Europeans, Americans Battle in 'Champagne' Wars

European and American makers of sparkling wine are fighting over the use of the word "champagne." Europeans argue that unless it's made in the Champagne region of France, it ought to be called something else.

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There is no pun intended when we tell you that tensions are bubbling between the United States and the European Union. Okay, there is a pun intended, because the Europeans are angry about California champagne. They say there is no such thing as American champagne.

Teri Schultz reports from Brussels.

(Soundbite of glass breaking)

TERI SCHULTZ: This is hardly the respectful clinking of glasses one envisions accompanying a bottle of champagne. No, this is the veritable crushing of glass. More than 3,200 bottles of Andre California champagne, recently seized and smashed in Belgium when customs officials raided a ship in Antwerp's busy port and found what they consider counterfeit product onboard.

Counterfeit because in Europe anything called Champagne that did not come from France's renowned Champagne region is a fraud under EU law. This batch had been purchased in the U.S. by a cruise ship supplier and was bound for Nigeria. But it's illegal even to stop in an EU port with the stuff onboard. Some 14,000 such bottles have been confiscated over the last four years.

Mr. MICHAEL MANN (Agriculture Commission, European Union): Champagne doesn't come from California. That's our view of the matter. Champagne comes from France. I'm sorry.

SCHULTZ: Michael Mann, of the EU's Agriculture Commission, acknowledges that European negotiators agreed in 2006 to allow some American wineries to continue to call their sparkling wine Champagne, as long as it's not marketed in the EU. But Mann says the EU is going to harden its stance in new trade talks starting this month.

Mr. MANN: We are trying in the next stage to force the Americans to give up the term completely. I mean, we're all for choice, but we have a system that insists that only champagne from Champagne is Champagne.

SCHULTZ: This system is that of granting certain products geographical indication, or GI status, based on their location and traditions. It blocks other producers from using that place's name. So Parma ham can only come from Italy, feta cheese can only come from Greece and so on.

U.S. trade officials criticize this system as too weighted in favor of European products and against competition. In addition, California champagne producers point out they've spent many decades and lots of marketing dollars building up their businesses. They see no reason to give up the name.

But Sharon Castillo from the Office of Champagne, representing French producers in Washington D.C., argues American vintners are still capitalizing on a reputation that doesn't belong to them.

Ms. SHARON CASTILLO (Office of Champagne): They argue that by putting the word California or New York or New Mexico in front of it the problem is taken care of. While it might be legal, it's not fair, it is misleading to consumers. And for us, a country that prides itself in consumer rights, this is an issue about truth in labeling.

SCHULTZ: But there are those who say that to some extent, the EU has itself to blame for this problem and should've been stricter with the Americans in the first place. The organization that represents European chambers of commerce, and thus 19 million European businesses, says this issue is crucial to members. Secretary General Arnaldo Abruzzini believes EU officials gave away too much to the U.S. side in the last round of trade talks.

Secretary General ARNALDO ABRUZZINI (European Union): They should have been much tougher on that, and they haven't been. We want to defend our business. We want to defend our investments. We want to defend our values.

SCHULTZ: Abruzzini demands that this time EU officials stay at the negotiating table until they force the Americans to stop a practice many Europeans find distasteful.

For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Brussels.

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