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Let’s get over ostentatious French terms on California wine!

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California producers who name their wines with ersatz French terms fall into two groups, although fundamentally, they share the same trait: pretentiousness. They’re either struggling entrepreneurs with little knowledge of France who hope to hoodwink consumers with what they think is a fancy French vocabulary that will get consumers to pay more than the wine is worth, or else they’re rich gazillionaires who have pied-a-terres in the 3rd arrondissement, wear French shirts and ties and think of themselves as at least semi-French.

Before I go any further, I want to let certain people off the hook. First off is Merry Edwards, who uses “Méthode a L’Ancienne” to suggest her minimalist approach, and Verité, whose French winemaker entitles him to call his wines “La Joie”, “La Muse” and “Le Desir,” although I wouldn’t. I exempt also Roederer Estate’s L’Ermitage; after all, they are owned by Roederer.

But why would an American call something by a French name? Here, in no particular order, are some prime offenders:

Clendenen “Le Bon Ciimat.” You want to suggest this is a particularly good terroir? Say so in English. Lynmar “La Sereinité “ Chardonnay? What’s wrong with a simple Serenity? Sbragia “La Promessa” Zinfandel? How about The Promise? Demetria “Le Belier” Pinot Noir? I don’t know what that means and I don’t care. Laetitia Reserve du Domaine Pinot Noir? Why not just call it reserve? It’s a really good wine, but it’s from California, not Burgundy. Domaine Carneros La Terre Promise Pinot Noir? Come on. Yates Family Vineyard Fleur de Veeder Merlot? Good wine, but we don’t call wines “Fleur” in California. Copain Les Voisins Pinot Noir? Please explain what you mean. Brander Au Naturel  Sauvignon Blanc? Why not just say “unoaked” and respect the language? Arrowood Reserve Speciale Chardonnay? Memo to company: We don’t spell “special” with an “e”, and in the English language, adjectives precede nouns. Joseph Swan Cuvée de Trois Pinot Noir? WTF? Just tell us where the grapes are from. Francis Ford Coppola Votre Sante Chardonnay? Thanks for the toast, now translate, please. William Knuttel Le Petit Malin? Chimney Rock Elevage Blanc? It’s just a white Meritage, get over it. Daou Chemin de Fleurs? What’s that all about? Birichino Vieilles Vignes Grenache? Why not just say “old vines”? Lasseter Paysage and Amoureux? How stuck up is that? Harmonique Elegancé Pinot Noir? What’s with that accent mark? Andrew Murray Espérance? Dear Andrew, it’s a pretty good GSM but why not just call it that? Ditto Koehler Les 3 Cépages. Rutz Maison Grand Cru Chardonnay? Does French make it sound better than it is? RN Estate, why not just tell us what your Cuvée des Trois Cepages is made from? And for that matter, what about your “Symphonie de Cepages”? What are you trying to prove? Valley of the Moon, what’s wrong with “Sangiovese rosé” instead of Rosato di Sangiovese? (Okay, it’s not French, but you get the idea.) Capture, what’s “Les Pionniers” on your Sauvignon Blanc? Terre Rouge, does “Les Côtes de l’Ouest” mean West Slope? Just say so. Landy Family, your “Melange de Vin Rouge Estate” is an honest red blend; don’t try to hide behind presumptuous language. Suncé Les Trois Amis? Just tell us the varieties with an honest name. Collier Falls Syrah du Soleil? What are you trying to say about the Sun? Lucas & Lewellen Cote Del Sol Cabernet Sauvignon, please stop pretending and come up with something authentic. Jeff Gordon Ella Sofia Joie de Vivre? What do your NASCAR fans have to say about that French-fried silliness? Hunt Cellars Bon Vivant Cabernet Sauvignon? Oh, please. While we’re on the subject, let’s recognize poofy Spanish and Italian names: Lynmar’s Terra de Promissio Pinot Noir, Benziger’s de Coelo Terra Neuma Pinot, Bella Luna Riserva Bellicaia Cabernet Sauvignon-Sangiovese.

