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A tale of two ports

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I blogged two days ago about how the Sonomans are trying to promote their county’s name by passing a new “conjunctive labeling” law that would append the words “Sonoma County” to all the county’s sub-appellations. Yesterday the Center for Wine Origins (CWO) launched or rather relaunched its ongoing campaign to prevent purloined place names like Port and Champagne from being used anywhere except in their natural origins, where the name refers to the place where the grapes were grown. The CWO is kicking off “the second phase of its ‘Location Matters’ campaign in 2010” in order to prevent “American consumers [from] being misled or deceived.”

It’s perfectly reasonable for regions to want to promote and protect their place-names. If I had a place-name somebody else was using I’d likely do the same. The problem really is one of consumer education, which is badly needed, as some of the comments on my Monday blog made clear. Somebody wrote in to say how he overheard a tourist outside the tasting room tell someone on his cell phone that he was “someplace in Napa” when in fact he was in Sonoma County! In the same way that people need to know Sonoma from Napa, they should understand that real Port is from a delimited area in the Douro region of Portugal and real Champagne is from (or rather in) northern France (and we could add Sherry and a few other wines to the list).

The question, of course, is how to educate Americans about anything these days, when so many of them seem to cherish their ignorance. The obvious answer to the “how to educate?” question is, Through the media. But the media are so fractured that it’s hard to know what “the media” even means anymore. Readers of, say, my magazine, or the Wall Street Journal’s wine column, or Jon Bonné in the San Francisco Chronicle, probably understand the difference between Portuguese Port and California “Port”, but millions of consumers upon whom the industry actually depends probably do not. They will buy what they buy, and the wineries (and distributors) will pocket their profits they can, in these tough times. Let the winners win. So does it really, ultimately matter whether or not people understand the difference between authentic Port and purloined “port”?

The Center for Wine Origins (which if I’m not mistaken is funded by the Champagne and Port producers and is headquartered on Washington, D.C.’s infamous M Street, the world capital of lobbying) certainly believes it matters. I’m less convinced. CWO naturally bases their case on “climate and soil” which “vary extensively by region.” This is the old terroir story, the implication being that nowhere but Champagne can you get anything remotely similar to Champagne because nowhere else are the climate and soil exactly the same. That’s true beyond arguing, but the case that Champagne is superior to (or even distinguishable from) the best California sparkling wine is not so clear. Portuguese Port, on the other hand, is a very great wine and so far there are no other “port”-style wines to equal them, but that, I think, isn’t due solely to the dirt and climate of the Douro but to the fact that the port market is so dead that nobody cares enough to compete. Make Port suddenly a hot, in-demand wine, and you’d see the a real increase in quality

If quality isn’t the thing at stake in protecting origin names then what is? I suppose you could say it’s a romantic, even nostalgic sense of history. The idea of protecting the names of Champagne and Port is an alluring one, especially to the lover of wine with a sense of tradition who feels himself a sort of guardian of what’s right. At the same time, we should keep in mind that, regardless of what the CWO says, their motive is only partly noble. It’s primarily an economic one: to protect and preserve not just the names Champagne and Port, but the profits of the Port shippers and the Champenois. That’s not to say their arguments are bogus. But they should be taken in context.

In a way the debate is already passé. Under agreements previously installed some wineries are permitted, by grandfather clauses, to go on using “Champagne” and “Port.” As for the others, the struggle, which is esssentially between the American wine industry and its E.C. equivalent, goes on inconclusively, rather reminiscent of the trench warfare of WWI in which fights were heavily waged for gains of inches. If I were advising the Europeans, I’d suggest that they not invest too heavily, emotionally or financially, in this contretemps. They’re not likely to win it, and it’s not the most important battle they could strategically wage anyhow. Far more important for them is to convince Americans that (a) Champagne is not just a drink for weddings and New Year’s Eve and (b) sweet red wine has a place on the consumer’s table. Both of these battles they could jointly wage with California producers; together the two sides have more to gain than to lose.

  1. I understand the protection of place names like Champagne, Burgundy, etc. I guess I understand the protection of categorical names like Port and Sherry because they are derivative names but I have less sympathy for them because they are simply not place names. Port, for example, is not grown in Opporto, which is the name of a city several hours removed from the place where the grapes are grown and the wines fermented. It is not even stored in Opporto but across the river from Opporto after it has been delivered down the River Douro from its place of origin in the Portuguese outback.

