Apparently more than 40 renowned chefs, sommeliers, and wine educators just sent an open letter to Congress, asking for the body to address mislabeling of wine bottles. Specifically, the labeling of American sparkling wine as Champagne, when it is not in fact Champagne. This somewhat contentious issue has been going on for five years now, since the U.S.-E.U. Wine Accords were signed in 2006. I know Congress has a reputation for dragging its feet, but that's rather amazing.
According to the Champagne Bureau, the region's trade group here in the States, 50% of sparkling wine sold in the United States is still mislabeled. The point of contention here is the use of Champagne on sparkling wine that isn't from the actual region of Champagne in France. In the brief press release that appeared in my inbox this morning, the Champagne Bureau also reported on other countries efforts to end mislabeling. Notably, Australia is going to phase out all mislabeled Champagne and Port by September 2011.
Why is the United States dragging its feet on this issue and perhaps more worrying, why is the wine industry in this country not voluntarily removing Champagne from its sparkling wines? I know a great many producers have ceased using the word, or never used it in the first place, but why does Korbel for example still insist on using it? Perhaps it's my cynical nature but the first word that flashed into my brain was "MONEY". The recognizable word carries certain connotations and those are great sales points for a sparkling wine.
A condition of the Wine Accords was the grandfather clause that allowed wineries who had been using Champagne on their labels for something like 20 years or more to continue using it. Wineries are hiding behind that clause five years later. I'll say right now: it's flat out unethical to use the word Champagne on a wine that isn't from Champagne.
Can you imagine the furor if all of a sudden, some cheap Italian or Languedoc wines start calling themselves "Napa Blend" or "Meritage"? In our litigious society, lawsuits would be filed faster than Charlie Sheen on a four day bender. Americans would cry foul, accusing European wine producers of playing off the good (great, even!) name of California wines in an effort to deceive customers and poison the world's water supply. Wait, I think I got my James Bond plot mixed up with my nefarious-mislabeled-wine plot.
Yet we have plenty of wineries here in the U.S. that continue to use Champagne, arguing that it's become synonymous in the consumer consciousness with sparkling wine. They're right, every day I get people asking for "Champagne" who then want something cheaper, i.e $5 versus the $20 that Champagnes start at. I think most consumers also know that real Champagne is French and if you tried to sell them something like "California Champagne", they would happily accept (because it's cheap, duh!) but might wonder how it's different than the French example.
Wine education is perhaps the key and the Champagne Bureau needs to understand that. I bet 99% of my friends and family have no clue who any of the over 40 wine professionals are that sent the letter to Congress. Yet out of all my wine drinking friends, I can easily state that more than 75% would love the opportunity to taste and compare Champagnes and other sparkling wines side by side, as well as learn more about why Champagne is unique. Therefore my question is this: how is the Champagne Bureau reaching out to local wine stores to encourage a consumer education campaign?
As for me, I'll buy sparkling wine and Champagne interchangeably depending on how much I want to spend at the moment. For my dollars, Cava from Spain is the supreme value sparkler and California delivers some outstanding sparkling wine at lower prices than Champagne producers charge. That might also be something the Champagne Bureau should look into...