What’s wrong with English? Would a self-respecting French producer ever call a wine “My Dear Sister” or “Little Friend” or “Child of the Sun”? I don’t think so. To the critic, these Eurocentric names suggest a fancified, phony effort to boost the price, a kind of self-loathing when you come right down to it that masquerades as something it feels better about. Some Americans think anything with a French name is better than anything with an honest English name, but just the opposite is true. We should get over the obsession with France and understand that California wines need pay homage to nothing, except their own terroir.

  1. On the abuse of French terms, could we also add the St Francis winery in Sonoma County, who label one of their blends as “claret” – any English gentleman could tell them claret is, and is only from, Bordeaux.

    (We would have said the misuse of the term ‘claret’ was a bete noire of ours, but… ;) )

  2. Steve –

    Do you feel similarly about the use of all foreign languages, or just French? How about Bien Nacido Vineyard?

  3. Cody, I give a pass to Bien Nacido because of the Mexican heritage in California.

  4. I agree with Steve on Spanish. So much of our CA culture is based in Spanish/Mexican herritage and the names of our cities, streets, geography, and wines reflect that.

    Steve, Sea Smoke “California Grand Cru”? Eh?

  5. Steve you made a funny! Ending your piece with the most ridiculously overused and meaningless French word of all! Awesome post, bro’.

  6. Zack Seymour says:

    Completely agree Steve. That’s another reason I love Ridge. They’re an American winery. They largely use American Oak and even the label shows a clean American aesthetic.

    Not that it is the end of the world if you name something french, particularly the older wineries. But California has a wine making tradition and there is no need to try to evoke Europe. If your last name is French go ahead and name your winery after yourself, but if it isn’t lets aim for something classic and American. That’s what I want to drink.

  7. Steve, you are always my first blog to read in the morning and even though this is another interesting subject, I must say I am sorry to see that you are not talking about W. Blake Gray’s “fishing expedition” blog thread regarding TWA you commented on yesterday.

    BTW – I would give Luc Morlet a pass to use any french name for his wines he wants :)

  8. Doug Wilder, I posted a comment on Blake’s blog yesterday in which I said it was very sad to see him try to generate controversy over a completely meaningless triviality. It’s not worth a post on my blog.

  9. You can add ALL of Peter Michael Winery wines as well. The funny part is that he is British

  10. I think your quote on “The Grey Report” is appropriate here:
    “This is a pretty sad attempt to stir up some controversy!”
    Pretentiousness is also feeling the need to give a wine a score.

  11. Geoffrey Brooke says:

    Let’s clear out all of the pretentiousness. Shouldn’t Pinot Noir, Gris and Blanc be Black, Gray, and White Pinecone Shaped Bunch? How about a glass of Wild White instead of the pretentious Sauvignon Blanc? A sip of Spicy Grape from Tramin? Perhaps a bottle of Pink Jove’s Blood would be preferable to either Rosato di Sangiovese or Sangiovese Rosé (with that suspect accent you don’t approve of). America, for better or worse, (mostly for the better) is an amalgam of a great variety of cultures and languages, and to squash them all into a one size fits all mold seems downright un-American.

  12. I agree with the assertions. I think French labels are hard enough to read without taking California wines to that level. Let California be California and France be France. I give Luc Morlet a pass also since he is a French winemaker working for Peter Michael Winery who is a British Lord and they tend to use French names. If you’ve ever tried their wines, you know they are French in style and not Californian.

  13. *%#&@! yeah, Steve! (Pardon my French.)

  14. Funny, I have always seen “Méthode a L’Ancienne” describing basic and simple winemaking by the use of French words to impress by affecting importance and culture to rudimentary winemaking, certainly importance greater than it actually does possess. To me that is the definition of pretentious.

    Let’s face it, 90% of wine marketing is pretention irrespective of the language.

  15. The French, for the most part, invented winespeak, to give their winea a sense of being something more than a mere beverage. But they also developed their terminology to differentiate their wines from all the other wannabes, French or otherwise.

