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Those “semi-generic” European place names? Let’s ditch them



In law, the concept of “grandfathering” certain parties into new laws is quite old in America, dating back to post-Civil War days. It occurs, says Wikipedia, when an old rule continues to apply to some existing situations while a new rule will apply to all future cases.” The concept applies across many areas of technology, law and sports. For example, the Green Bay Packers of the NFL are grandfathered out from a rule that prohibits corporate ownership of teams, because their corporate ownership dates to a time before the no-corporations rule was adopted.

When the U.S. and the European Union signed a trade deal, back in 2006, regarding American use of “geographic indications” on wine labels, the deal specified 16 “semi-generic” European place names that could no longer be used on American wines, including Burgundy, Madeira, Sherry, Port and Rhine.

However, under the deal’s terms, American wineries that were using these prohibited place names before March 10, 2006, were permitted to continue to be able to use them; they were grandfathered in. As the Department of the Treasury stated at that time, If there is any question of eligibility for the ‘grandfather’ provision, we will rely on the information that appears in the ‘Brand Name’ and ‘Fanciful Name’ fields on the COLA that was approved before March 10, 2006.”

The deal had a ten-year time period; it expired this year, which led to the parties having to renegotiate it. Politico is reporting that, while both the U.S. government and the Napa Valley Vintners wish for a permanent ban on purloined place names, “the rest of the U.S. wine industry” is pushing to allow “American vintners to keep labeling their products with such regional designations as long as they were doing so before the agreement was struck.” This divide, between the Obama administration and Napa Valley Vintners, on the one hand, and “the rest” of the industry, on the other, “sets up a major showdown” between the U.S. and the E.U.

The Napa Valley Vintners offers a stark illustration of why they’re siding with the E.U. on this one: With the “Napa Valley” mark already appearing on at least one Chinese wine, “How can we go fight for our integrity around the world when the United States doesn’t offer that same reciprocation?” asks a NVV official.

Makes sense to me. I don’t see why we have to have phony European place names on American-made wines. These names may have had a useful purpose in the period after Prohibition, but they no longer do; they are useless anachronisms.

I’m sure that wineries that have used semi-generic places names for decades will have to go through a period of adjustment, if they’re no longer allowed to do so. But the actual wines won’t change, and consumers are smart enough to figure out how to deal with name changes. It’s called “a teaching moment” for the consumer, and you can’t have too many of those. Besides, the historian in me thinks that there will come a day when California (and America) no longer has any of these European place names on labels, and that will mark a significant tipping point in our maturation as a wine-drinking nation, as well as  being a good partner to our European friends. And sometimes, in business, as in life, you have to take your friends’ feelings into consideration, even if it costs you a little.

  1. Bob Rossi says:

    Two semi-humorous anecdotes involving wine place names, both involving my late father, who liked wine but never really understood anything about designations: (1) On one visit to our house, I was showing him my small wine cellar, and he commented that he didn’t see any Chardonnay. I said that I had plenty of Chardonnay wines, and offered to open a Chablis. He said “No thanks, Chablis is the junk that they pour for free at Las Vegas casinos.” (2) At a Las Vegas casino when I was visiting my parents, they took us to the $12.95 “Champagne” brunch. My father asked me how I liked the “Champagne,” and I said it was OK, but wasn’t really Champagne. After some discussion, he called over the waitress and asked her to show me the bottle. It was indeed California “Champagne.”

  2. Just musing (and hopefully amusing) – “an old rule continues to apply to some existing situations while a new rule will apply to all future cases.” The concept applies across many areas of technology, law and sports.

    Being really old and passionate about useless trivia this brings up some interesting uses of place to identify wine grape varieties – and would this fall into the “use of ‘geographic indications'” on wine labels?

    Here are a few of the many examples of grape varieties that misconstrue ‘geographic indications’:

    – Gamay is a town in the Cote de Beaune where the grape was outlawed.
    – In Chablis the Chardonnay has been referred to as the Beaunois variety and there are examples of wines labelled same.
    – Chardonnay itself is a geographic location, a village north of Macon.
    – Muscat is the capital city of Oman
    Muscadet has the Melon de Bourgogne (but I have never seen this on a label)
    – Johannisberg Riesling, etc. etc.

  3. Steve – thank you for highlighting our efforts to prevent consumer deception by protecting the integrity of place names for quality wines.

    Patsy McGaughy
    Napa Valley Vintners

  4. I suspect many a Hearty Burgundy drinker will say it is different after a name change get ticked and never buy it again. Core drinkers of cheap products do not like change at all. Your getting used to it comment is inapplicable to many not interested in more than their favorite product. Why do you think AB has such issues with not changing the name of Budweiser. Changes will lead to dissatisfied individual customers and also to lost sales for the producers of these wines. Not saying I have a lot of love for the wines or their producers at all. I have been a purveyor of these types of wine in the past and the core users of them absolutely deplore change of any kind. They get upset enough when they can taste blend differences between lots that panels of trained expert tasters cannot discern. I prefer a little bit of free trade sort of concepts that you can use whatever name you like as long as there is some qualifier to tell the difference from the original. No, I don’t use any on my labels either.

  5. Justin McInerny says:

    I’m like Tim above, old and into useless trivia. THis is a little off topic but Cheddar is a village in England from where the cheese originated. Nevertheless we have Vermont Cheddar, New York Cheddar and so on. I doubt that Vermonters would appreciate it if the folks from Quebec called their maple syrup, Vermont maple syrup.

  6. Dear Tim Hanni, well we can’t get too doctrinaire about this stuff, can we?

  7. Bob Henry says:


    I’ll add to your list.

    Parmigiano Reggiano® cheese, also known as Parmesan.

    These folks are pretty protective of their identity and history:

    ~~ Bob

  8. Justin McInerny says:

    One more slightly off topic comment then I promise to quit. Oktoberfest beer should only be from Munich breweries but there are quite a few from the US. Many craft brewers don’t use the term Oktoberfest, instead they might just call it an autumn beer or a Marzen. I would prefer that they do this. Plus it is probably better from a business standpoint as Marzen is a style that is sold all year long. Autumn or Fall beers at least suggest three months of the year. Oktoberfest to the average consumer is limited to one month. Domestic craft brewers seem to have backed off from the Belgian term “lambic” and instead are using such terms as “coolship”. But Miller High Life is still proudly proclaims itself the “Champagne of Beers” right on its label. Are there any Champagne makers that would say “The Miller High Life of Wine?”

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