    The one that bugs me the most is claret, a perfectly good name that may be associated with wines from Bordeaux but really has no specific meaning. Hock, a name we no longer use here, is another that probably ought not be protected. There are no wines of Bordeaux bottled under the name Claret and there are no wines of Germany bottled under the name Hock, and neither name is derivative.

    And here is where I love what Steve wrote. It is important for the Europeans to convince Americans that their wines are of interest. Yet, by denying the use of names like Port and Champagne, even to the extent of not allowing the use of a technical production term like Methode Champenoise, they actually reduce the chances that the names of their products have meaning. Less so for Champagne, of course, but if I were a Port maker, I would want the categorical name kept alive because it calls attention to the place where a particular group of wines of the category come from.

  2. It’s $$ and brand dilution that are at stake.

    I don’t think Napa would be too keen if I made a wine in Boise and labeled it Napa Cabernet.

  3. Okay, as the buyer for both Champagne and Burgundy departments of our store I have some experience with this topic. First of all, as wine educator, (which any good retailer should be) hearing someone ask for a Chablis from Spain, (happened day before yesterday) is like listening to Bush say, “nuclear “…it’s just wrong and you want to fix it, help them sound less ignorant. Not because it bugs me, but because it is just wrong and I hate to think of this poor person saying something like that to someone that might be less understanding. It takes less than 5 minutes to explain that Burgundy is a place, a place whose name was stolen and sadly placed on bottles and jugs of our worst plonk. I always have that pang of, “Um, what are they looking for?” when someone comes in and asks for Burgundy….profiling helps a little here as people under 60 seem to know that Burgundy is a place not just red wine.

    Champagne is MUCH harder as almost everyone, even my sales reps, use the name Champagne for anything sparkling, just bugs me for some reason. Had a customer yesterday, “what can I help you with Rob?” (he is a regular) I asked and he told me he needed a bottle of Champagne in the $15.00 price range. “Um, is sparkling wine okay?” I asked and he said, “It’s the same thing. What’s in a name?” so I stood there for a second and asked, “What’s your brother’s name?” (keeping my fingers crossed that he had one) and he told me, “Michael” so I said, “well okay Michael, let’s get you hooked up with a bottle of sparkling wine”. I called him Michael 2 more times before he stopped me and said, “My name is Rob, Michael is my brother” to which I said, “Same thing right? What’s in a name?”.

    Now had I not known Rob was a cool guy I would have pulled such a stunt but after calling me a ball buster or whatever he said, “you made your point”. It’s not just about terroir, it’s about calling something what it is. It’s not some snobby thing, those of us that wish to protect place names are not implying that the wines from those places are superior, (least I’m not) but I don’t think we should be calling Rob “Michael”.

  4. I’m sitting here wondering why people spend so much time seeking out good wine and are not content to simply but things and try them. Drinking ‘bad’ wine has offered me the most memorable occasions. Knowing the difference between a corked wine and a wine with too much volatile acids or a wine with sulfur reductions and being able to tell the difference between H2S and SO2.

    May I offer an oxidized cloudy white wine to anyone? 2-4-6 Trichloralanisol taint to the first taker … one whif and your hippocampus will forever be indebted to you, because now you will know what corked really is.

    iPhone tells me to get the wine off the bottom shelf that has been sitting in the sun for a year … low and behold, a gem to be cherished.

    I thought Burgundy was a color of an Oldsmobile from the early 80′s.

  5. Morton Leslie says:

    I would like to see the CWO successful in their efforts, if not just to get this conversation over and done. Just because a wrong has occurred for a long time, doesn’t make it right. Any appellation name is like a trademark and the goodwill that the name holds needs to be protected. I know we would be screaming bloody murder if the shoe was on the other foot.

    My guess is it will not make one bottle difference in anyone’s sales in the short term, but perhaps over the long term Champagne producers or Port producers can add to their brand and name value. Domestic sparkling wine should feel no impact whatsoever because no Champagne can compete on value.

