What’s in a name? Well, for wine appellations, brands and consortiums around the world, quite a lot. Names and trademarks are practically currency in the wine industry, and their usage is either highly regulated or not regulated enough, depending on whom you ask. Recent months have become especially sore on this point, as brands, major corporations and entire wine regions go to war in court over alleged misuses of names, with new lawsuits and decades-long disputes percolating in a few places whose names you may know: Champagne, Prosecco and Napa.
Prosecco producers are no strangers to legal wrangles over their wine (especially when "Prosecco" is being served from fake ATMs). The latest spat spans the continent: French company Les Grands Chais de France (LGCF) has been selling a non-alcoholic bubbly in the U.K. under the punny moniker "Nosecco." But when LGCF tried to get a British trademark for their dealcoholized sparkler, Prosecco producers put a cork in the plan. The consorzio representing the Italian bubbly objected, claiming the brand was an obvious riff on their E.U. Protected Designation of Origin. An Italian tribunal agreed, upholding the consorzio’s stance (better, for the LGCF, than the time unrelated objectors tried to blow them up).
Now the situation is getting extra brut. LGFC is challenging the tribunal’s decision in a London court, claiming that the Nosecco name isn't intended to spark competition with the Italian sparkler, according to a Bloomberg report. The Prosecco consortium declined to comment, with the case ongoing.
Champagne, the wine world's most tireless protector of its name against pretenders both large and small, continues its multi-front campaign against alleged infringers. In 2017, Czech baking company Breadway attempted to trademark the name “Champagnola” for a wide range of baking products, like sugar and dough, as well as restaurant and catering services. This expectedly unsettled the folks at the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), who represent the interests of the French wine region; they registered complaints with both Breadway and then the E.U.'s Intellectual Property Office.
After an initial decision in favor of Breadway, the CIVC won an appeal in April 2020: The adjudicators found that the Champagnola name violated appellation laws as an “evocation” of Champagne, potentially confusing consumers. “This decision is a cornerstone for the Comité Champagne and more generally for Protected Designations of Origin for future cases of infringement by evocation in the E.U.,” Marie-Anne Humbert-Genand, who leads CIVC’s legal department, told Unfiltered via email.
That's not the only running dispute in Champagne: Another that recently came to a head has been fizzing for decades. Since the late 1990s, winemakers from the small, 1,000-person town of Champagne, Switzerland, have unsuccessfully petitioned the E.U. to let them use the name “Commune de Champagne” for their local wines, produced in the Vaud region of the country (that is famously not a member of the E.U.).
“For the Chasselas white wine produced in the vineyards of the commune,” explained Albert Banderet, the town’s former mayor and current president of its Community of Vine and Wine of the Municipality of Champagne (CVVCC). Once again, on May 27, the European Commission rejected the CVVCC’s request, declaring that per the E.U. and Switzerland’s trade and agricultural agreements, the latter has an obligation to protect the French version of the “Champagne” designation.
Unsurprisingly, (Swiss) Champagne’s winemakers aren't ready to let this go flat. “We are awaiting a new regulation from the state of Vaud,” Banderet told us. “As soon as the new regulation is adopted, we will study our possibilities with regard to the [E.U.] rules.” In perhaps the most notorious preceding case, a Swiss bakery engaged in a bitter legal fight for the right to use the phrase “Made in Champagne” on biscuits, resolved in 2010 when the dueling Champenois came together to break bread—but the bread would not be called "Champagne."
Trademark disputes in general, of course, are not the exclusive domain of Europeans. In April, Napa-based winery JaM Cellars sued California giant the Wine Group (TWG) over alleged trademark infringement. JaM owns several trademarks for the words “jam” and "butter," names of their wines, and last year, TWG printed the phrase “rich & buttery” on its Franzia brand boxes, when Franzia underwent a marketing makeover. The boxing match continued with another complaint when Franzia plastered its Cabernet with the words "bold & jammy."
The complaints (consolidated into one in May) also allege close similarities in appearance between the brands' packaging. The case is continuing in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. JaM representatives declined to comment to us, but for good measure, their lawyers slipped in a bold assertion themselves in arguing consumers would be confused by the allegedly similar branding: "Cabernet Sauvignon wine under the Bold & Jammy mark is lower in quality than that of Plaintiff’s JaM Cabernet Sauvignon wine."
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