Champagne has long resented "champagne." To denizens of the French wine region that is home to the world's favorite bubbly beverage (Coca-Cola aside), only the local product should be called by name, and the rest is merely sparkling wine. Most of the world agrees -- and Article 23 of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) makes it official.
Why, then, are so many American bottles labeled "champagne"? While protection of geographical indications for wine and spirits is stronger than for any other product category, there's a loophole. Article 24 provides that WTO member countries, like the U.S., can choose to allow domestic wine producers who "borrowed" someone else's regional label prior to the signing of TRIPS to continue to do so. The U.S. has elected to take advantage of that exception.
While Champagne, France, has lost the legal battle -- for now -- it's waging a PR war instead. Here's a portion of a recent ad from the Office of Champagne, USA:
The fine print in the rest of the ad goes on to invite oenophiles to sign a petition -- already joined by 13 wine regions including the Napa Valley -- seeking truth in labeling.
But is there really a difference between French Champagne and American "champagne"? Whenever I've taught International Intellectual Property Law, I've conducted a blind tasting among my students (including once on a "dry" campus -- but that's another story). While a very slim majority of students has been able to identify the real thing, for the most part the class admits to guessing. Interestingly, my international students seem to have a far easier time telling the difference -- which may bolster Champagne's argument. In any case, I'm sure they'd be happy to volunteer for further testing.
Which brings me back to that petition. If the writers of the "Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place and Origin" want to boost the number of signatories fast, they might consider free samples....