Wine: The bubble economy

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Indy Lifestyle Online

When the students of Altona North Primary School in Melbourne named their worm fertiliser Pengolds Grange Wormitage in ironic homage to the Australian icon, Penfolds' £150-a-bottle Grange, they hadn't counted on a corporate sense-of-humour failure. Southcorp, the wine giant that owns Penfolds Grange, threatened legal action to force the students to change their worm fertiliser's name. Maybe it was revenge for Penfolds having to drop the Hermitage from Grange Hermitage in 1990 to comply with European Union regulations outlawing the use of the protected Rhône Valley appellation.

If you're looking to name your product, the moral is: be careful not to tread on sensitive toes. At around the same time of the Grange Wormitage débâcle, the French wine company Lacheteau told Kahurangi Estate, a small New Zealand wine producer, that it would sue it or anyone selling their wines in Europe using the name Kiwi because it had registered Kiwi Cuvée as its trademark. Yet the French sauvignon was originally only so-called as a gimmick because it was made by a New Zealander, Rhyan Wardman. "It's a case of the pot calling the kettle black," said Kahurangi founder Greg Day. "Here's the French trying to protect Burgundy as a geographical indicator and saying we can't use Kiwi."

The French are the masters of the rich man's game of name protection. The tiny Tasmanian winery, Stefano Lubiana, received a solicitor's letter from Veuve Clicquot claiming that the orange of the Lubiana label was the trademark "Clicquot Orange", and consumers might confuse the Tasmanian bubbly with its own revered product. Lubiana said his colour was mango and couldn't be confused with that of Veuve Clicquot but still had to remove all offending stock from sale rather than face a potentially costly lawsuit.

The Champenois will seemingly go to any lengths necessary to erase the word champagne unless it's legitimately used in conjunction with their own precious bubbly. Since the landmark Babycham case, when they stopped Bulmers advertising its bubbly pear drink as a "Genuine Champagne Perry", they have taken Harrods to task for selling Champ Pagne, a Canadian spring water for cats and dogs, took Yves Saint Laurent to court for producing a scent called Champagne (it was later changed to Yvresse, French for drunkenness), and have taken action against a variety of offending products no one of sound mind could possibly confuse with the real thing, among them a Champagne bubble bath, a Champagne cigarette, Champagne toothpaste and Champagne sanding paper.

Millions are spent by the Champagne Bureau in Reims (CIVC) every year on threatening court action or actually taking people all over the world to court for daring to suggest that their product might in some way bear a passing resemblance to champagne.

The Champagne Bureau's lawyers are today targeting America, where abuse of the name champagne is widespread. The CIVC says some 50 million bottles of wine sold as champagne aren't the genuine article. Typical is Korbel, the sparkling wine producers that have got up the Gallic nose with their cheeky advertising slogan: "this is true American champagne, beware of French imitations". A campaign to raise awareness is under way: "Are Florida oranges from Maine, Washington apples from Wyoming, Alaskan salmon from Nevada? Is champagne not from Champagne?"

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