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Is it Champagne or is it not?

December 24, 2003 - The Chicago Tribune

PARIS—As New Year’s revelers spend the day after a celebration recovering and wishing that they hadn’t consumed so much Champagne the night before, they probably can’t say whether what they drank really was Champagne, from the Champagne region of France. Could it instead have been “sparkling wine” disguising itself under the Champagne name?

Tracking down and putting an end to the misuse of the name Champagne—not only on sparkling wine, but on products as diverse as yogurt and bubble bath—is the job of Bruno Paillard, known in France as the “Champagne detective.”

The stakes are impressive: In 2002, the Champagne region produced more than 287 million bottles of bubbly, of which the French consumed 62 percent. The U.S., the No. 2 importer of Champagne, behind the United Kingdom, imported 18.2 million bottles in 2002 and 6.6 million in the first half of 2003.

Technically, the Comite Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne, a.k.a. the Interprofessional Committee of Champagne Wines or the CIVC, is a 105-member trade association of which Paillard is the president of the commission on communication and appellations. His team of lawyers and researchers works to stamp out what Champagne producers see as the unjust appropriation of the prestige of the name Champagne, and the negative effect it has on the product’s integrity.

It can be a long and difficult job, but “most times, we find an accord with the creators before there needs to be a legal process,” he says.

At age 28, Paillard broke into the Champagne business in the same way as most new Champagne producers who started from scratch: due to difficult Champagne region regulations at the time, to attain the right to buy Champagne grapes they are forced to buy wine from other producers, slap a label on it, and pray they make a profit.

More than 22 years later, Champagne Bruno Paillard has gone from a joke among competitors to one of the two relatively new and successful high-end Champagnes in existence.

Paillard says Champagne producers continually build their brand and product quality for those in other countries, who, by unwanted association, end up making them look worse. Looking at the products that have used the name sheds some light on his battle; often they have nothing to do with Champagne, but are just looking for a way to jack up prices and/or the perception of quality.

He has a bag full of “Champagne” knickknacks and products he has accumulated and stopped, including non-French sparkling wine labeled Champagne, “Champagne” soap, “Champagne” skin care products, and his personal favorite, Swedish “Champagne” yogurt.

This year, he’s battling a German pear liqueur named Champagner Bratberne and a Norwegian-style lemon-flavored soda called Champagnes Brus.

French Chablis exporters learned the hard way the potential for financial endangerment. The white wine is considered a worst-case scenario for those looking to export to the United States, exactly what Paillard works to prevent. Outside the U.S., Chablis is considered a high-quality wine with a strong selling price, but poor quality non-French versions have literally dragged it down to cardboard boxes on the bottom shelves of U.S. stores.

Vintners in France, such as those who make Chablis and Champagne, are required to uphold legal standards that non-European countries often do not have to deal with. The standards guarantee the consumer that a carefully delineated list of criteria have been met in the product’s creation, first of which is origin.

Paillard’s efforts are slowly paying off. The Swedish Champagne yogurt, for example, started off as “Yoggi Champagne,” with news releases touting the upcoming millennium celebration and advertisements showing people at glamorous parties holding yogurt instead of Champagne flutes. Swedish courts agreed it was misleading and “improperly used another business owner’s activities, products, trademarks or similar characteristics.”

The CIVC has taken on big companies as well as small. In the early 1990s, French courts found that Yves St. Laurent’s “Champagne” perfume created “an attractive effect borrowed from the prestigious appellation `Champagne.’ ” YSL lost both a trademark and the right to sell the product.

The United States remains Paillard’s largest opponent and frustration, producing two to three times as much “Champagne” as it imports. After the 1995 signing of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, the U.S. theoretically barred any new producers from appearing, but this still remains fuzzy for Champagne and other wines such as Chianti and port.

A handful of American companies (Korbel, Gallo and Canandaigua among them) have U.S. authorization in what amounts to grandfathered rights to continue using the Champagne name on their sparkling wines.

The Transatlantic Forum on Geographic Indicators, hosted by the European Institute in Washington, D.C., in October 2002 brought together about 40 U.S. and European groups, including wine and spirit producers and commerce, agricultural and trade representatives.

Some U.S. trade officials questioned whether Champagne (the bubbly) actually got its name from Champagne (the region).

“They even suggested that Champagne’s economic value could be due to the work of California growers. This was worse than Stalinist Russia!” says Paillard, half-joking, half exasperated.

This year, two similar forums took place in Washington and San Francisco and without overwhelming help from the U.S. government, reform in the wine industry is coming from the industry itself.

Paillard cites the Napa Valley Vintner’s Association fight to keep “Napa Ridge” wines made with grapes from outside of Napa from reaching the shelves.

“It’s becoming something people in both the U.S. and Europe are talking about,” Paillard says.

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