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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 complicated 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. However, 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. Domestic sparkling wine producers remained free 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."
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—Korbel and Miller High Life come to mind—was grandfathered in and may continue to use the term.
Since then, Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne has sued or threatened to sue many people and companies that have adopted the term "Champagne," even Apple when it proposed a "Champagne" color for its new iPhone.
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