Champagne is sparkling wine. But not all sparkling wine is Champagne. If this is confusing, read on…a beginner’s insider’s guide to Champagne… with a plea from Champagne producer Bruno Paillard

On a recent trip to Reims, I sat down to dinner with Champagne producer Bruno Paillard. His message was loud and clear. “It is an absurdity that the United States continues to protect producers who are abusing the identity of others rather than using honest labeling.”

What he is referring to is the place name ‘Champagne’, which has been an impasse on wine trade talks. Current laws allow U.S. producers continued use of the term under a grandfather law, causing further confusion for American wine consumers.

In 1993, international protection was at the forefront of debate as the International Agreement of Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) recognized wine appellations as valuable intellectual property rights. Under provisions that took effect in 1996, many signatory countries (including the U.S.) have agreed to protect Geographical Indications (GIs).  The Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place & Origin was signed in 2005, and now has the support of 15 international wine regions.

The Center for Wine Origins has been hard at work to protect these GIs, and I have brought this issue to light last week. This particular problem is a little bit different—it focuses on an interesting loophole that exists in the current agreement, an exception that protects the continued use of geographic indications that were in trademarks and in actual use before TRIPS became effective. In the bilateral trade agreement, the term ‘champagne’ grandfathers’ U.S. producers using the name prior to 2005—the aftermath is evident as we continue to see U.S. producers such as Korbel’s ‘California Champagne’ on supermarket shelves.

But not all California houses capitalize on the grandfather law. Scharffenberger Cellar, for example, has made sparkling wine in Anderson Valley since 1981. Even though the letter of the law would allow them to use the Champagne term, they follow the spirit of the TRIPS agreement. Iron horse in Sebastopol follows this same spirit. They began making a sparkling Blanc de Noirs in 1980. Queries to Iron Horse lead me Laurence Sterling. I asked him if they have used the Champagne term in the past. “It is possible that on our first commercial releases we did indicate the wines were made using ‘Methode Champenoise,’ but I am not aware of any time we would have used the term Champagne instead of sparkling wine.”

On to another continent, I queried Eva Bertran, the Vice President of Freixenet.  Has it ever crossed your mind to use Champagne on your label? The TRIPS agreement protects you under the grandfather law… “Because of our European background it never crossed our mind to use Champagne on our labels in California”, said Eva. Just to give a little background information on why I queried Eva, the Ferrer family is the proprietor of the world’s largest producer of sparkling wine, Freixenet. Many of you are probably familiar with their Spanish Cava, but they also own 250 acres in the Carneros district in Sonoma where they planted vineyards with traditional sparkling grapes of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The winery Gloria Ferrer cultivates 385 acres in Carneros and produces a range of sparkling and still wines. They have every right to use the Champagne term—but they decided not to.

On opposing sides, some U.S. producers hold their ground, stating they have the right to the name because they have been making Champagne [sic] for 120+ years, which predates CIVC and EU existence. Others claim the French waited too long to dispute use of the term. In both cases, many will argue they are both wrong. France has every right to the place name once  wine-producing vineyards hit the map in the 3rd and 5th centuries AD. You cannot separate the name of the place from the wine it’s known for.

For a balanced view, I think it’s important to point out that some countries object to France’s claim, however, as international law continues to expand in relevance, many of these opposing countries are faced with increasing pressure, mainly from France and the EU. With substantial revenues at stake, and with strong cases for and against France’s claims, the debate continues vigorously on the international stage. Of note, Master of Wine Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan points out that,

“Champagne has many challenges, not least of which is trying to protect their name. Korbel has been making sparkling wine since the 1880s.  This makes it older than some champagne brands, such as Champagne Salon which had it’s first commercial champagne in 1927. Additionally, Korbel is a multi-million case brand.  So from a marketing perspective, one can understand why Korbel wants to protect their branding. Having said this, facts are facts.  Champagne is a region, they have established themselves as the quality standard for sparkling wine and they have every right to try to protect their name and the quality they stand for.  And they should.  It’s their name. They have a difficult fight on their hands though because of pricing, cultural views, consumers’ abilities to taste the difference, and lack of retailer/sommelier incentive.”

Worth mentioning, this problem is not Champagne specific. It affects any region in the world. In 2007, for example, Chinese wine producers released many wine products in China under such brand names as “Napa Valley,” “Napa,” and “Valley Napa,” with no association to the grapes grown in the region of Napa.

Debate aside, it is understandable why French Champagne producers and growers are upset. The CIVC regulates strict regulations that mandate location, grape growing, pruning systems, production, harvesting and handling conditions to ensure a quality product. They are protecting a brand, which is what anyone would do if they were in the same position—and just because you can (e.g. use Champagne on a U.S. label based on the grandfather law) does not mean you should.

I rather think of this in similar terms when stealing content from websites. Just because a website does not clearly post a copyright or trademark does not mean you can freely use and distribute the information and claim it as your own.

