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A little Russian ‘champagne’ for the gander

Tim Hearden GL0610-hearden-powdery-mildew.JPG
Why is everybody always picking on France?

The Champagne region of France is one of the most famous agricultural regions in the world, and for good reason. Its namesake sparkling drink has become synonymous with both fine cuisine and raucous celebration. From victorious sports locker rooms to the Eagles’ “Hotel California” to Mother’s Day brunch, the bubbly has become a cultural icon just about everywhere.

And France has never been shy about reminding people where the original stuff came from, even to the point of being a bit heavy-handed.

When former President Barack Obama used bubbly from California-based Korbel Champagne Cellars at his second inaugural luncheon in 2013, howls of indignation could be heard all the way from Europe, even though this was the eighth straight inauguration at which the product had been featured.

French wine industry representatives lectured the event’s organizers that it was illegal for a news release to identify Korbel’s drink as champagne because it didn’t come from that region in northeastern France. A Korbel official countered that it’s legal as long as the label clearly identifies that the bubbly was produced in California. The inaugural committee agreed.

"The Champagne lobby should have a glass of their own product and relax," spokesman Matt House told me for a story for Capital Press. He added the committee was “proud to be serving American champagne” at the event.

But although the U.S. and European Union ironed out an agreement on the term “champagne” 15 years ago, its use is still a recurring issue in global trade, wine industry officials say. Now Russia and its omnipresent leader, Vladimir Putin, have apparently decided what’s good for the French goose is good for the Russian gander.

Putin recently signed a law allowing Russian producers to market their drink as champagne, and requiring French champagne – the real stuff – to include the words “sparkling wine” on its label. As a result, the French champagne industry asked its members to halt all shipments to Russia, even though some orders have yet to be fulfilled, CNBC reported. The dispute is likely to wind up at the World Trade Organization.

“We are just shocked,” Charles Goemaere, director general of the Champagne Committee, told the cable network.

Cue the sound of the Coasters: Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me?

I don’t mean to belittle the importance of geographical indications in agricultural marketing and trade. CNBC mentions Scottish whisky and Roquefort cheese. In the West, we have Idaho potatoes and Washington apples. And when it comes to AVAs, the West’s wine industry is just as aggressive in protecting its identity, as proven by a class action proceeding against a California winemaker that critics say gave a false impression that its pinot noir was made in Oregon. Pride of place is worth millions to growers.

Yet it can reach a level of silliness that strains public credulity and leaves it vulnerable to exploitation by bad actors, as the Russia case demonstrates.

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