Yes, that’s right, “Give me a break!”
President Obama is making headlines again in the silly little oenosphere (a word I just made up) because Korbel will be the featured bubbly at the inauguration luncheon at the U.S. Capitol after he takes the oath of office for his second term. I wrote about this four years ago, and it really wasn’t news then. Korbel has been the bubbly of choice for this luncheon since Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985.
Why is the wine selection worth writing about? Because Korbel is one of the few U.S. wineries still allowed to call its sparkling wine “Champagne,” grandfathered under a 2006 agreement with the European Union designed to protect the use of place names in wine labeling. So it is at least a minor insult to the French to be serving an American “Champagne” at such an august gathering. I wrote about the authenticity issue last month in my Washington Post column, so I’m sympathetic.
But this year, that’s not what the French are pissed about. And as far as I can tell, the French aren’t even pissed. Their U.S. lobbyist, Sam Heitner, director of the Champagne bureau office in Washington, is pissed. Heitner started frothing, er, bubbling, at the mouth because when the Senate announced the menu, it listed the wine as “Korbel Natural, Special Inaugural Cuvée Champagne, California.” Under the 2006 agreement, “California Champagne” would be OK, but “Champagne, California” is not. The first, you see, implies that California is making a knock-off of Champagne, while the second, with its all-important comma, implies that Champagne is made in California.
Sacre bleu! As if consumers are really going to pick up on that distinction. And shouldn’t Heitner be concerned about the use of the words “Champagne” and “California” on the same label rather than the order of their juxtaposition? Serving a U.S. bubbly makes sense, but why not one that is self-confident enough in its quality that it doesn’t have to pretend to be something that it ain’t?
But you may have trouble finding info about the other wines to be served, which are really the story. Decanter notes that a Riesling will accompany the lobster, and a Merlot will be poured with the bison, but it doesn’t mention that these will both be from New York. Sure, it helps that New York’s senior senator, Charles Schumer, is in charge of the luncheon, but this is a big coup for regional wine. The Tierce 2010 Dry Riesling from Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes and the Bedell Cellars 2009 Merlot from the North Fork of Long Island deserve the recognition. Yet they are being overshadowed because of a stupid comma and a Washington lobbyist’s overzealous hunger to see his name in print.
So Mr. Heitner, we’ve never met, and I know you’re only doing your job. But you also just pissed off an ally by whining about a technicality that nobody but you gives a flying leap about. The real story here is – or should have been – that New York wines will be served at this important luncheon, another sign of the quality being achieved by regional wines throughout the United States. (Four years ago, Barboursville wines represented Virginia at another inauguration function.)
Maybe I should take all my Champagne and pour it in the street while TV cameras watch, in a glorious re-enactment of the anti-French frenzy from a decade ago.
Nah, I won’t do that. But during the inauguration on January 21, and for a long while after, the bubbly I raise will be Yankee Doodle Dandy.