Wine Talk

Snooth User: Caroline Henry

The Korbel fiasco by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies

Posted by Caroline Henry, Jan 10, 2013.

Yesterday, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies released the menu as well as the wines for Obama's 2nd inauguration dinner on January 21st.  They must have had a lapse of clear thinking describing their American sparkling wine choice as Champagne in their press release. The exact wording of the wine was Korbel Natural, Special Inaugural Cuvée Champagne, California.


Needless to say the Champenois are less than impressed with this, especially since U.S. law requires that the word Champagne for US sparkling wine should be used as California Champagne. Sam Heitner from the US Champagne Bureau commented: “While we do not support this practice, it is U.S. law — and we would urge the inaugural committee to follow that law and not state the sparkling wine being served is Champagne. Champagne only comes from Champagne, France.”

The Champagne Bureau has group has voiced its concerns in a letter to New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, requesting the reference to the word Champagne be removed or at least used according to the US law.

In a reaction to the letter, Matt House, spokesman for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies continued to show his ignorance and arrogance when he replied: "The Champagne Lobby should have a glass of their own product and relax. We are proud to be serving American Champagne at the Inauguration, and its location of origin will be appropriately displayed on the label and the menu in accordance with the law, and international treaties.”

The Champagne Bureau recently launched a location matters program in which it aims to educate the consumers that Champagne only comes from France. In fact, most countries have agreed to ban the use of the word “Champagne” for any sparkling wine which was not produced in the viticultural area of Champagne, but the US has a laxer approach to this. Whilst they have agreed that all American sparkling wine labels submitted after 2006 cannot make reference to Champagne anymore, some wineries were exempt as their label had been approved before. However, in this case they should mention the place of origin as well before the word Champagne. Korbel’s label states “Rusian River Valley Champagne”, but unfortunately this is not what was stated in the official press release yesterday.

Most US premium sparkling wine producers have by now dropped the word Champagne from their label and marketing, but Korbel is clinging on to the word in its official name (Korbel Champagne Cellars) and in the description of their activity and wines – which they call Premium Champagne.
I find it sad that a wine which obviously is good enough to be picked several times for the President’s Inauguration luncheon feels the need to market itself on the clout and glamour of a whole region half way across the world. Korbels wine can and will never be Champagne as it is grown and produced in significantly different circumstances. The only question remaining for me is – Why Korbel does Korbel feels it needs the umbrella of  something they so clearly are not (Champagne) – is it maybe because they fear that the wine as sparkling wine is not totally up to scratch??


Interested to hear your views on this!





Reply by CGESchiller, Jan 10, 2013.

I have some sympathies for Korbel. The Korbel brothers came to the US in the late 1800s and they introduced sparkling wine to the US, which they called Champagne, more than 100 years before it became an issue as the result of globalization. It has been Korbel Champagne now for 130 years.

Reply by jon1, Jan 10, 2013.

As a Francophile and a Russian River Valley vintner who’s built a winery from the ground up, I’m clearly on the side of the French for this one. Although I understand how Korbel has been able to grandfather the use of Champagne on its labels, my neighbor down the street who owns this company is not related to the Korbel family; his father Adolph bought the winery in the 50’s – so let’s get real. I often bristle when I hear the word Champagne used when describing their wines (or ANY sparkling wines produced outside of Champagne.) We as a nation should be proud of what we produce and call this product what it is, Sparkling Wine from Russian River Valley. Shoot – the folks in Alsace, France have adopted using Crémant d'Alsace  to describe their sparkling wines, so why can’t we be just as imaginative in developing something similar out of respect for the real deal. Let’s correctly educate our consumers and as a nation, respect other countries.

Reply by GregT, Jan 11, 2013.

Good points and for the most part I agree but it starts getting difficult if you want to police language down to the last word. English has always adopted new words from other countries when it didn't have a word of its own and sometimes things just become part of the lexicon.

So we have "swiss" cheese, "dutch" chocolate, "parmesan" cheese from Wisconsin, and so on. We have a St. Albans in Queens, NY and a Toledo in Ohio. People at the Xerox Corp probably cringe when they hear someone say he's going to "make a xerox" and people sneezing often ask for a kleenex, not a facial tissue. IN some parts of the country people ask for a "coke" and they're asked what flavor they want because the word is used instead of "soda" or "soft drink" or "pop".

Since it's a matter mostly for wine geeks, I don't think the practice of calling "sparkling wine" "Champagne" is going to change all that fast. Nor do the good people of Champagne really need to feel dismayed; it's kind of an homage to them. Further, since in the consumer mind it refers to a process as much as a region, it's a little different from calling your wine "Bordeaux".

I guess I understand the point of the regional producers but I'd spend my energy worrying about other things before devoting too much time to what some product is called in another country. I'm sure that if Korbel is sold in France, it's not called Champagne, and those are the people who would care.


