Wine, Champagne and Truth in Labeling

Ruling means only vintages truly from a famed California region can claim so on the label.

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By Doug Heye, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Late last week, the Tax and Trade Bureau created the Calistoga American Viticultural Area, meaning that any wine using the Calistoga name must contain a minimum of 75 percent grapes from the new sub-appellation within the famed Napa Valley.

The decision, codifying that the product is what it says it is, had been sought for years by both producers and consumers. Had it not been for the difficulty in determining the fate of two misleading labels in particular (Calistoga Cellars and Calistoga Estates, wineries neither based in Calistoga nor using the required minimum percentage of local grapes required by the new AVA, will have three years to phase out the use of the word "Calistoga") this surely would have happened years ago.

It's a step forward, but too often consumers remain left in the dark. During an unseasonably warm weekend last month, I stopped at a local grocery store to purchase a bottle of sherry for an outdoor dinner party. The grocery store had plenty of wines labeled "sherry," but none from the Jerez de la Frontera region of Spain, where true sherry is made. Upon closer inspection, there were several different kinds of "port," but not a one from Portugal. If I wanted the authentic product, I had to go elsewhere.

No wine, however, has had its name misleadingly appropriated more than champagne. Store shelves are filled with "champagne" from all over the map—especially California and New York—that are not from the Champagne region of France. At the airport in Gander, Canada, I even spotted a "Canadian Champagne," a product as intellectually dishonest as the Rolex sold for $20 on a street corner.

Much of the wine world has banded together to recognize the true origins of wines—that champagne is from the Champagne region of France, chianti is from Chianti in Tuscany, chablis is from the Chablis area of Burgundy, and so on. This includes the American wine industry on two levels, from regions such as the Napa and Sonoma Valleys to individual producers. Two prominent California wine producers, Schramsberg (whose excellent sparkling wine served for the "toast to peace" between President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai) and Beringer Vineyards have taken the proactive step of requesting that the Tax and Trade Bureau delete any of their old labels misusing the word "champagne."

During a visit last year to the chalky hillsides of Champagne, I met Bruno Paillard, owner of his own eponymous champagne house, who spoke of the "double poverty of poor soil and climate" that makes champagne unique.

But when asked specifically about labeling, Paillard turns into a homesteader in a John Wayne western. Those who misleadingly label their sparkling wines as champagne are "gangsters," Paillard says, before staking his claim—"Champagne can never be another sparkling wine, just as a sparkling wine from anywhere else—even other parts of France—cannot be champagne. It's our life. It's our identity. It's our passion. So we won't give up."

Calistoga and Champagne are as far apart from each other wine-wise as they are geographically. What they do have in common is the desire to maintain the integrity of their names. By declaring that only Calistoga has the right to its name, the Tax and Trade Bureau essentially makes the same case for Champagne and other wine regions similarly affected.

Countless bottles of sparkling wine from every corner of the globe will be popped open this holiday season. But until concrete steps are made to ensure greater truth in labeling, consumers may still need to read the fine print.

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