Legal battle over lambrusco turns into 'sour grapes'

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The Independent Online

Italian producers of lambrusco, the cheap Italian sparkling wine that many connoisseurs would consider way beneath imitation, are suing the manufacturer of an even cheaper British drink which, they allege, is masquerading as their own.

Italian producers of lambrusco, the cheap Italian sparkling wine that many connoisseurs would consider way beneath imitation, are suing the manufacturer of an even cheaper British drink which, they allege, is masquerading as their own.

With its clear glass bottle, screw top and decorative label illustrated with scenes from Venice, the Liverpool-manufactured sparkling drink Lambrini Bianco is similar enough in name and packaging to fool customers into believing it is lambrusco bianco, say the Italian producers.

After a dispute which, according to lawyers, has been "simmering" for a year, the producers have filed a High Court writ against Lambrini Bianco's manufacturer, Halewood International.

Lambrini has become something of a sales phenomenon with women aged 20 to 40. It now sells four million cases a year and commands 40 per cent of the market in perry drinks, which are made from fermented pear juice.

The Liverpool drink worries the purveyors of lambrusco, the sweet, fizzy, low-strength Italian red wine. Its producers, from the lambrusco grape regions of northern Italy are proud of their creation and constantly on guard against cheap imitations. The Consorzio Marchio Storico dei Lambruschi Modenesi (Consortium for the Historic Mark of Modenese Lambrusco) chemically tests 15 million bottles a year for quality.

The wine producers say sales have increased since their product was first sold in the UK in the 1970s and that lambrusco bianco - made from the white vinification of red Lambrusco grapes - has been a phenomenon in its own right, selling 110 million litres a year in the UK by the late 1980s. Their writ states that Halewood is infringing manufacturers' rights on the lambrusco name and must drop the Lambrini name and reimburse the consortium for any losses.

"In our view this is a classic example of one manufacturer trying to ride on the back of another's goodwill and success," said Richard Kempler, intellectual property lawyer with Addleshaw Booth & Co, which represents the Italians. "We say Halewood is misleading the public by passing off its bianco as one of the consortium's wines. My clients have a right to feel aggrieved."

He is hoping for a better result than that obtained by the Parma ham trade association, Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, in a High Court battle with Asda in 1998. The producers argued that the supermarket chain had no right to slice and package imported Parma ham at its processing plant in Chippenham, Gloucestershire, but a judge decided the supermarket did, even though European Union regulations gave Parma ham denomination of protected origin (DOP) status.

However, just as Champagne has won the monopoly on its own name, the European Commission now forbids the imitation of national treasures such as Stilton cheese, Newcastle Brown Ale and Jersey royal potatoes.

Nevertheless, Halewood has already launched a stout defence. Harry Melling, the company's managing director, said Lambrini had been on the market for six years without complaints and that the lambrusco producers' court action was a case of "sour grapes".

Mr Melling said: "The sales figures of drinks which have carried the name lambrusco have been diving since well before Lambrini ... was first marketed. Although this decline has not accelerated since the introduction of Lambrini, the Italian producers prefer to blame Halewood rather than their crass marketing tactic of flooding the UK with cheap drinks branded as lambrusco but carrying no identifiable message or reputationto their customers. Halewood has no reason to want to associate itself and its brand with the image of such a product."

George Godar, of the corporate law firm DLA, which represents Halewood, added: "The people who put lambrusco on the bottle seem to think it's some kind of champagne. It's not."

Halewood also argues that Lambrini is sold with ciders and other perries in most outlets and claims that the low alcohol content of some lambruscos means they cannot even legally be described as wine.

Lambrini and lambrusco may both be cheap but the consequences of defeat will be much more expensive. "We would expect Halewood to reimburse the consortium for any loss," Mr Kempler said. "This could potentially run into millions of pounds."

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