    Many products in this country “borrow” terms from other countries. But the one that seems to escape all criticism is when the hyphenated word “styled” is added to the end of the brand name; for example, “Tuscan-styled” this and “Rhone-styled” that.

  16. Great Post, about time someone calls bullshit! Now can we also get over pigeage, battonage, elevage, stupidage, etc. We speak english last time I checked.

  17. Even though I enjoy many of those wines, and am also close friends with some of the owners/employees of the wineries mentioned, that was still a hilarious read. I laughed out loud a few times. Well done.

  18. Geoffrey, I take your point. But you engage in a reductio ad absurdum. All I’m saying is that some of these labels are pretentious and don’t need to be.

  19. my neighbor and I make a lot of wine in our driveways….Calling the wine “Deux Allees” sounds way cooler than “2 Driveways”. plus, when i went to Europe back in my younger days, women speaking to me in French and Italian sounded just so beautiful and sexy compared to the Americans I met over there (even though I did not speak French or Italian well).

  20. Whatever the motivations (heritage, ambition, pretension) . . . whatever the failings (incongruous, deceptive, pretentious) . . . one of the reasons why wineries end up using French or Spanish or Italian words on their labels is because that is what was available. Trademark is a bitch. I’ve had countless good names go down in flames at the hands of the USPTO.

    And Steve, dividing the world into two opprobrious camps on this practice was as weak and sensational a stunt as any of the names you trotted out. Tsk-tsk.

  21. I second the motion! However, disagree on “Bon Vivant,” which has passed into English usage; and on “Méthode a L’Ancienne,” which hasn’t, although it does sound pretty.

    But I don’t think we should give up “claret” to the likes of Sediment. It’s clearly passed into common usage to refer to a particular style of translucent, light but pleasantly astringent red wine, and as such is nice to have around. Unlike Burgundy or Champagne, there is no region trying to retrieve the word as proprietary. And anyway, the writer Steve Heimoff uses “claret-like” all the time…

  22. Fred, thanks for the only use of “opprobrious” we’re likely to see on any wine blog, ever.

  23. Andy, but you spoke the language of love!

  24. Don’t thank me, thank Roget. Wait, is that French?

  25. Rogersworthe says:

    I completely agree. I think American wine culture should develop its own vocabulary of wine terms. Obviously, some will be French such as rose and Pinot Noir, but I much prefer “estate”, “Old Vines”, and if they want to add some sort of colloquialism to it, then call unoaked wines “Naked”.

    I don’t think its very hard and I think that its more marketable than adding French terms because it seems to me that French wine fans would regard Cali wines using French terms as poseurs and American wine fans to find it pretentious and annoying. I can honestly say I’ve never met anybody who liked an American wine because of its French name.

  26. I could not agree more with the pretension in some (not all), and vein attempt to baffle people with bull $#@!. Some winemakers have a moment of inspiration much like an artist or author, and in that moment, there may be French influence. Andrew Murray for instance was inspired at a restaurant in France while drinking Viognier. That was a moment he can put his finger on and say,it was a defining moment for him. I call it GSM too, but I understand why.

    In most cases I do believe using French tends to confuse the already confused consumer. I do also agree with the Mexican heritage of CA in being acceptable as in Bien Nacido, but what about French Camp? :-)

  27. Just two little factual points from across the pond…

    Mark: Peter Michael is NOT a “British Lord” – he is, in fact, Sir Peter Michael, which is a knighthood.

    James: We will fight to retain the term “claret”, particularly from people think that it describes a wine which is “light”! And incidentally, the French ARE trying to reclaim it as a term – see Decanter magazine in November here: http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/529481/bordeaux-reclaims-claret-name

  28. Jason Brumley says:

    Should we tell Domaine Carneros to change their name? Clos du bois? Chateau Ste. Michelle? Why can’t Americans embrace the heritage and history that comes along with Vitis vinifera? Again, should we call Pinot noir something else…being that it is a French name as well. Maybe, as Americans, we should limit our production of wine to Vitis labrusca, Vitis riparia, Vitis rotundifolia, Vitis vulpina, and Vitis amurensis and forget this whole Vitis vinifera nonsense. Steve, you sound like those people who say, “This is America, learn English.”

