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Starting Today, You Can't Sell Fine California Wine in Europe

Something is rotten in the State of Denmark, Hamlet famously proclaimed. Rotten may not quite describe it, but something is definitely amiss in the European Union when it comes to importing wine. Apparently it wasn't enough for the US to agree to stop using the words Port, Champagne, and Burgundy on products that were clearly not from these areas.

Today a piece of legislation has gone into effect that forbids the sale of any U.S. wine in Europe that has any of the following words on its label:

chateau', 'classic', 'clos', 'cream', 'crusted/crusting', 'fine', 'late bottled vintage', 'noble', 'ruby', 'superior', 'sur lie', 'tawny', 'vintage' or 'vintage character.'

Is this a bit of sneaky revenge against Chateau Montelena thirty years after the fact? Or just a lousy bit of protectionism in the face of stiff global competition? Sorry Clos du Val, Chateau St. Jean, and any winery that was silly enough to use the word 'vintage' on the label. Place names are one thing, standard English words are quite another.

Now we know why they call it the world's biggest bureaucracy.

Thanks to Jack at Fork & Bottle for telling me about it and pointing me to the text of the regulations.

Comments (37)

Arthur wrote:
03.11.09 at 11:01 PM

How about we lobby the TTB to prohibit the importation of varietal-labeled wines from the EU.
Varietal labeling is a uniquely American practice and convention with well-documented historical record of its proposed use and subsequent adaptation.

Chris Lopez wrote:
03.11.09 at 11:48 PM

I think all this will do is hurt the wine world as a whole. I truly hope that someone in the EU recognizes this folly and fixes this - fast.

Arnaud H wrote:
03.12.09 at 12:11 AM

Maybe it's misplaced patriotism on my part, but I have to admit I don't think it's that unfair. Alright, so banning "Chateau" and "Clos" is a bit over the top (but then again, I don't think any company except maybe Bronco Wine, which probably doesn't export much, would nowadays consider using any of those words on their label anymore), but I don't see what's wrong about banning "tawny", "superior", "vintage" or "sur lie", considering they have legal meanings for some European wines.

As for a supposed revenge against Chateau Montelena, I seriously doubt it, considering that winery got acquired by a French company...

Come on, Alder. There are plenty of very fine California wines that don't use any of those words.

Hande wrote:
03.12.09 at 12:30 AM

Ok, we can discuss about "vintage", you are right, but "Clos du Val, Chateau St. Jean" are barely standard English words. And a lot of the other terms do have legal meanings in Europe, as you very well know.

Dylan wrote:
03.12.09 at 6:32 AM

I just wonder if this is going to create any more clever labels designs as it did during the change to Port (http://blog.wired.com/gadgets/2008/10/usb-port-wine-w.html)

Wes Hagen wrote:
03.12.09 at 7:29 AM

As the winemaker for Clos Pepe, I would be upset if this affetced me, but we make 500 cases of pinot noir, and the Euros can't have any!

Jack Everitt wrote:
03.12.09 at 8:07 AM

Why don't we ban the importation of wines that lack the main variety on the front of the label? (Pretty deceptive...I mean, is a Bordeaux Cab or Merlot?)

Jake wrote:
03.12.09 at 8:11 AM

Seems rather mean spirited. I guess we should pass laws that prevent EU wines from having words like "Chardonnay" or "Cabernet Sauvignon" on them that help American consumers identify Euro wine. but no, this is bad for the Industry as a whole...

Alder wrote:
03.12.09 at 8:19 AM

Oh c'mon people. No disrespect for French tradition but "Clos" means field or farm and "Chateau" means estate. While there may be rules about how these words are used in France, any argument for banning labels that have these words has to be based on rational grounds. And the only rational grounds in my opinion are those based on real likelihood of confusion between an imported wine and a local product and potentially result in the consumer buying something under false pretenses. E.g. calling something Chablis, that is clearly not.

If someone is suggesting that because Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from Napa Valley includes the word Chateau in it people in Europe are going to somehow be confused thinking it is something that it is not, that's ridiculous.

The only words in this list that I think actually belong there are: Ruby, Tawny, and Vintage, but ONLY when used in conjunction with the word "Port."

The idea that someone couldn't have a wine label named Ruby Sky is just silly.

Arthur wrote:
03.12.09 at 8:42 AM

Arnaud H,

The sale of Chateau Montelena (to a Belgian company) did not happen. The owners changed their minds.


There is a growing sea of European wines labeled with the varietal coming into the U.S. If the Europeans want to protect their piece of the pie by barring us from sending them wines with "Clos" and "Chateau" on the label, then we should protect our nomenclature as well.

