Why 'California Champagne' & Other Generic Place Names Need To Go

There’s something about Maine lobster that epitomizes summer. Maybe it’s long beach days, the nostalgia of salty breezes, or the freshness and quality synonymous with Maine lobster, often caught and cooked in the same day.

But what if your Maine lobster said “Product of Kansas” on its rubber-banded claw? Would the same sentiments and rocky New England imagery come to mind? I doubt it.

While I love Kansas as much as the next American, seafood isn’t the landlocked state’s star product, and most of us would feel tricked if farm-raised, Kansas lobster masqueraded as its wild Maine cousin.

Get the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.

“California Champagne” is equally misleading, and so are the generic place names like “Port” and “Chablis” that pepper shelves in wine shops and grocery stores. More than ever, Americans care about what goes into their bodies, and wine deserves the same status as Florida oranges and Washington apples.

The purpose of protected place of origin names–everything from Idaho potatoes to Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon and Beaujolais–is to give quality reference points to shoppers. During earlier eras when stylistic names like “Burgundy” reigned, they helped shoppers to understand a wine’s style when varietal names weren’t available or applicable. Today, with true Burgundies (and myriad other wines) available, generic place names are simply confusing. Instead of helping us shop, they only serve to make the wine industry more confusing, while degrading the true wines of those places and great domestic bottles.

While banning the name “Champagne” on everything from bottled water to iPhones may seem absurd, there are clear ways we can all benefit from greater truth in wine labeling and marketing–whether you regularly buy $5 wine at Trader Joe’s or $50 Barolo from specialty shops.

Misleading wine labels make it harder to shop efficiently and effectively.

If you’re looking for lean, mineral-driven Chablis, an American wine with “Chablis” slapped on the front won’t deliver the flavors you know and love. Chablis only comes from Chablis, France, where limestone soils, cool weather, and strict regulations combine to create a distinct wine. Fruity California “Chablis” neither tastes nor smells similar.

Interspersing these generic labels with wines from those regions dupes shoppers looking for a French wine and those looking for an American Chardonnay. It’d be easier, faster, and more practical to label everything exactly as it is. Like the FDA’s recent decision to modify nutrition facts, wine-label law is due for an upgrade that makes finding the wine you want easy, and reflective of the options available today.

“We live in a time that’s extremely exciting for American wine drinkers–there are more wines from more places available here than ever before,” explains Sam Heitner, director of the US Champagne Bureau. “It’s really a great time to live in Kansas or New York or San Francisco because products from the entire world are available.”

Like a “certified organic” or “grass fed” sticker, place names give shoppers an indication of quality, acceptable price, and even production method. By misusing foreign place names, American producers attempt to appropriate quality standards without committing to the rules that regulate these prestigious growing regions. It’s up to each individual to choose exactly which bottle to buy–be it inexpensive Chardonnay or rare dessert wine–and each deserves the ability to make a clear choice without confusing and misleading label terminology.

Inaccurate wine labels make learning about wine (which is confusing enough) even more confusing.

“Every wine is impacted by where it’s grown, accurate labeling is not about price–it’s about gaining an appreciation and understanding of a product so consumers can learn more,” says Heitner, who was nicknamed the “Sheriff of Champagne” by the Wall Street Journal. “By putting other names on the bottles you’re diminishing the place where the wine is actually from and making it hard for consumers to understand.”

Terroir is an elusive concept, but anyone presented with French Cabernet Sauvignon and Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon will notice the huge flavor differences. Studying the minutia of wine–essentially learning which qualities you like and dislike–gets complicated just by the sheer number of wines available and the inherent language barriers of a truly global industry.

A map illustrating where the Champagne name is fully protected, according to the Champagne Bureau
A map illustrating where the Champagne name is fully protected, according to the Champagne Bureau

For everyday drinkers, adding incorrect labeling to the mix means it’s harder to learn that you prefer rich Chardonnay over fruity Sauvignon Blanc, or Porto over Zinfandel dessert wines. Wine producers should be working to make wine easier to understand and enjoy instead of tricking consumers (and budding oenophiles) with incorrect labeling. As a result, it’s crucial that confusing, inaccurate label language goes the way of Prohibition.

“Unlike with other products,” says Heitner “Wines only give you the label and that’s why it’s critical that we have truth in labeling–you can’t smell, taste, or touch the wine, so you have to be able to trust the label.”

Everyone else is already doing it.

Mass producers of “California Champagne” and “Hearty Burgundy” and American “Sherry” already have alternate labels for their exported wines, so the notion that changing American labels is prohibitively expensive is simply false. Even for small wineries, labels represent a minor cost and can be easily amended. These companies know that Champagne and “California Champagne,” have almost nothing in common. In truth, the Korbel’s and Barefoot Bubbly’s of the world are profiting directly from consumer confusion.

Currently, that confusion is still legal as the result of a 2006 agreement that allows American wineries to continue using certain “semi-generic” place names on their bottles—which makes about as much sense as calling ketchup a vegetable. Essentially, a “grandfather clause” allows the wineries that have labeled in this manner for decades to continue doing so, while preventing new wineries from using “semi-generic” place names. While these restrictions are still a step forward toward overall resolution and protecting unique, place-specific products, they don’t go far enough toward resolving the conflicts that make the wine industry seem overly complicated and elitist.

“The US is out of step with the world standard of labeling and that’s a shame because we make great wine here,” says Heitner, who notes that only Russia, Argentina, and formerly Soviet countries don’t respect protected place names.

In fact, 19 wine regions, including the Napa Valley, Western Australia, Chablis, and Chianti Classico, have already been working for a decade to revise the agreement that allows for dishonest labeling. Many have even changed their own labeling practices with the understanding that all wines—though competitors on the shelf–should be judged on flavor and price, regardless of where they’re sold.

The pioneering American spirit that eschewed European wine regulations (and inspired some seriously delicious juice and innovation) now costs American shoppers every day. “California Champagne” simply isn’t Champagne; American Chianti isn’t Chianti DOCG; and the misuse of place names is deeply misleading. In a country that protects, values, and elevates its domestic products–from intellectual property to American-made cars and Maine lobster–disregarding truth in wine labeling simply doesn’t make sense.

American wines aren’t French; Australian wines aren’t Chilean, and Maine lobsters aren’t from Kansas. Next time you’re shopping, after you debate Alaska salmon over Indonesian salmon, organic spinach or conventional spinach, take a look at the wine labels and ask for the same transparency.