A tale of two ports
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.