Reply by Ed Hodson, Jan 11, 2013.

Is it fair for American sparkling wine producers to put the word "champagne" on their labels?Think about it. If a town in the south of France renamed itself "Napa" and called all its crappiest, factory-made, sulfurous 2 euro a bottle rotgut "Napa Cabernet," would that be fair? Of course not. It's a manipulative, misleading ploy.

I also reject the whole "we've been doing it for over 100 years and aren't breaking any laws" argument. Many activities are at the same time legal and reprehensible, and America has outlawed many of them over the same 110-year time frame.  

Putting all that to one side, remember this fact that I've been sharing with wine lovers for over 20 years: Quality producers of American sparkling wine never put the word Champagne on their labels. Not ever. If an American bubbly says "Champagne" on the label, you're invariably dealing with cheap goods. Such things have their place and can be fun--mixed with equal parts of orange juice on a drunken Sunday afternoon perhaps--but it's not the same thing as carefully made sparkling wine. I'd rather have an honest bottle of ten-dollar cava than a bottle of "California Champagne", and I'd rather have California sparkling wine from a top producer than either! And true, honest-to-goodness French champagne? Incomparable. Cheers!

Reply by EMark, Jan 11, 2013.

I think this comes close to the category of never letting a good crisis go to waste.  

The P.R. guys in Champagne are High-Fiving each other because they were able to get their client's name out in a press release that has not attracted some attention.  It's not personal, it's business.

Reply by Caroline Henry, Jan 11, 2013.

Totally Agree Jon! Thank you for your interesting comment!! Russian River should be proud of it's heritage and its wines as they are beautiful in itself!!

GregT I guess you and I differ in opinion - whilst I understand people using a word like Kleenex or Hoover - I cannot imagine another tissue maker or vacuum cleaner maker use these words to market their products. Parmesan just like Champagne is a protected name attached to a specific region which is not Wisconsin - so Wisconsin cannot make "real" parmesan same as California cannot make real Champagne. I believe it would be much better to make a real product and improve the quality so one can sell it on its own merit than be a fake and ride a bandwagon one obviously so does not belong to...

Reply by Caroline Henry, Jan 11, 2013.

Thank you Ed - you made a wonderful comment!! EMARK - I am lost - I livce in Champagne and gave seen no High 5's at all - sad faces yes - but definitely no high fives. Ed is definitely right - I guess the guys in Rusian River Valley would not be too happy either if a town in France called itself Russian River Valley and made doubtably quality wines which they decided to market as Rusian River Valley because they can ask more $ that way... Korbel should invest in making better wine and stand on its own two feet rather than cling to a name of something it will never be... 

Reply by jtryka, Jan 12, 2013.

I think the real shocker here is the response from the administration's PR person, though I guess it's not really shocking, in fact, come to think of it, arrogant ignorance should have been expected... regardless, I don't think it's appropriate for California producers to use the name "Champagne" in the same way I wouldn't think it appropriate for Washington's producers of Bordeaux style blends to start using Pomerol or Margaux, or Spanish producers of GSM blends to start using Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  Unfortunately, it seems there will always be the less-than-ethical and the ignoramuses in this industry.

Reply by GregT, Jan 12, 2013.

If a town in the south of France renamed itself "Napa" and called all its crappiest, factory-made, sulfurous 2 euro a bottle rotgut "Napa Cabernet," would that be fair? Of course not.

Why not? Towns all over the US are named for places in Europe.
DOC and AOC issues matter to the Europeans far more than to Americans, who are concerned with brands, not places. Place designations mean very little of interest to the average American for good reason - you can have 2 producers side by side, one horrible and one good, and if one were to go only by place of origin, it would be a crapshoot as to which one you got.
I recognize that parmesan refers to a place of origin, which is why I brought it up. I've purchased Argentine parmesan in Buenos Aires and Canadian cheddar, which is a big seller, in the US. Does anyone know or really care that "cheddar" referring to cheese is very much an analog to "champagne" when referring to wine?
As far as whether something is or isn't grandfathered in, of course that matters. Are we supposed to jump and change our names every time a new rule comes about?  There was some noise about requiring a rule that if a wine is designated "chateau" so and so, it has to be made in France at a chateau.  Would that mean that the next day Chateau St. Michelle would have to change its name? It would become ridiculous and the same arguments would be made - "Doesn't matter if we've been doing it for 100 years. They decided this morning that they don't like it so we have to change."
I wonder if the people who get their panties in a bunch when an American wine is called "champagne" are also upset that MacDonald's sells "french fries"? They're really "freedom fries" right? After all, they're not made in France.
I'm curious but don't think we really want to talk about "French kiss"! 
Reply by EMark, Jan 12, 2013.

Caroline, You are right.  As is not unusual, I jumped to a wrong conclusion.  The high-fives were in Washington, DC.  The Champagne Bureau, the guys who put out the press release are not the sad-face field workers in Champagne.  They are a lobbying/P.R. (you pick) organization based in, Washington, DC. 

