Who's Confused About Champagne?

Continued use of term on U.S. sparkling wine may erode consumer trust in labeling, some say

by Jane Firstenfeld
Representatives from the Champagne Bureau hold a tasting for trade and media attendees in California, where a handful of wineries still use the term Champagne on their labels. Photo: Dakota Fine/Champagne Bureau
Napa, Calif.—Long before American drinkers learned how to pronounce Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc or—heaven forbid—Viognier, we all could say and order with confidence: Champagne. The famously festive tipple typically referred to white wine with bubbles.

As the world internationalized via travel and the Internet, however, the picture changed: Champagne, the region in France where the beverage originated centuries ago, became one of the first to attempt to protect its intellectual property by protecting its real estate. The Bureau of Champagne USA teamed with Napa Valley and other prominent world wine regions to establish regulations limiting use of the word “Champagne” to wines actually produced there.


    With “Champagne” in its brand name, annual production of 1.36 million cases per year of mostly sparkling wines and global distribution, Korbel remains a flag-bearer for the holdouts. Its director of winemaking, Paul Ahvenainen, stirred up the industry with a late-December appearance on KTVU-TV, the Bay Area’s Fox channel.  Offering a description of Korbel’s traditional methode champenoise, Ahvenainen insisted that Korbel is by definition “Champagne.”

    Wine blogger Blake Gray took strong objection to this in his Dec. 29 entry on The Gray Report, which was widely covered in the trade press.

    Ahvenainen declined to comment on Gray’s blog item, differing to Margie Healy, Korbel’s vice president of communications, who responded to Wines & Vines with an official statement.

    “Why We Call Korbel California Champagne” cites the company’s long history (more than a century) of producing sparkling wine the old fashioned way, including its familiar label tagline, “Fermented in this bottle.” The process is not exclusive to the Champagne region, it states.

    In an industry that’s known for its collaborative efforts, this strategy does not go down smoothly.

    According to Korbel’s statement: “Korbel has produced its California Champagne since 1882 and has identified California as the source of its wines in advertising since 1915 and on labels since 1937.”

    TTB (U.S Dept. of Treasury) regulations, “Allow U.S. producers to use names of geographical significance that also designate a class or type of wine. Such names—like champagne, sherry and port—are called semi-generics, and may be used on labels only in direct conjunction with an appropriate appellation of origin (place in the United States where the grapes were grown) and only on wines that conform to the standard of identity for that class or type….The definition of champagne was added to the semi-generics listing of the IRS tax code in 1997. Therefore it would take an act of Congress to change this regulation.”

    In 2006 all 27 EU-member countries and the United States signed the U.S.-EU Agreement on Trade in Wine reaffirmed this right, taking into account “laws of all involved nations.” This “Halts the development and use of new brands with semi-generic terms by U.S. wineries, while protecting U.S. producers such as Korbel that have made substantial long term investments in trademarks, brand names and marketing of their products.”

    “Where were the CIVC and the EU when Korbel Champagne Cellars began producing California champagne? Quite simply, they did not exist. The CIVC was founded in 1941 (but did not become an active organization until 1945) and the EU was founded in 1973,” the statement argues. “Only beginning in the late 1950s and continuing until now have these organizations pushed to force producers—even producers marketing product in their own country—to change label terminology by claiming (that) Champagne as a regional name supersedes champagne as a well-defined wine type.”

In 2005, the Napa Valley Vintners signed a Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place and Origin with Champagne, Oporto (Portugal) and Jerez (Spain) declaring wine as the “ultimate product of place that should be protected and respected worldwide,” according to Rex Stults, NVV’s government relations director.

But numerous U.S. wineries continue to use “Champagne” on their labels, grandfathered in by the TTB. These are venerable long-established sparkling wine producers, including many giants: JFJ Bronco (founded 1973); Constellation’s Cook’s and J. Roget (1945); E. & J. Gallo’s Andre, Tott’s and Wycliff (1933); Emilio Guglielmo (1925); San Antonio (1917); Weibel Family Winery (1939) and Korbel Champagne Cellars (1882). In 2008, more than 3,200 cases of Gallo’s Andre encountered a roadblock when they were confiscated and smashed at their port of entry in Belgium. 

Napa checks in
Stults at NVV pointed out that of 20-plus regions endorsing the “protect place” concept, fully one-third are American. “It’s not Europe vs. the U.S.A. It’s not ‘what does your government do for us?’”

“Maybe it’s time for our government say that we can stop doing this in 10 years. Research has shown that 98% of American wine consumers regarded truthful data to be important. What if we offered to phase out ‘place names’ in 10 years, and in return got some flexibility on traditional terms (and names) like Chateau or Clos?” he suggested.

Sam Heitner, known to some as the “Sheriff of Champagne,” is director of the Bureau of Champagne U.S. in Washington, D.C., one of Champagne’s 14 international offices. “Our general philosophy is that wine is a product of where it comes from. The majority of wine consumers and producers support this; more than 110 countries protect this concept,” he said.

Heitner noted that Korbel is required to change its labels on exports to both Mexico and Canada. “This has no impact on their sales,” he said. The recent popularity of two other, geographic-based sparkling wines, Prosecco and Cava, brings further proof that U.S. consumers are attuned to multiple names based on location.

With wine production and consumption rising around the world, “It’s no longer the EU vs. the U.S. People know that wine is not a melon: The only way to differentiate it is by the label. We’re living in a world where more people know this.”

It’s about clarity and truth in labeling, Heitner argued, not just for current but future consumers. “It’s integral to the growth of all wine producers and educated consumers,” he said. “Wine is not a short-term business.”

Hailey Trefethen wears multiple hats at Trefethen Family Vineyards in Napa, in addition to serving on the NVV Board.

She has witnessed the growth of Napa Valley and the wine industry in general, and acknowledged that although it’s changed, “The wine industry has always been very international.” She recalled that when French-based Champagne vintner Domaine Chandon first came to Napa Valley, its first sparkling wines were produced at Trefethen.

“We all learn from each other,” she said. “When Napa was first getting on the map in the 1960s and ’70s, we looked to France.”

Trefethen still sells Pinot Noir grapes to Domaine Chandon, a neighbor along Highway 29, but does not itself produce sparkling wine.

“The wine industry has made great progress in consumer education,” she said. “We’re at a great point, where everyone wants to know where their food comes from. Wine is becoming more and more of our every day.”

Posted on 01.27.2015 - 09:17:11 PST
I think Korbel is missing an opportunity to reap a public relations bonanza. They could get a lot of favorable and newcomer-curious publicity if they announce a change in label. Worldwide publicity. For free. Huge. You can't buy that kind of publicity. But stubborn is as stubborn does.
Donn Rutkoff