Inaugural “California Champagne” Controversy banner image

Inaugural
“California Champagne”
Controversy

For centuries the importance of place has been enormous in the production, appreciation and mystique of wine. No one takes this more seriously than the French, and it could be argued that even in France nobody is more passionate about this subject than the growers and producers of Champagne. Led by the trade organization Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, they diligently guard against unauthorized uses of the term Champagne, which by French and European Union law can only describe traditional method sparkling wine from the region of the same name. Why then, does the phrase “California Champagne” appear on certain labels? The answer requires a bit of history.

An 1891 treaty provided the first legal protection of the Champagne place name, and that was re-affirmed in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that formally ended World War I. However, the U.S. never signed the latter, and in January of 1920 Prohibition began, so wine labeling was not much of a concern anyway. The next protective step was the French appellation system, established in 1935, with Champagne receiving AOC status in 1936. By this time Prohibition had ended and U.S. wineries were back in business. But in the States there was no requirement to abide by European laws, and the marketing benefit of using Old World names was hard to resist. So terms like Chianti, Port, Burgundy, Chablis and Champagne became common on California wine labels, in spite of objections from those actual regions.

It wasn’t until 2006 that the U.S. and the European Union signed a wine trade agreement that prohibited this practice. But the pact included a grandfather clause. Wineries that had existed and been making sparkling wine labeled as Champagne prior to September 14 of 2015 could continue to do so. A number of grandfathered producers gave up that right anyway, but a few have not. These tend to be makers of inexpensive bubblies, often under $15. They include Gallo, Cook’s and Korbel, and they no doubt will continue using “California Champagne” on their labels unless U.S. law changes.

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