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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I just read a story about a couple that cannot use the word "Champagne" in their business name. But I see the word used in other areas. For instance, there is a certain beer in America that calls itself the "Champagne of beers." What gives?
—Cameron E., Orange, Calif.
This is an interesting question, and unfortunately it comes with a confusing answer. Let me start by addressing the use of the term "Champagne" as it refers to wine. The French wanted to protect the use of the term "Champagne" to only refer to bubbly made using traditional methods from grapes grown and vinified in the Champagne region of France, so when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919 to end WWI, they included limits on the use of the word. History buffs may recall that the United States never actually ratified the Treaty of Versailles, and that in 1919 the U.S. was in the midst of Prohibition, so alcohol-labeling laws hardly seemed important at the time. This created the loophole that allowed producers here to legally slap the word "Champagne" on their bottles of bubbly—much to the irritation of the winegrowers in Champagne. Out of respect and to avoid confusion, many producers in the United States called their bubbly "sparkling wine," even when it's made in the traditional method.
Then, in early 2006, the United States and the European Union signed a wine trade agreement, and the issue was brought up again. This time, the United States agreed to not allow new uses of certain terms that were previously considered to be "semi-generic," such as Champagne (as well as Burgundy, Chablis, Port and Chianti). But anyone who already had an approved label was grandfathered in and may continue to use the term.
But that recent wine trade agreement? It was only about wine, and not about beer or other spirits. I talked with a representative at the U.S. Alcohol Tobacco and Trade Bureau (or TTB), who confirmed that there currently isn't any law or international agreement that regulates the use of wine terms like "Champagne" on bottles of beer. Furthermore, he pointed out that there's a complaint process if someone wants to challenge the use of one of these terms on a product, and so far, no one has officially complained.
You didn't mention if the couple in the story you refer to were trying to use term "Champagne" in a wine-related business. That's the only legal restriction I know of.
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