Do you care where your wine comes from? If it says “Napa” on the label, or “Champagne” or “Port,” do you expect it to be produced in those regions? Or are you satisfied if the wine is big and red, or has bubbles, or is fortified, and it can come from wherever as long as it’s cheap?
I’m old enough to remember ordering a glass of “Chablis” and watching the bartender press a button on the soda hose to fill a glass with acidic, nasty white wine. It was no doubt bulk wine from California and most likely not made with chardonnay, the grape of Chablis in northern Burgundy. It took me a few years to overcome that experience and try the real thing. When I did, I was hooked.
Same with Champagne – oh those headaches from the cheap knockoffs! True vintage Port was a revelation, not to mention aged tawny. And sherry – a small region in Spain produces exquisite wines using a technique honed over centuries, only to see large alcohol conglomerates appropriate the name “sherry” by taking inferior wine and oxidizing it. (Not difficult to do, actually.)
The Center for Wine Origins, based in Washington, was founded in 2005 as a joint venture of Champagne and Port producers to protect their trademarks. The group buys advertising to promote awareness of regional wine nomenclature, and it publicizes government efforts to fight mislabled wine. Several other regions have signed on to its Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place & Origin — most recently Paso Robles and Long Island. For those areas, joining a movement to protect origin designations on wine is essentially a pledge not to use European names for say, sparkling wine from Long Island, or late-harvest zinfandel from Paso Robles. But it is also a statement of their own emerging identity.
“You’re really looking at a much more savvy consumer than you had 15 or 20 years ago,” says James Waters Jr., treasurer of the Long Island Wine Council and owner of Waters Crest Winery. “Our 49 members were unanimous in deciding to join this effort. After all, we need to stand on our own terroir and establish our own identity as a wine region.”
A group of prominent chefs and sommeliers, including Jose Andres of D.C.’s Think Food Group and Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, signed a letter this month equating wine labeling with truth in advertising for food origins.
“Just as Florida oranges can only come from Florida and Idaho potatoes can only come from the fields of Idaho, wines labeled Napa Valley can only come from America’s renowned Napa Valley and those labeled Champagne can only come from the famous Champagne region in France,” the letter argues. “There are no substitutes for any of these location-driven products.”
Of course, rebranding wines that traditionally relied on more famous place names may not be easy. Spanish “Champagne” producers succeeded by calling their wines Cava, but U.S. producers are pretty much stuck with the unromantic sounding “sparkling wine.” And no one has come up with an alternative name for port or sherry. “Fortified wine,” while appropriate, smacks too much of Skid Row.
U.S. wineries that used European place names on their labels before 2006 are still allowed to do so under a U.S.- European Union trade agreement. That’s why Korbel, for instance, can still call its sparkling wine Champagne.
Many consumers are increasingly educated about wine and can distinguish a “Port” from California or Texas from the real deal from Portugal. Others may be confused by seeing a Taylor Port from New York on a store shelf next to a Taylor Fladgate from Portugal (which is called simply Taylor anywhere else in the world but adds the Fladgate to the name in the United States to distinguish it from its local pretender).
We have the right to expect truth in labeling, and we should demand it.