Almost half of the sparkling wine sold in the US says champagne on the label. The only catch: that’s “California champagne,” usually with the “California” in 2-point font and the “Champagne” in 36-point bold.
So says the Champagne Bureau USA, the DC-based arm of the CIVC, the Champagne trade association. Although the term is banned in Mexico and Australia for domestic sparkling wine, and Canada will phase out the use of any domestic use of “Champagne” in 2014, the US–the third largest market for Champagne after France and the UK–has no such sunset. Six years ago, the EU and US agreed to allow no new labels to use the term thus limiting the term to existing labels (about 16 comprise almost all the volume). Sam Heitner, director of the Champagne Bureau, thinks it’s time to tighten the laws and ban “California Champagne” on labels.
“US law agrees with protecting communal names such as Napa Valley,” he says. “Yet it permits duplicity with Champagne.”
This position goes against much of the discussion about the family farm, food origins, and intellectual property law, he adds. Even China has greater protection of the Champagne name than we do in the US.
“Champagne is not a melon–you can’t smell it, can’t touch it. All we have is the label,” Heitner says.
There’s some movement for producers to stop using the term: Schramsberg and Chateau Frank have dropped “Champagne” from their labels and Constellation introduced a sparkling wine without using the term.
While I doff my cap to his efforts for truth-in-labeling, it’s hard to see what levers the Champagne Bureau has other than taking the moral high ground. If the 16 producers aren’t compelled to change by law, it’s hard to see what could make them reverse course. Constellation and Gallo may not be particularly attached to the term since so much of their sales come from other wines and their bubblies probably hinge more on the brand. But Korbel, who links the term champagne with their company name and bubbly wines while selling eight percent of all bubbly in America, seems unlikely to give up the term until they it is pried from their legal repertoire of terms.
The status quo is untenable from a wine geek’s perspective. “California Champagne” occupies the low-end of the bubbly market (very little, if any, sells for more than $15 a bottle while it’s virtually impossible to find a Champagne from Champagne here for under $30 a bottle). It’s hard to see bottom-up protests, as enthusiasts of Tott’s, Andre, and Korbel are unlikely to call for better labeling. So pressure would have to come from the Wine Institute since they represent producers who have a vested interest in protecting and promoting US place names. The Wine Institute does not appear sympathetic to a change at this point.
How long do you think until the US law changes–5, 10 30 years? Or never? And what would be the turning point for achieving that change? Or does it not matter?
US sparkling wine market by segment, Gomberg 2012, courtesy of the Champagne Bureau