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European Union Approves Wine Trade Deal, With Reservations

Some countries are unhappy about accepting all U.S. winemaking practices or allowing continued use of their appellation names

Posted: December 22, 2005

The European Union has approved a historic trade agreement that will eliminate complicated barriers to wine sales between the United States and Europe, but not before a few countries' representatives took some swipes at the American wine industry, accusing it of turning out soulless "laboratory" wines.

The E.U.-U.S. agreement, finalized on Dec. 20, is the product of 22 years of negotiations. American wineries will now have an easier path to the European market. Until now, the E.U. required U.S. wine exporters to submit official certification of their production practices. Under the agreement, all winemaking practices legal in the United States will now be accepted by E.U. members.

That's what has some Europeans ticked off. Germany, Greece, Lithuania and Portugal all voted against the agreement. German Farm Minister Horst Seehofer complained that U.S. winemaking regulations were not up to European standards. American winemakers are allowed to add water to wine to cut down on high alcohol content and can use wood chips to impart oak flavors, rather than aging the wine in expensive barrels. E.U. rules forbid both procedures.

"Adding wood chips to wine in Europe is just unimaginable in our wine culture," Seehofer told reporters. "German quality wines will be drowned by cheap laboratory wines because of this deal."

But the other member nations voted to approve the deal, largely because European producers need U.S. consumers. The United States is the largest export market for Europe, which sends five times more wine to America than U.S. winemakers send to Europe. And European winemakers have been concerned that the U.S. government would impose trade barriers ever since 2002, when the House of Representatives passed a bill ordering imported European wines to undergo a laboratory analysis. The new agreement prevents that.

Some E.U. members were also unhappy with the agreement's other major compromise. U.S. winemakers may no longer use so-called semi-generic names such as Champagne, Port, Sherry and Burgundy on American wines, but the agreement contains a grandfather clause that exempts existing brands like Gallo's Hearty Burgundy.

Despite the successful vote, it's obvious that on certain issues, American winemakers and their European counterparts remain an ocean apart. "We are winegrowers, not winemakers," Michael Prinz zu Salm-Salm, president of the Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates, told a German newspaper. "We take what nature gives us to carefully craft the best wines we can. I'm worried that customers won't be able to recognize whether they're buying a part of European culture or an artificial product."

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