Rereading the your original post--"they should mention the place of origin as well before the word Champagne"--it seems that the big deal is that the word "California" follows the word "Champagne" in the press release. 


      Korbel Natural, Special Inaugural Cuvée Champagne, California

is not OK,

but, presumably,

     Korbel Natural, Special Inaugural Cuvée California Champagne

is OK.     

Well, that's easy enough to understand.  (Getting into the difference of "well before"  vs. "before" is ludicrous.  Do we measure in ems?  Meters? Cubits?)

All that, notwithstanding, I think the response from Matt House, the Inauguration Committee spokesman was condescending.  I really wish that he would have omitted that first sentence.  He should have just gone back to his word processor and modified his release document, perhaps as I have suggested, to eliminate Sam Heitner's complaint. 

Of course, if he did that, we wouldn't be talking about it, today.  Then what would Sam Heitner do, today, to earn his retainer from the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne?

Regarding your comment that Korbel should invest in making better wine

Korbel puts out a perfectly adequate $12 product.  That is their niche.  They are not Schramsberg, and they are not Andre.  Niche marketing is not one of American business' most elegant creations, but it fits their needs.  I am not really that much of an afficionado of bubblies, but my suspicion is that the quality of a $12 Korbel is comparable to that of a $12 Champagne.  If that is, in fact, not true, please give me the name of a superior $12 Champagne.  If I can find it, I would love to try it.

Also, Korbel serves a master:  the Brown-Forman Corporation.  Korbel is just one of many brands in the Brown-Forman portfolio.  To Brown-Forman Korbel is a line item.  Not very romantic, but a fact of American business life.  Tell some young tycoon-in-his-own-mind, mid-level manager at Brown-Forman he should spearhead a proposal to his executive management to give money (invest) to the Korbel guys so that they can upgrade their product, and he is going to ask two questions:  (1) what's in it for me and (2) what is the downside for me if something goes wrong? 

Yes, I am a bitter refugee from that corporate world.

Caroline, I am, in fact, sympathic to your crusade, as I am sure most people on this Forum are.  I/we know the difference between California Sparkling Wine, and Champagne, and Prosecco, and Cava and Sekt.  I am also hardened by years of corporate cynicism.  Sam Heitner's job is to get people to buy his client's product.  He has a marketing campaign to try to achieve that end.  I honestly believe that he was giddy when he read that press release from the inaugural committee.

What you and the Champagne lobby seek requires attention from the U.S. Congress.  Frankly, Caroline, that legislative body is quite busy these days with other issues--issues that are very important to me and all U.S. residents and citizens.  In all honesty I hope they take action on those issues before they consider this.

Just out of curiosity, though, does the nomenclature Fume Blanc, used on several California Sauvignon Blanc bottlings raise any passion within you? 




Reply by Richard Foxall, Jan 14, 2013.

On January 20, I will take a big swig of champagne from somewhere or other, like Spain, and give my wife a big Jewish kiss.  Wait, only one of us is Jewish--now what do we do?

Maybe we could delineate between little c champagne and big C champagne, but of course the whole point of this argument is to keep French champagne in the forefront--and as soon as we talk about "sparkling wines" as a matter of course, the "name" edge that Champagne has will go away--people will evaluate them all on their merits and a lot of people will come to the conclusion that, to their taste, the undisclosed blends of pinot meunier, pinot noir and chardonnay aren't the best tasting.  There will be no comparing to "champagne" because it will all be "sparkling wine" from... Alsace, Spain, RRV, Anderson Valley, and, well,Champagne.  Not Champagne, but sparkling wine from Champagne--just like all the others, and on equal footing.

You know, until last year, I was pretty much off Cali sparklers, and I am a local and pretty proud of our products in general.  But I thought most of it was either pricey for what it was (Schramsberg) or generally not any better than cheaper Cava (Korbel, others).  Sure, we had Roederer Estate at our wedding, but they seemed to be one of the few getting it right.  But lately Scharffenberger has been re-created, and it's really tasty at $16 or so out here.  And there's still the Roederer; we also had a nice Laetitia from down in Arroyo Grande.  Still, for the really big occasion and when I feel like spending upwards of $45, I can find Champers (they must hate that!) pretty beguiling.  But on New Year's day we had a reasonably priced sparkling Vouvray--petillant, not fully gassed--and I think maybe these guys in Champagne (which has increased and decreased what can count geographically as demand rose and fell) ought to spend more time worrying about the product and less about the "genericization" of the name.  Look what happened to Xerox:  They spent more time protecting the brand than inventing new and better copiers.  And now they are bankrupt. 

BTW, I do call it "California Sparkling Wine."  But it needs a better designation, and that's awkward in a market that focuses on varietal labeling and brands. 

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