  6. “Portuguese Port, on the other hand, is a very great wine and so far there are no other “port”-style wines to equal them, but that, I think, isn’t due solely to the dirt and climate of the Douro but to the fact that the port market is so dead that nobody cares enough to compete. Make Port suddenly a hot, in-demand wine, and you’d see the a real increase in quality.”

    What a silly thing to declare Steve.
    Would have read better if prefaced by “In my personal opinion……”

    You obviously have not tasted in the 1945 adobe cellars of Ficklin Vineyards. In my (46 year) opinion, their 20 year old Tawney and
    1957 Vintage Madera California Ports are unrivaled.

    Also, may I please remind, Rhenish, Hock, Sherry, Port, Claret, Malmsey, etc. are English words.

  7. “how to educate Americans about anything these days, when so many of them seem to cherish their ignorance…” Bravo Steve, well said, thank you!

  8. As a representative of the Sweet and Fortified Wine Association, I am intimately familiar with the issue of the “semi-generic” place names Port and Sherry in relation to domestic fortified wines. Your blog raises several important issues worthy of discussion.

    First, I agree that the ship on the use of “Port” on new domestic fortified wine labels after March 2006 has sailed. While there are numerous reasonable arguments for retaining “Port” on domestic wine labels, the “powers that be” way above my pay grade have made the rules and we must now accept and live with them.

    This may not necessarily all bad considering the reputation of domestic fortified “port-style” wines following Repeal and well into the 1960s. Let me empatically emphasize – THOSE DAYS ARE OVER. Today, despite your comment on quality to the contracy, American fortified wine producers are dedicated to making high quality “port-style” wines. Over 200 California wineries form Temecula to Medocino, Paso Robles to Amodor make a “port-style” fortified wine. Granted, the majority of these wines are either limited production or from small wineries but the commitment to produce quality fortified wines from classic or Portuguese varieties in genuine.

    I would challenge consumers to discuss the issue of quality when considering fortified wines from California producers like Prager, Quady, Ficklin, J Pedroncelli, Meyer Family, Deaver, Pessagno, Tesouro, or Fesestra. These port-style wines reflect their unique sense of place and are never intended to be Portuguese Port. They American fortified wines made from American grapes and wine spirits.

    My final point relates to consumer education. You are correct that the media is the most influencial source of consumer information on wine, wine styles, and related wine issues. In my view, American fortified wine has been almost totally ignored by the media. RARELY do you find any comment or review of domestic fortified wines in media including your own publication. I find it difficult to believe that out of over 200 California wineries producing fortified wines, only a handful are EVER mentioned or reviewed in the press. For the past two years, the Sweet and Fortified Wine Association has conducted a public tasting with special emphasis on inviting the wine media to participate. Only one member of the media attended the event and he was a free-lance wine writer.

    Your comment that the domestic fortified wine segement is “dead” and that no one cares enough to compete is not altogether true. If you talk to the tasting rooms, when consumers taste a domestic fortified wine, they buy! Certainly there must be some reason for over 200 wineries to offer fortified wine in there portfolio. Maybe the problem isn’t that the industry doen’t care, maybe it’s media who doesn’t care.

    Taking this one step further, some of this neglect of domestic fortified wines rests in the lap of so-called “wine educators” who think the only fortified wine of merit comes from Portugal. They need a little education themselves.

    So if we can’t call these domestic fortified wines “port” anymore, what do we call them? This is a huge issue for American producers made even more difficult by rules, regulations, and “policies” established by the TTB who regulates what can be said on wine labels. Many of these archaic rules date to provision of repeal and have no relevance to the current wine industry. For example, the terms “fortified” and “wine spirits” are prohibted from use on fortified wine labels to describe what is in the bottle. Similiarly, any term with “port” or including p o r t is prohibited as in “port-style” or “Ameriport”. The inablility to use common terms recognizable to wine consumers on labels further aggravates the issues of consumer education and awarness.

    Finally, the Sweet and Fortified Wine Association is a new organization of producers whose mission is indeed consumer education on domestic fortified and sweet wines but we can’t do it alone. We need the help of the media and wine educators to spread the word. Visit our website (sweetandfortifiedwine.org) or contact us at sweetandfortified@sbcglobal.net with comments or suggestions that will help consumers and the media better appreciate American fortified “port-style wines.

    Thanks for the opportunity to respond to your blob.

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