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You Can’t Call Your Wine That Anymore

We live in a world dominated by brands, a marketplace where name and image can make the difference between stunning success and dismal failure. In a consumer world driven by media messages, advertising, and competition for eyeballs and mindshare it’s no wonder that people are so protective of the names of their wines. They have to be.

But things really start to get funky when we get into the world where a wine’s name is often the same as the place it is grown or the varietal it is made from, or both.

The winegrowers of the Mosel Saar-Ruwer region voluntarily opted to shorten the legal name of their region to Mosel to make it more accessible to wine consumers, though there are a lot of people up in arms about the decision. Some feel it will be harmful, and ultimately lead to the devaluing of the wine and the place it comes from.

Decisions about what a wine is called aren’t always easy to make, and many aren’t even voluntary. When court judgments do come into play, the more straightforward of these situations end up being like the recent decision against the Bronco Wine Company, who wasn’t allowed to call their wine Napa Creek because none of the grapes came from Napa. And theoretically (only because this is done by trade delegation agreement not by national law) wineries in the United States can no longer use words

Sometimes, though, the wrangling over who can name a wine what takes on a ridiculous air. As of March 2007 it will no longer be legal for winegrowers in Northeastern Italy to make a wine called Tocai Friulano. Instead it must simply be called Friulano.

And why has the Tocai disappeared? Because the Hungarians, who have been producing a wine known as Tokai, or Tokaji, for hundreds of years, think that they own the name. And presumably they are worried that somehow, they’ll lose some customers in confusion.

Never mind that Tocai is the Italian name for the Sauvignonasse varietal, and has been for a long time (centuries?). Never mind that the Italians spell it differently than most of the Hungarians. Never mind that the wine is a nearly-colorless, dry, aromatic white (instead of a sweet, thick golden dessert wine). Oh, and it hardly matters that the Italians have been making it for decades and it is the most widely planted varietal in the Friuli region, right?

In total, blatant disregard for all of this, a European judge recently ruled in favor of Hungary’s claim that they had exclusive rights to any wine name resembling Tokai, and appeals by Italian organizations have been denied.

In my mind, this is completely ridiculous, and well beyond the bounds of rationality. Read the full story, and when you’re done, go out and buy some nice Tocai Friulano in solidarity with the winemakers of Friuli.

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