Say champagne, mean Champagne

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

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20 Responses to “Say champagne, mean Champagne”

  1. As much as the BATF (or whatever they’re called these days) has no problem with muscling up on the alcohol biz, I am surprised they can’t be appealed to on this one. Particularly if the Champagne Bureau is taking the tack that Champagne means a region not a wine type.

    Perhaps some retaliatory labeling? Maybe producing some swill with renamed grapes called korbel.

  2. Funny you mention that strategy.

    One thing that Heitner said was that Andre actually had the, er, moxie to sue a Champagne house for using the term Andre and Champagne. The suit was dropped.

  3. Based on current law, the term is acceptable due to a ridiculous loop 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 Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) became effective. In the bilateral trade agreement, the term ‘champagne’ grandfathers’ U.S. producers who have used the name prior to 2005. If France wants to push the issue again, it sounds like they will have to go back to the table to amend the current agreement.

  4. It seems impossible to replace such an evocative name as champagne; it means much more than just a region in France. However, if France initiated a line of wines called Napa wines, I think there would be quite a fuss in Napa.

  5. I guess they could put out some over-oaked, high extraction Cabs and Chards and call them California Select, Methode Parkere.

  6. Champagne’s (in the French meaning) bigger problem is that the wines don’t give value for money and justify their high prices only through marketing. I drink Cremant d’ [insert region here] whenever possible.

  7. Diluting the branding also dilutes the mystique.
    Which makes it harder to support the prices.

  8. While I love the idea of the French pumping out wine branded with “Napa,” there’s only one problem with it. Those words aren’t exactly selling points in Europe.

    Perhaps they could export those wines to steakhouses in Omaha, Vegas and Epcot Center. That’s where the market for Napa wine is.

  9. It is a trade agreement and would take, as trade agreements do, a long time even if started in 2006. Weibel (Lodi) has multiple retail and private COLAs for California “Champagne.” Their “Non-Alcoholic ‘Chateau de Fleur’ California Champagne” is apparently now also called “Champagnette” on website though I couldn’t find a COLA registration for “Champagnette” nor a registered trademark. (But I am happy to say the US gov websites are working fine, #Sandy.)

  10. Ever since Wine Trials found Ste Michelle Domaine at $12 outperformed according to critics compared the the $150 Dom Pérignon IIRC
    I have really wondered if this all is a tempest in a teapot.

  11. It is tempting to trivialize this, since the name is used only on downmarket sparklers, sold to consumers who probably don’t know and/or don’t want to know that Champagne is a place. Even so, using the word “Champagne” on a sparkling wine that is not from Champagne is, very simply, a lie. It is an indicator of bad faith on the part of the producer. It should not be allowed.

  12. The vineyards of Champagne are one of the pillars of French viticulture and international fame, thanks to great Benedictine monk Dom Perignon. More infos you will find at
    Everyone has to agree, save water drink champagne, cheers ;)!

  13. Yeah, calling CA sparkling wine Champagne is technically incorrect. But look: There’s no other word in English! In Spanish, German, Italian, there are words for sparkling wine but not in English (bubbly sounds ridiculous). That’s why the custom began of calling anything that bubbles Champagne. I think we need to get over ourselves on this one. Calling it Champagne is not a crime; it’s in the nature of language that words change their meaning across time & space.

  14. “…,there are words for sparkling wine but not in English” Uhhh, how about sparkling wine? I think that’s English.
    According to your theory every copy machine should be able to be labelled a Xerox machine.

  15. For a long time, photocopies were indeed called Xerox copies. My only point is that language evolves organically, and it evolved in the USA. Folks who want to reserve the name Champagne for the French sparkling wine of a certain region are trying to stop that organic process of linguistic evolution. Such efforts usually fail, but change can happen gradually, as with Levi’s, Xerox machines, Kleenex, Hoovers, and others.

  16. Champagne has been around a lot longer than Xerox. And it is not simply a brand or trade name. It is a place, a region, a political entity. For that matter, it isn’t a symbol of an outdated technology, either.

  17. Dave is 100% correct. But still, languages evolve; words change meaning; nouns become verbs; legislation has altered that process only rarely.

  18. […] Say champagne, mean Champagne. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

  19. This just shows you how screwed up wine labeling laws are in the USA and how badly they are enforced. Just last week on a bottle Becker Vineyard Riesling, I say Texas Appellation on the front label but “For Sale in Texas Only” on the back label.

    Russ Kane

  20. You might find this interesting (and you might also think I’m crazy). But, I think I’m right:

    A New Way to Elevate Texas Wine Production and Quality: The Champagne Connection <Call me crazy, but it works! #TXwine



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