Michael wrote:
03.12.09 at 8:52 AM

Actually clos doesn't mean field or farm, it means enclosed, or enclosure, and is typically meant to refer to enclosed parcels, sometimes within other vineyards, particularly in Burgundy. (Champ means field if I remember correctly) Nonetheless, I don't see why you can't have an enclosed vineyard in the U.S.
Further, Chateau is merely castle, and is used throughout the french-speaking wine world. and is not region-specific, and is often used where there is no castle on the property or merely some structure that they call the castle.
Classic is perhaps the most egregious and ambiguous. Tawny, ruby, and crusted, as well as vintage, should also be fair game.
Curious, does this apply to Aus as well, since they commonly use those terms?

Overall I think that this sounds absolutely absurd. I can see not wanting Kraft to use the phrase Parmesan, and even for the Portugese to not want foreign wine labeled as Port, but most of these restrictions can't really be "claimed" by anyone, and should not be allowed to limit imports by these standards.

1WineDude wrote:
03.12.09 at 8:54 AM

I refuse to believe that any reasonable consumer would be confused by a wine label from the States containing the words Clos and Chateau.

Too bad the EU governments aren't run by reasonable people...

Arnaud H wrote:
03.12.09 at 10:17 AM

Ahem. Most German, Austrian and Alsacian bottles have been bearing on their labels the names of their main varietal long before American wineries started doing so. So that argument is irrelevant, I think.

I suspect the main reason why "Château" or "Clos" are banned is simply to avoid consumer confusion in Europe, where American wines are and remain an exotic import in most cases, and where most consumers - especially in France - would obviously find it a bit confusing, as they would not expect a US winery to use such words.

PS: thanks for correcting me about the Chateau Montelena (aborted) sale - but that was a pun on my part anyway, and I doubt Alder was serious when he was implying this was payback :)

Arthur wrote:
03.12.09 at 10:30 AM

I am hard pressed to accept the "confusion" argument.

Here are two examples of American labels that no reasonable human (French or otherwise) could confuse for a French wine:


http://www.napavintners.com/labels/Chateau Montelena75Percent.jpg

Jake wrote:
03.12.09 at 10:43 AM

I guess who this really impacts is larger premium producers who do sell product in the EU, especially Napa Valley wine, which is recognized around the world. Chateau Montelena, Clos de Val, Clos Pegase. If I were one of those wineries I would be furious.

Alder wrote:
03.12.09 at 10:52 AM

Indeed, the Montelena comment was tongue in cheek.

Pascal wrote:
03.12.09 at 11:24 AM

This is about more than wine - it's about low-level trade warfare. I don't hear anyone bitching about the US tripling tariffs on roquefort to counter the health restrictions on importation of US beef etc... It goes both ways and this is likely tit-for-tat retaliation for some equally dumb US protectionism.
And maybe I'm piqued being French-American, but when it comes to bureaucracy, the EU is huge and dumb - yes, but you know as well as I than in this regards the American federal and state administrations overseeing alcohol regulations are just as bad...
Funny how jingoism is always ready to bubble up... and how free-trade advocates can quickly become the most mean-spirited protectionists.
To 1WineDude: "too bad EU governments aren't run by reasonable people..." Gimme a break and go see the world - You mean like the TTB? Like the FDA? Be wary of gross generalizations. In the EU, some of these regulations prevent food scares like we have in the US and make EU consumers safer than in the US.
Sorry for the rant guys...

Alder wrote:
03.12.09 at 12:20 PM


You're very right to make the point that bureaucracy and idiotic laws are not exclusive priviledge of the EU. I've written other posts about the idiocy of US wine shipping and purchase laws. This one just happened to be targeted (and timely) about this particular law.

Laws around usage of language like this particularly frustrate me.

Hande wrote:
03.12.09 at 3:34 PM

Oh but Alder, Germans and Italians (for example) are not allowed to use "clos" either. Same for most of the other words on the list as well - they can only be used where they originated and/or have the most important meaning/usage. The rules are intra-EU the same. And sorry, but just as I constantly meet Americans who think Chianti is a varietal and ask me if it can be only made in Italy, there really are tons of European wine drinkers who think about France when they see "chateau", really. For you guys those Napa producers may be obvious, but for 99% of the Europeans, no. And your argument above was "standard english words", which neither chateau nor clos is...

Morton Leslie wrote:
03.12.09 at 5:42 PM

Oops. They forgot "terroir." I say we let them have it back if they give us vintage. Ooh, and they forgot Domaine. they can have it too.

Seriously, I don't think we are the target. They don't buy our wine anyway. It's the rest of the world, Chile, Argentina, and Australia who use those terms on the wines Europeans actually import. That's where their lunch is getting eaten.

