Seeking the Truth About Wine Labeling

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Is it fair to call a sparkling wine from California champagne? Wine industry reps want labels to reflect where the wine was actually made. Michael Franz, editor of Wine Review Online, tells how to make sure your vino is from the right spot.


Residents of the French wine region of Champagne have long resented their good name appearing on anything from bottles of Andre to Korbel. But their frustration bubbled over this week when wine industry reps met with members of Congress. They demanded that labels reflect the actual place where wine is produced. Wine reviewer Michael Franz has visited over 800 vineyards around the world and is very familiar with this long fermenting controversy. We met Michael Franz at Morris Miller Wine and Spirits here in Washington.

Mr. MICHAEL FRANZ (Wine Reviewer): So what we've got here are true champagne bottlings from the Champagne region, which is legally delimited in France. We only have to go about four feet to find a product that purports to be Cook's California Champagne Grand Reserve. There are excellent sparkling wines made in California but they don't taste like champagne. The famously bright California sun produces a profile that's much more overtly fruity. It won't have the kind of almost austere elegance that true champagne has, which is a result of a combination of factors, a very cool, often overcast climate, and very deep, very unusual chalky limestone soils.

ELLIOTT: Now, why is it that some of these California-made sparkling wines are labeled as sparkling wine and some are labeled champagne?

Mr. FRANZ: Well, it's an entirely elective matter on their part. They are arguably trading in a kind of unseemly way on the fame of the region from which they've not drawn the fruit for this wine. But what they've done is entirely legal.

ELLIOTT: Now, are winemakers trying to change that?

Mr. FRANZ: Well, interestingly, although Champagne and the CIBC, their professional organization has really been the sort of leading force in terms of protecting wine names that are geographic indicators around the world, they have been joined by a variety of other organizations - Oregon, Washington, Western Australia - who are likewise seeking to protect wine region names and to see to it that they are limited solely to products that are based from fruit from those regions.

ELLIOTT: So it's not just the famous champagne makers that are worried about this trend.

Mr. FRANZ: That's correct. For instance, Napa Valley, which is the single most famous name in wine in the United States was being traded upon by a company called Napa Ridge that was bottling wines that were not sourced from the Napa Valley under that name. That resulted in litigation that ultimately ended the practice as I understand it. But it really is a problem that goes well beyond the Champagne region, although champagne obviously being one of the most famous of all wines is the one that has been most widely bastardized.

ELLIOTT: So the most important thing for consumers to try to keep from being deceived is to remember that certain regions produce a certain kind of grape and to do your research before you come.

Mr. FRANZ: Yeah. I think that's exactly right. Where there's a connection between a name, a region and a certain profile or quality level, it really is important to learn it and to remember it.

ELLIOTT: Michael Franz is the editor of Wine Review Online.

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