  29. It’s just as easy (as proven by nearly any back label) to write pretentious nonsense in English. The fault isn’t in the choice of language, it’s in the choice of words from that language – and the failure to communicate anything useful.

  30. Two words: Gallo Burgundy

  31. Thank you for pointing out the pretension in so many of the wine names. While I don’t object to foreign language phrases if they are used appropriately, whenever they are used simply in an attempt to appear superior, I say call ‘em on it!

  32. You sound like the Academie Francaise (Oops, French Academy) that objects when French people say “le weekend.” Should the world of ballet also give up “plie” or “pas de deux”? What about music? Should “andante” and “legato” be changed for English equivalents?

  33. My response to this post is le burp!

  34. Ron Saikowski says:

    Touche’

  35. Maybe we should get rid of names like:
    California Champagne (??)
    or
    Cabernet Sauvignon (French word)
    Merlot (French word)
    Syrah (French word)
    Sauvignon Blanc (French word)
    Petit Verdot (French word)
    Cabernet Franc (French word)
    Pinot Noir (French word)

    Maybe California should just use the appropriate clonal number and/or combination as the varietal instead of the French word. So instead of Pinot Noir, you could just state 777 or 667 on the front label. There seems to be an overemphasis on numbers anyways, so maybe it would work!

    [Sarcasm mine]

    I think you get the idea…..

  36. regarding ostentatiousness two things need to happen:
    1. the over-use of pretension, in no matter WHAT language, in wine marketing and writing;
    2. Americans need to expand their horizons and learn another language (goodness me! i’m from a small upstate NY town with uneducated parents to boot and still managed to learn French, German, Finnish, with some Russian just for fun!), so they can minimally giggle at the junk that’s churned out in the name of wine.

    Now excuse me while I go relax in our hilltop Campeau (that’s The Grande Dalles French for “camper” — just like in writing, one must know the rules in order to break them — and, btw, we carefully chose our French-based name to mark the epic geologic and pioneering history of the area where we “discovered” our frontier vineyard site.)

    Ta-taa!

  37. Jeff, yes you’re sarcastic! Happy new year and keep on writing.

  38. Hi Stephanie, we won’t ever get rid of foreign derived names. What would we replace them with? American English after all is the biggest mongrel language in the world. But pretension is really stupid. All we can do is protest against it and hope to have an effect.

  39. Steve,
    Agreed.
    Have a very Happy New Year -
    sl

  40. Steve:

    Then there is the experiment “spot the wine names”:
    Oiseau de Tonnere, Train de Nuit, Chien Fou,
    (i.e. Thunderbird, Night Train and Mad Dog).

  41. Karl: Deux cents de Charles!

  42. HI Steve- just came across this posting, and had to chime in (a month late) re: our choice of “Vieilles Vignes” for our Besson (French family, 2nd generation American) Grenache. To paraphrase Descartes, je pense, donc je suis français. I admit I do cringe when confronted with the panoply of Frenchified California wine names. Ménage à Trois particularly grates. There is a certain amount of self-loathing, perhaps, among those of us living the Air-Conditioned Nightmare but I am struck by how gaga Frenchies are for anything and everything from le Far West and la Californie, and how the most popular chewinggum brand in France is Hollywood.. VV on our label is due to several things. First, I wanted to make some use of my otherwise useless 10 years of study of French lit. The wine biz seemed like one of the few places where it comes in handy. Second, as we are really small, and we export most of our wine to the EU and Québec, we try to save costs by just making labels on all our wines bilingual, or if we have to pick one, choose French because that keeps the Québec language police happy- a much tougher crowd to please than even the Académie Française . And some things just sound better in French than English, which is why I reserve the right to Frenchify things, but would deny others that right, unless they bring me cheese. You didn’t even take us to task for our Italian winery name- Birichino- it had to be Italian, impossible to pronounce for Anglophones, and even harder to remember. Vive le Québec! Vive le Far West et la Californie!

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