Inaugural “California Champagne” Controversy

korbelnaturalYesterday, at President Obama’s Inaugural Luncheon, three wines were served, including a Korbel Natural Special Inaugural Cuvée California Champagne. Korbel, as you may know, is a California winery, and the wine it produces, as you’d imagine, comes from California. However, the label for this wine (and most of its sparkling wines) says “Champange.” If you are a sparkling wine connoisseur, or even a regular imbiber of bubbles, you probably know that very few sparkling wines outside of Champagne actually put the name, “Champagne” on the label. You may even remember a law that was passed specifically banning the use of Champagne on a label if the wine did not come from the region of Champagne. So why does Korbel have the privilege to use such a term on their label?

The French organization known as the Comite Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) has worked very hard to regulate the use of Champagne on labels outside of Champagne. The European Union protects the Champagne designation and limits its use on wine labels to wines from Champagne. Many other countries around the world have signed agreements with the EU and France to ban the use of Champagne on their own wine labels. The United States entered such an agreement as well, but with a grandfather clause. Wineries who were operating and producing sparkling wine before the agreement was signed in 2005 are legally (according to US law) able to use the term “champagne” on their label. But most don’t. One that does, however, is Korbel, the subject of much controversy regarding President Obama’s inaugural luncheon.

Korbel Wine Cellars began producing “California Champagne” in the late 1800s, when using the term “champagne” on wine labels outside of champagne caused no worldwide ire. They have continued to do so, even with the sale of the company, a sale that mandated continuation of the term “champagne” on the label. They are old school. They’ve been using the term for years and have no reason – or requirement by law – to change. But other wineries who produce sparkling wine in California who are “grandfathered” in do not use the term, mostly out of respect for the Champagne region. Interestingly, the  majority of California sparkling wines who continue to use “California Champagne” on their labels are priced below $15. Those pricing their wines in the $30+ brand themselves as California sparkling wine. It reflects the fact that the majority of wine consumers on the market most likely do not understand the difference of Champagne and sparkling wine.

So most everyday wine drinkers thought nothing of the fact that President Obama chose Korbel to serve at his inaugural luncheon, despite the fact that it called itself “California Champagne). But Champagne producers and representatives were quite in uproar, and I’m sure those wine drinkers who have a strong tie to place accuracy were also a bit peeved.

It’s funny that the US allows this, but has also banned wineries from using US place names on their label. When Calistoga received AVA status, Calistoga Cellars had to change its name. Wines that put “Napa” on the label but did not hail from Napa changed their labels, but California Champagne remains, and we doubt that Korbel or Cook or anyone else will stand up to voluntarily change this until the law makes them.