So laws aside, who, besides the CIVC and the Center for Wine Origins is addressing truthfulness in labeling? The list is large—writers, wine aficionados, chefs and sommeliers. Professionals such as Jancis Robinson, Thomas Keller, Ferran Adrià, Daniel Boulud, José Andrés, Charlie Palmer, Wolfgang Puck, and Michael Mina have joined forces to protect place names by signing a petition. An excerpt of the open letter points out,

“Just as Florida oranges can only come from Florida and Idaho potatoes can only come from the fields of Idaho, wines labeled Napa Valley can only come from America’s renowned Napa Valley and those labeled Champagne can only come from the famous Champagne region in France. There are no substitutes for any of these location-driven products.” ~ Wine and culinary professionals: An Open Letter, Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place & Origin

But many professionals who have buying power don’t think signing a petition is going far enough. Nearly twenty years ago, Bruno G. Bonnet, Sommelier for Comme Ça Restaurant in Las Vegas decided he had enough—he did not want his guests to be mislead so when a prominent California sparkling wine producer asked him to feature their wines on his list, he asked for a very simple condition: to remove the word “Champagne” from the label. Bonnet reports that to this day the producer has not changed his labels. Bonnet makes a call for action and says, “Signing a petition is the “passive” easy way out. Sorting through mislabeled products takes time and effort…”

Blake Leja, Sommelier for Prosecco Restaurant in Chicago prominently follows suit, stating that California Champagne misleads the consumer. He believes that,

“Champagne comes from Champagne, France.  It is just the same as Cognac. All Cognac is brandy, but not all Brandy is Cognac. Regardless of how a Sparkling wine house or Sparkling wine is produced, unless it comes from the Champagne proper, it should not be allowed to call itself “XYZ Champagne”. The word Champagne speaks to a specific terroir. It speaks to the climate, the soil, the producers, and the grower/producer. Champagne is Champagne for a reason, and I strongly believe it should stay that way.”

Leja does not carry California Champagne on his list, and it is not likely he will in the future. I asked Leja how he deals with customers on the “Champagne vs. Sparkling wine” topic, “I try to keep a neutral but informative opinion on the floor. I explain to the customer the AOP laws and the 2005 ruling—from there I let the customer make their own opinion.”

Jacob Gragg, an Atlanta Sommelier believes the focus of a Sommelier is to create a great experience for the guest, so if they ask for a California Champagne, he suggests one of his sparkling wines from California.

“I love being able to support wines of quality of all different regions, especially when it comes to sparkling wine. At my restaurant, I could offer you sparkling wine options from California such as Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs, Schaffenberger, Roederer Estate’s Brut Rose and L’Ermitage (in magnum). In addition, we have over 25 other Sparkling wine options from Champagne, other regions of France, Tasmania, Austria, Germany, and Italy. We don’t however currently offer any wines labeled as “California Champagne”, and in writing the wine list, we reserve the term “Champagne” exclusively for wines from that region. We list other offerings as “Sparkling Wine” or “Sparkling Rose”, says Gragg.

As for mislabeling, “…there are many wine consumers out there that get a large majority of their basic wine information from the label of the bottles on their local store shelf, and a label reading “California Champagne” can be very misleading and confusing” says Gragg. He  also states that signing a petition is not very effective. “I believe that if you as a Sommelier disagree with the regional misuse of GI’s, then supporting producers and products that uphold your values in labeling is the way to let your voice be heard.”

After querying a heavy hitter, which prefers to remain anonymous, he believes an easy fix would be to focus on the U.S. distributors. “If distributors would simply stop buying inferior products to protect worldwide Geographical Indications (GIs) we would not be having this discussion right now. But taking on distributors who only have an interest in moving product and making money would be near impossible”. This is why focusing on Sommeliers and store wine buyers is important. If they stop buying inferior product, distributors will ultimately sit on product.

Joshua S. Thornton, CMS and independent broker believes Somms can (and should) express their views as advocates for the consumer through their buying dollars. Joshua believes the issue comes down to “respect vs. greed—the greed aspect of trying to wrong every dollar out of a given market vs. the respect due to GIs worldwide.”

In retrospect, many wine professionals are, in essence, the gatekeepers of the wines that show up on our restaurant lists, wine stores and supermarket shelves. Their message to consumers go beyond signing petitions and they challenge consumers to demand truthfulness in labeling. Simonetti-Bryan, MW comments,

“Sommeliers who feel strongly about the issue will not serve “California champagne” on their wine lists.  They may sign a petition or be advocates for GI.  However, it is not the responsibility for retailers and sommeliers to pick up Champagne’s GI banner. Targeted education and marketing campaigns are the solution.  Many of the grande marque champagne houses have some of the largest marketing budgets in the industry.  Therefore, the champagne industry has the financial resources. However, it’s not about throwing money at the problem, it’s about targeted and smart education and marketing campaigns.”

It is clear that Sommeliers play a critical role in communicating and educating consumers in this matter and they are willing to go the extra mile to support truthfulness in labeling.

On a side note, I think many of us get caught up with the romanticism, nobility and royalty associated with Champagne. How can we brand California sparkling wine to harness the same mystical spirit? From a branding perspective, think Coke vs. Pepsi, Levi’s vs. Wranglers, and Microsoft vs. Apple. Every brand has built their empire to represent what they are today. Is one better than the other? They all have strong markets and if you ask for public views, everyone will have an opinion—what tastes better, fits better, operates better. As for one underdog, Apple rivaled Microsoft after years of fighting to become the world’s most valuable tech company.  What is the takeaway? We live in a world where Coke and Pepsi co-exist and they are both wildly popular. California sparkling wine is no different—I believe it should be celebrated as a distinguished pedigree that expresses terroir of the land where it is grown—it is up to our talented U.S. marketers to build a brand that expresses its character and the people behind the products. And it’s up to our consumers to demand truth in labeling and to enjoy refreshing sparklers made from any U.S. location.  Let’s make it happen.