But seeing as how 'classic', 'cream', 'crusted/crusting', 'fine', 'late bottled' , 'noble', 'ruby', 'superior','tawny', 'vintage' or 'vintage character' are "American" words, maybe we should ban all imports with them as well. We are the biggest wine market. Are we not?

Jeff A. wrote:
03.13.09 at 8:12 AM

It would be interesting to hear from Bernard Portet, the vintner who named and launched Clos du Val - being French, originally from Bordeaux....

tannic wrote:
03.13.09 at 8:56 AM

Fine, EU! We claim all American words, starting with "nucular".

For the record, I believe Pascal is spot-on in his assessment.

Eric wrote:
03.13.09 at 10:09 AM

Those terms are all regulated in Europe. If European producers are subject to regulation in their use, it would be unfair to exempt foreign products. America dominates many industries where American standards become quasi International standards. Wine is an industry where Europe totally dominates globally. The US could negotiate the use of those terms if they were willing to define them accordingly.

Premium American wines however are negligible in the European market. Mass producers like Gallo and company will revise their labels in a heartbeat if need be.

Ever seen the complexity of a labeling line in France? Every label must go through US approval. Now imagine you make 15 wines that are going to three importers in the US; and that is just the US. Every bottle that goes to the US must be labeled accordingly. Wine labels in Europe do not go through an approval process. I bet if the US were to exempt Europeans from going through COLA approvals, they could get exemption for all the above terms and more.

Clos means enclosed field or vineyard, usually walled.

Hank wrote:
03.13.09 at 3:31 PM

Absolute insanity on the EU's part. I feel like making a wine named Chateau Classic Superior, which has a fine, creamy front end, a noble heritage and ruby color. For more vintage character, I'll offer a late bottled vintage reserva from clos du Chateau...in Lodi.

Jeaux wrote:
03.14.09 at 5:58 AM

Yep, Ruby Sky is out, and so apparently is Tawny Kitaen. Not to mention my favorite Cal vanity label, Chateau F'uqup.

This is a perfect example of the EU stepping on its own grapes. After the "Boycott France and French Fries" nonsense of earlier this decade, you'd think people with warehouses full of wine would not want to antagonize a world market upon which they depend.

d wrote:
03.15.09 at 12:00 AM

'stepping on its own grapes' exactly. especially now.

MoniqueDC wrote:
03.16.09 at 9:09 AM

I'm with Pascal on this one. The bureacracy of the EU can be difficult, but the food in Europe is not only more clearly labelled, but also tastes so much better. Try a tomatoe the next time you are in the EU. You will be amazed at the difference.

rs wrote:
03.16.09 at 1:16 PM

That's just so much more european wine I won't buy. Australian yes.

BrianM< wrote:
03.16.09 at 3:51 PM

RS: Good. That means more for the rest of us.

Larry Chandler wrote:
03.17.09 at 3:47 PM

Wines from the Chianti Classico region have a black rooster as their emblem. The Italian for black rooster is Gallo Nero. Guess which big American wine company forced those words off their labels before the wines could be imported.

Alder wrote:
03.17.09 at 3:54 PM


Thanks for bringing up an example of how America can be just as stupid. Clearly this phenomenon of (what I see as) overprotectionism is not restricited to the EU.

Arthur wrote:
03.17.09 at 5:04 PM

Yes, Alder, but it also shows that if you have enough muscle to flex, you can get what you want.

Maybe there is a lesson to be learned from the way the Gallos go about protecting their turf.

Gideon wrote:
03.23.09 at 9:18 PM

Now my secret ambition to take over Paris with my Clos Saron will never be accomplished... Oooouuch! We'll call ourselves CLOTHES ARE ON instead. But the TTB does not exhibit any higher degree of intellignece than that. For example, we ended up settling on "undisclosed mountain range in California" on one of our labels since they would not allow us to use "Sierra Nevada Mountains"... Some people make wine out of mountains, other make mountains out of wine.

Adam wrote:
03.24.09 at 9:50 AM

Let's ban all French wines, they obviously can't compare with the Americans anyway.

Too bad we didn't just let Germany stomp all over these guys a little more -- we would have some really great German wines besides rieslings!

Pascal wrote:
03.24.09 at 10:45 AM

Adam - thanks for the sarcasm, always pleasant to read such elegant humor from anonymous posters. On that delicate topic, read "Wine and War" by Donald Kladstrup.

Arthur wrote:
03.27.09 at 8:08 AM
10.25.14 at 6:23 PM

Saved as a favorite, I really like your site!

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