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Tuesday twaddle: geographic indicators, and the changing seasons

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Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican from Kansas, delivered a scathing attack the other day during hearings by the Senate Finance Committee on the proposed regulations by the European Community that would ban the use of certain geographic names on U.S. goods, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Black Forest ham, feta cheese and even bologna, unless they were made in those European regions.

Such names are known in the parlance as geographic indications, or GIs. The issue of GIs is part of a broader package of issues weighing down Senate consideration of a Trade Promotion Authority bill that the Obama administration supports. The administration was represented in the hearings by the U.S. Trade Representative, Michael Froman, who told the Senate committee that he largely agrees with Roberts, making for rare bipartisanship between the Republicans and Democrats.

The issue of geographic indication names has a long and contentious history, especially in the wine industry. The U.S. has already banned certain names, such as Burgundy and Chablis, unless they were grandfathered in before the laws went into effect. But the new regulations proposed by the E.U. apparently would go even further, possibly making it illegal even for older brands to use certain place names. For example, Korbel, which currently is allowed to use the word “champagne” as long a it’s preceded by “California,” might no longer be able to do so.

Other countries that have negotiated agreements with the E.U. have already banned certain GIs that are still allowed here. Singapore recently passed a tough GI law. South Korea no longer allows any liquor to be called “scotch” unless it’s from Scotland, nor any cheese to be labeled “feta” unless it’s from Greece. Here in the U.S., the rules are considerably looser. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has ruled that, “once a geographic designation is generic in the United States, any producer is free to use the designation for its goods/services.”

It is this lax approach that concerns the E.U.

Are the Europeans being too restrictive about their GIs? I don’t think so. In this era of intense global competition, American consumers have a right to know precisely where their food, including wine, comes from—and the people in ancient regions, like Chianti and Champagne, deserve the right to insist that only their locally-produced products can bear those names.

But the food lobby in this country is powerful, and the Congress doesn’t seem to be in the mood to pass new restrictions on products that have been sold here for a long time. Fortunately, the wine industry is only tangentially affected by this issue, since they’ve largely done the right thing and gotten rid of most of those purloined European place names.

But not all of them, as witness Korbel. And I still see American-made products like cooking sherry and sauterne on the supermarket shelf. I don’t blame the people of Spain and France for being bothered.

* * *

I love this time of year. Winter has been cold, if dry. But now you can sense the changing of the seasons. One day reminds you that the Gulf of Alaska is just up there, with its winds off the ice. A day later and Mexico beckons, tropical-warm and shirt-sleevy, as the temperature hits the 80s. Schizy weather, but most days are inbetween: get in the sun, out of the wind, and it’s summer. Get in a windy place in the shade, and you need a hoodie. That’s why they say the key to clothing in the Bay Area is layers. I should think wine grapes like the same weather as humans. Not too hot, not too cold, just right. Goldilocks weather. East coasters always say that coastal California has only two seasons, wet and dry, but they’re wrong. We have four seasons; the only thing is, they’re subtle, and you have to live here for a while to get it. Well, summer’s almost here, and so far, it looks like another great vintage, on the heels of 2012 and 2013, two masterpieces.

  1. Keasling says:

    I wonder if “The Champagne of Beers”, Miller High Life, will have to then re-brand as well?

  2. Dusty Gillson says:

    I tend to disagree with rules and regulations that both assume and allow consumer ignorance. The extreme example would be with Miller High Life. . . to assume that someone would confuse that product with Champagne just reeks of “we the government have to protect you because you don’t know any better.”

    I actually find Sea Smoke’s (former) use of “Grand Cru” on their labels more intentionally deceptive than Korbel’s.

  3. I would think Miller would have to drop that name. As for Sea Smoke’s Grand Cru, it didn’t bother me as much as it bothered some people. At the time, I thought it was relatively harmless. Today, I’m more against it than I was a few years ago.

  4. I agree that most of these adaptive uses are relatively harmless. Did anyone ever think that Sea Smoke had become the first and only American Grand Cru Pinot? It is not like anyone who would buy Sea Smoke was a vinous novice.

    That said, it seems to me that Sea Smoke’s use of the term was intentional and meant to suggest something where as Miller is so far from being anything that could ever be construed in a vinous context that it is using the term “champagne” in an entirely generic sense.

    I never thought that Beaulieu’s Burgundy was from France and neither did anyone else, but we are better off without that usage and we would be better off without the “champagne” name on anyone’s sparkling wine.

    I am a little confused about “bologna” as I don’t know that the Italians make a bland, textureless brown-pink mystery sausage called bologna. The Italian equivalent is Mortadella, and since there is no place name called Mortadella, apparently can use that name which is entirely derivative. OK, I am off the subject a bit here.

    Bottom line: there are some generic usages that probably do not equate to appropriation of perceived quality like Sherry, which is a type of wine or Champagne for that matter if called CA Champagne But at least for bubbles, we do have a functional alternative name. I cannot readily think of one for Sherry, or for Bologna for that matter.

  5. Perhaps we should use “bologna’s” first name, instead: O.S.C.A.R.
    Or in more formal settings, it’s second name: M.A.Y.E.R.

  6. R: hahahahaha!

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