Swirls: the sparkling wine wars

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the confusing world of wine labeling, from the challenges presented by place-specific labels on most French, Italian and Spanish wines (Montrachet, Chianti and Rioja, for example)  that require a good deal of knowledge to know what’s actually in the bottle, to the contiApril 2010 wine 015nuing misuse of the word “Champagne.” The last time I checked, Duck Walk  Vineyards had not joined Pol Roger, Moët or Bollinger as a genuine Champagne producer.  No, Duck Walk makes a sparkling wine on Long Island’s North Fork, and when I came across this sign on the road the other day, it made me curious about the state of the sparkling wine war that has been going on for decades over the use of  the Champagne name.

“The misuse of place names to sell wine is as old as the American wine industry,” Carol Robertson noted in an excellent article on the subject in Business Law Today, the American Bar Association’s news magazine. “Borrowing the name of a well-regarded wine was a shorthand way for new winemakers to impart some of the cachet of a better-known beverage to a new American product.” Korbel, she points out, has been using “champagne” to describe its California sparkling wine since 1882.

In 2005, after years of negotiation between the United States and the European Union, Congress passed legislation banning the future misuse of Champagne and 15 other wine place names, but it did not stop the practice by wineries using the names before the new law, so the Korbels of the world were “grandfathered” in. Then, just a few months ago, the Long Island wine region became one of the latest  signatories to the Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place & Origin, “a global movement aimed at ensuring wine place names are protected and not abused or miscommunicated to consumers,”  as a press release by the coalition described it. Champagne is also among the 15 wine regions on the list.

Duck Walk must not have gotten the memo. What’s interesting about its use of the Champagne name is that it seems to be doing so only in its outdoor advertisements. A look at its sparkling wine bottles reveals that they are simply labeled “brut,” the common  designation for dry sparkling wines, with no Champagne reference. So, while Duck Walk is following the Joint Declaration as far as its labeling is concerned, it clearly still  believes that “borrowing” the Champagne name is a useful advertising tactic aimed at drawing in tourists who drive past its winery.

I described this to Sonia Smith, who heads up the Champagne Bureau, the region’s lobbying group in Washington. “When people drink a wine they need to be able to trust what it is,” she told me, reciting one of the group’s key message points. “It’s about a sense of place. It’s about authenticity.” She continued: “To be honest, there are wonderful sparkling wines made in the United States, except that they’re just not Champagne. The winemakers of Long Island should be very confident of the sparkling wine they make and should be confident about advertising it as sparkling wine.”

By the way, there’s another another winery not far from Duck Walk that makes only sparkling wines, and its name happens to be  Sparkling Pointe.


  1. I've always wondered, would Korbel really lose any business if they removed the word Champagne from their label?

    Unfortunately, most consumers don't distinguish between the two. It like how everyone refers to facial tissue as Kleenex or a soda as Coke (well, at least they do here in Atlanta).

    When I was in retail, I used to try and educate people on the difference. Some appreciated the knowledge, some obviously thought I was coming across as stuffy, so eventually I sort of just stopped and worked with their price range and personal tastes.

  2. You're probably right re most people not distinguishing between the two, but I think it's worth pointing these things out as it's the only way we'll raise the bar. Nice to meet you.