11 Jan 2008
By Paul Mitchell
The Belgians, it would seem, are extremely serious when it comes to their alcohol
Traditionally known for being brewers of the highest art, a country full of picturesque monasteries and monks toiling with as much devotion to their craft as to their faith. However, this small western European country has recently demonstrated an equally determined passion when it comes to wine.
A shipment of over 3,000 bottles of sparkling wine from California was destroying in an ongoing crackdown on improperly (and in Europe, illegally) labeled food and drink products. This recent incident is just one salvo in the global battle by authorities to enforce food and drink laws that help regional European brands. The efforts being made with label-of-origin laws and proprietary rights are to protect domestic producers who benefit from worldwide awareness and traditional exclusiveness.
According to label-of-origin laws, only wineries in the Northern France region are legally allowed, through specific restrictions placed on production method in addition to geography, to call their sparkling wine “Champagne.” Wine is not the only alcoholic product to receive special consideration in France. Most people are familiar with the maxim that, “all Cognacs are brandies, but not all brandies are Cognacs.” Cognac is another region that meticulously claims right to labeling rights.
Critics may argue that what the French see as a perceived threat is actually a childish idiosyncratic complaint. In actual fact, the French concerns run much deeper as a reflection of the national character that considers wine alcohol as part of their larger culture. Proof of this lies in the fact that there has been an on-going legal proposition in the country to have wine specifically reclassified as a food.
The French and European labeling laws, and their enforcement, are actually part of a larger branding issue. The value and luxuriousness of wine from Champagne is directly linked to the public’s impression of exclusivity and uniqueness. Being able to charge a higher price because of the limitations in production by a set number of wineries is reinforced by the defining name of its identity. Being able to package their product with the region “Champagne” actually gives it better market value than similarly (or equally) made wine from other areas. By their very nature, rights to the regional name with wine are similar to intellectual property in inventions and copyright in books and must be protected by law. Enforcement of those laws is its necessary extension, despite how silly it may sometimes seem to the outsider.
While we must feel a certain amount of disappointment that perfectly good wine was wasted, at the same time we have to appreciate the importance of protecting a brand that has considerable weight and value in its own right. In every battle, there should expect to be casualties. In this case, the authorities may be viewed as being overly dramatic in their actions (certainly the shipment could have been returned with much less effort than by its destruction). In much the same way that a counterfeit painting needs to be destroyed to protect the authenticity of the original, the European labeling laws are absolutely necessary although some could interpret the whole issue as nothing more than an argument over semantics.