the Calistoga ruling applied to European wine regions? "We continuously communicate with the TTB about multiple issues," is all that Heitner would say.

"The idea that there are Calistogas and Paso Robles -- at the end of the day, this is something the US embraces, that wine comes from a place," Heitner said.


kschlach said...

Now what do you think would happen if a French (ok, the French wouldn't do this, so how about a Slovenian) winery decided to label their new, bold cabernet as "Napa Valley" wine? Could they claim that Napa Valley has become a generic term that is synonymous with jammy, fruit-forward cabernet-based blends? I'm guessing that the door would not swing both ways...

W. Blake Gray said...

I think Slovenia can't because the EU recognized Napa Valley as a wine region -- a courtesy we refuse to reciprocate.

That said, I think Heitner is right in that this isn't -- or shouldn't be -- Europe vs. the US. Instead, it should be consumers and the wine industry vs. misinformation. Napa Valley really belongs on the side of Champagne in this fight for the reason you mention.

Austin Beeman said...

As a retailer, I try to solve this problem in the following ways.
1. There is a sign in my Sparkling Wine section near the Champagne that reads, "Only Champagne is Champagne."
2. When someone asks for 'cheap Champagne,' I direct them to a $30-$40 bottle. When they fuss, I say, "Oh you mean Sparkling Wine..."
3. If they ask, I use the analogy of buying 'Idaho Potatoes from China.' It matters because the USA has not been able to produce the quality of even the cheapest Champagnes. That's nothing to be ashamed of. We do other things very well.

TheColoradoWineaux said...

I think the most important thing is educating the consumer on the difference. But my opinion is that "Champagne" shouldn't be on the bottle of California sparkling wines. And the comment about Korbel not wanting to be put in the same category as other lesser quality sparking wines from the US... look at Schramsberg, who I believe is the best producer of sparkling wine in our country. They utilize the terminology "Methode Champenoise" on their bottles... other than that the product and it's quality stands on it's own merit. If they are going to make Calistoga Cellars change for the reasons stated... then "Champagne" shouldn't be on the label of US sparkling wines. If Spain and Italy can come up with words to classify their own sparkling wines, then maybe the US should do the same.

Donn Rutkoff said...

I think that Korbel should step up to the high ground, and rename the product Sparkling Wine, and like the others, mention "methode Champenoise" or similar wording. Create good will. Set a high standard for truth. Sales will not suffer. Not at all. The publicity will likely push sales up. What a golden opportunity to create a big positive buzz in the news without spending millions on advertising. I also wish that Beringer would stop naming one of their low-price, mass produced wine, "Founders Estate", because, quite simply, it is not wine from the founder's estate.

The industry suffers from poorly educated consumers fed by intentionally misleading labels. Is there someone of stature in the industry who will lead a drive to make names and labels a little more useful to the consumer, a little more TRUTHFUL? Robert Mondavi was a hugely successful and admired ambassador for wine with dinner. Can we find an ambassador for labels that respect the ability of the consumer to learn just a wee bit of truth?

John Logan said...

And so will Gallo have to stop marketing its "Hearty Burgundy" - which contains no Pinot Noir, and is obviously not made in Burgundy?

Austin Beeman said...

I have less problem with Burgundy, but Burgundy is really the wrong word for the French stuff. Bourgogne, of course, is accurate.

And, of course, I'm pretty much a wine geek for saying so.

Donn R said...

Yes, hearty Burg., any wine labeled Chablis, whatever else is a name-grab. Regarding Calistoga, project 10 or 15 years into the future, and I think that not grandfathering in a winery is the right thing to do. We want Oakville to mean Oakville, don't we? And just like Austin B., I practice calling them fizzies and sparkling wine, and explaining to customers that Champagne is actually a real village. And Prosecco is a grape. And Asti is also a village, not a wine. I joke: just because my Ford has an engine and wheels like Ferrari, it ain't a Ferrari. Ah, the great life of wine sales in the good ole U S of A. It is a good thing Greek wines are not popular here. Then even we geeks would be dumbstruck.

Anonymous said...

As someone who really enjoys sparkling wines, the "champagne" on American bottles really bothers me. I do think it misleads the sparkling wine novice and hurts the U.S. producers that make great sparkling wine.

I believe consumers think they are getting a product that is equal to or even superior to a good U.S. sparkling wine when they buy a U.S. wine labeled "champagne" for half the cost of that sparkling wine. It's a shame because I know those same people would probably become fans of all sparkling wines if they tried something of higher quality.

DrankGas said...

Oh, this is truly sublime... another crafty way to squander taxpayer's money while the fools, as usual, are oblivious. Where should such spectacularly significant legislation end, as it heads onto the slippery slope? I suppose it is good that Pontiac is no longer in business. However, General Motors might suffice as the next likely target. Many of the Pontiac vehicles are named after races or places that races were held. I doubt Pontiac ever built a Bonneville at Bonneville, built a Bonneville with parts made in Bonneville or sprinkled some Bonneville dirt inside their Bonnevilles while they rolled down the assembly line. If so, in the very least, General Motors could rebut, with complete legal confidence, that genuine Bonneville is found in the ingredients of every Pontiac Bonneville.

Hmm, now I find myself wondering about the Triumph Bonneville motorcycle... might as well go after those bastards, too. Now that I think about it, maybe Triumph named their Bonneville after the Bonneville Mill County Park in Bristol, Indiana. Nonetheless, Triumph shall be suffer the litigious wrath of Bristol lawyers, that is, if the little town has any.

Well, back to more pressing matters, as I need finish organizing my collection of lint gathered from natural textiles alphabetically by first letter of the color, as viewed under subdued mid-afternoon sunlight, of course...