Wine Appellation Regulation in the U.S. and France as a Response to Globalization

By Alyson M. Chouinard
2011, Vol. 3 No. 01 | pg. 1/3 |


This paper explores the link between cultural identity and through the lens of wine appellation regulations in the United States, with the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), and in , with Champagne. The expansion of economic globalization and some forms of cultural globalization has served to highlight that which is important to many countries, and has even led producers to try and define themselves by more exclusive labels.i Even as the reach of product dissemination has increased dramatically through globalization, communities have become even more protective of what was once an indication of the locality of a product, but has nevertheless become a brand.

The Case of Champagne

Wine-growing areas and wine villages of the Champagne region
Wine-growing areas and wine villages of the Champagne region (Click to enlarge)

Champagne is one of the most well-known of France's wine producing regions, while " Wine has been produced in France for more than two and one-half millennia and has played a large role in French dietary habits, , and economy for centuries. Some two million French owe their livelihood directly to the vine."iii Globalization made it possible for what was once a local or regional product whose name carried the meaning that it was produced in a certain place following a certain set of rules, to turn into a world-wide dispute as to what is and is not champagne. As awareness of the quality of the effervescent French wine called champagne spread, other makers of effervescent wine in other parts of the world wanted to label their product as champagne, which would allow their product to benefit from the reputation of the French wine. " In the case of champagne, brand idealism would imply that the right marketing mix could persuade consumers to accept wines as champagnes that, as a matter of fact, do not come under the umbrella of this 'natural' brand."iv The original proprietors of the name "Champagne" as well as several other products with the reputation for quality found themselves fighting to keep their product names exclusive.

"[G]eographical indications are industrial property rights recognized and given limited protection in the World Trade Organization's Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS or Agreement). GI's are economically as well as culturally significant, as confirmed by the resumption of the United States' request for consultations with the European Communities (EC) regarding the EC regulation of geographical indications, which has been joined by an Australian request for consultations."v

The true strength of champagne lies in its recognition, worldwide, as a quality brand. By ensuring that the communities that originally called their wine "champagne" to be the only ones who can use the name, and then forming internal regulations that the winemakers and vineyard managers are required to follow so as to keep the title champagne allows for some sort of quality assurance.

This need to self-regulate, with fairly strict enforcement comes from problems in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century with counterfeiting. This was achieved by putting the name of a higher-quality producing region, or even a better-known producer on an inexpensive table wine. The response was that: "national governments formally delimited grape-growing areas used in wine production, beginning with a French law in 1905 designed to combat fraudulent wine labeling" that eventually, through subsequent laws in 1919, 1927, and 1935, created the well-known French appellation of origin system for wines, spirits, cheeses, and various other agricultural products."vi This started the regulations on product appellation that continues in many forms in every wine-producing country that exists today. In their article on the protection under TRIPS of both the Basmati and Champagne names, Suman Sahai ascribes the protectionism given to certain nomenclatures:

"Aggressive French aficionados with a well-honed sense for trade advantages have ensured that the word 'Champagne' may only be used for a sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France, the geographical area from which the wine derives its world famous name. Any other wine, even if it is grown from the same grapes and is identical in taste, aroma and other characteristics, may not be called Champagne. The reason is that the glamour and mystique that makes Champagne an exorbitantly priced, up-market product is associated with its name and not necessarily with the quality of the wine (which in many cases can be quite indifferent!)"vii

This is more the point of view of those who believe that the protection given to certain geographical indications creates obstacles to due to the limited availability of the product,viii essentially creating a supply-driven market. "By restricting the yield of grapes and limiting the production of any wine to a particular area, the appellation laws act as a type of supply control. If this is the only region or locality in which a wine of this type is made, and if the yield is restricted, the price is likely to be higher."ix This is one of the factors behind the restrictive policies imposed by international recognition of certain appellations, the economic benefit to being able to lay claim to the most recognizable, and therefore desirable, name in a particular sub-set of the market. The other factor is more elusive, less easily calculated and graphed, but no less valid. The cultural heritage tied to a name, a product, makes protecting these geographical indications desirable. "The regulations for quality wine in the EC involve much more than identification of geographic source[...] they include demarcation of the area of production, vine varieties to be grown, cultivation methods, wine-making methods, minimum natural alcoholic strength by volume, and yield per hectare."[x] The case of champagne is not simply that of a protectionist regulation that favors a certain product with the only intention being reducing supply to drive up demand. There is a cultural basis for the regulations, and if a vineyard or winery does not follow these regulations they are not allowed to use the word 'champagne' on the labeling of their wine.

The regulations surrounding the production of champagne can be related to cultural identity, in general, in two main ways. First, and most easily determined, the definition of champagne stems from a cultural basis. The wine, in both the general characteristics and the specific production methods, stems from a cultural heritage. "[T]heir belonging to a particular species of wines, a particular production process (méthode champagnoise) and their origin in a particular viticultural region characterize certain wines sufficiently to make them champagnes, regardless of the degree of awareness consumers may have of them and irrespective of any corporate brand name."xi The wine distinctions reflect the cultural distinctions in that different areas of the country have different production methods as well as different conditions, all of which reflect the rest of the communities. The problem with trying to explain the link between wine appellations and the resulting regulations stems mostly from the difficulty in finding a workable definition of culture.

"Notoriously impossible to define, culture is a concept whose semantic extension overlaps with the concepts of identity, , life, world, form of life, background, horizon, tradition, and the like. When we use such concepts, we are obviously not using concepts whose meaning can be fixed or rendered fully explicit and determinate; rather, we are dealing with concepts which serve as semantic and epistemic access points for one another, and for their overlapping object domains."xii

Another problem with defining culture is its propensity to change to fit changing times and situations. It is impossible to claim that the culture of the Champagne region of France is the same as it was two hundred years in the past. One of the pieces of the past that modern scholars can use to define the past culture of Champagne is the tradition for winemaking that has continued to be passed down, especially with the help of the protective restrictions enforced by the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC).

The second way that the regulations surrounding champagne relates to cultural identity is that in a similar way that champagne itself is a brand, so is personal cultural identity. "The emergence of specialist organizations in industries such as brewing and wine making resembles that of a social movement. The generation of a collective identity is crucial to a movement's success."xiii The concept of a cultural identity like champagne is similar to a specialist organization, in that to be unique one has to define oneself in a manner that is separate from the majority, the masses. Standing out is crucial, even when talking about a cultural identity, in that if an individual is not special in some way, they are less likely to get ahead, to make a mark, or even to be heard in an international forum. By branding oneself in a way that is unique and has a certain level of positive perceived value, it is possible to make a smaller actor into a greater power on an international playing field.xiv

The changes in cultural identity over time in relation to champagne can be viewed through the lens of the changing status and power of the Champagne region of France. During the early and mid-twentieth centuries, most of Europe as well as the United States, suffered a pestilence that almost ended many of the historical wine-producing regions' ability to produce quality wine. Many regions were slow to recover and some replaced lost vineyards with sub-par hybrids.

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