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It’s Time for American Wineries to Grow Up

OK America, it’s time to put on your big boy pants, and start playing responsibly with the rest of the world.

10 years ago, the U.S. Government cut a deal with the European Union that guaranteed we would not allow companies in this country to mis-use the protected place names for European wine regions. That means that no one in the U.S. is allowed to create a product called “Chianti” “Port” or “Champagne,” and in exchange, the EU agreed that no one would be allowed to put words like “Napa” or “Sonoma” on European wines.

Sounds pretty fair, right? Well there were two problems with this.

PROBLEM #1 — America managed to negotiate to allow wine companies that were already using these protected place names on their labels prior to the agreement to continue using them (but not on any new labels).

PROBLEM #2 — The agreement expired in 10 years.

Which brings us to today. And perhaps not surprisingly a slightly sticky situation. The EU is quite amenable to renewing this agreement and making it permanent, but with one caveat. They want the companies that have been using these place names to stop.

They should get what they’re asking for, and companies like Korbel, Andre, J. Roget, and Cook’s, who have been putting the word Champagne on sparkling wine for decades, should finally retire the term.

In this global economy, and with consumers’ increasing awareness of the wines of the world, justification no longer exists for maintaining these “traditional” labels on American products.

If we want other countries to respect the unique names of our geographies, they should have the right to expect the same of us, without some grandfather-clause loophole for massive wine companies trying to protect 30-year-old brands.

Last time I checked the TTB’s database, 104 labels had been approved in the United States featuring the word “Champagne” prior to the agreement in 2006. Of those 104, many were no longer in commercial use. Beverages and More carries 16 sparkling wines made in America that have the word Champagne on their label, with the majority from Korbel, Andre, J. Roget, and Cook’s brands. Wine Library carries 11 American Sparkling wines from the same suspects. Wine.Com carries none, and practically every other specialty wine retailer that I know of carries none as well. I would expect the numbers to be even smaller for Port and Chablis, and other such designations.

Of course, making it fully illegal for these words to appear on wine labels in the United States will have some real cost (time, effort, and money) for American wine producers. But that’s relatively easy to deal with, I think. The TTB could simply waive the label renewal fees for labels that are replacing those formerly grandfathered by the previous agreement. And if they wanted to go further, they could fast-track the approval of the new labels, and even offer discounts on future approvals for those most affected by the rule change.

The Napa Valley Vintners association has quite sensibly agreed that it is time for us to end the exceptions granted to some American companies with regards to use of European names. And no wonder, as they continue to battle to keep wineries in China and elsewhere from plastering Napa all over wines made from local grapes.

It’s time for other winery and wine growing associations to get on board, and for companies like Korbel to get with the global program. Place names are important in wine, and need to be respected. End of story. Let’s join the global wine community as a bona fide citizen and treat others as we’d like to be treated.