Random thoughts on the world of wine, presented in no particular order.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sticks and stones...

While reading through other blogs, I happened upon a link to this article in Decanter (a British wine publication, that I highly recommend).  The quick-and-dirty version of it is that the EU has banned the use of certain terms on the label of US wines.  The list?  Chateau, classic, clos, cream, crusted/crusting, fine, late bottled vintage, noble, ruby, superior, sur lie, tawny, vintage and vintage character.

Insanity!  This is to say that, say, Chateau Montelena -- which has a definitively European-castle styled building onsite (see the above left photo from their website) cannot bring their wine into Europe without changing the name (one that's been in use for over 30 years).  Nor could Clos du Bois, Clos du Val, Chateau Ste. Michelle, or Chateau St. Jean.  You can't call your Port-like wine (Port is a protected term already, although a number of wines have been grandfathered in) a Tawny or Ruby, even if it is in that style!  If you age your wines on the lees -- the yeast particulates left over after fermentation -- you can't say it's been aged "sur lie."  You dare not make both a nonvintage and vintage cuvee if you're an American sparkling wine producer!

What a crock!  It means that we, as Americans, would have to develop an entirely new vocabulary to explain wine, one for which perfectly acceptable terms have been being used for years!  Great, we'll have to make a subject that is already unreasonably complex and imposing even harder to understand and potentially less accessable to the average person.  Great marketing strategy, there, guys.

Now, I'm the first person to say we should protect European place names for wine – in my personal opinion, there's no excuse for an American winery producing a Chianti, or a Burgundy.  And don't even get me started on Champagne being used on American wines – even with the modifier “California” or “New York” in front of it.  I shudder to think of the beating that that appellation has taken due to greedy American vintners subverting it's fine name and putting out mass-market crap (well... different mass-market crap than the vintners who belong in the appellation -- and, in fairness, the American mass-market crap is often not even made using the same method; Cooks "California Champagne" is Charmat-method, for example).  But this move smacks of pure European protectionism; three of the better-known American producers of mass-market wines are affected by it (Clos du Bois, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Chateau St. Jean).

What's the solution?  Should the US slap the EU with a similar ruling, saying "you can't send wine into our market without an explicit explanation of what the grapes are?" (labels from the Rhone would get a lot more complex then, and I fear the Bordelais would simply revolt).  Perhaps a tariff on EU wines?  Great ideas, but then US consumers suffer for the sins of the EU, in the sense of losing the ability to choose European wines or in overpaying for them.  In that case, we'd be no better than the EU -- after all, the European consumer's freedom of choice has been limited by this as well (in fact, one of the better American wines made by a European vintner is Dr. Loosen's Eroica, made under the Chateau Ste. Michelle label!  So, if you're in the Mosel and you want Loosen Riesling, your choices are limited to only the local wines, and not any of his Washington State endeavors!).  And, of course, European vintners, who already make more wine than they sell, lose out on a fairly major market for export.

There's a fine line between protecting the uniqueness that terroir imparts in a wine, and heralding the history of technique used in making it, and trying to unfairly stifle the competition.  This EU ruling seems to be firmly in the latter category.  It's as crazy as trying to forbid the word "Glen" in the name of a non-Scotch whisky.  Oh, wait... that's been tried.  And failed.

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