How serious are the laws (and legal teams) protecting the name "Champagne"?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

What actually constitutes the use of the name “Champagne”? Is a product that uses a word that sounds like "Champagne" but is spelled differently illegal?

—James, Dover, Ohio

Dear James,

“Champagne” technically only refers to bubbly made using traditional methods and grapes from the Champagne region of France. As you might imagine, the French want to protect the use of the term. The history of their efforts goes back to 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed and included direction on how to use the word. But the United States never actually ratified the Treaty of Versailles, and in 1919, the U.S. was on the verge of enacting Prohibition, so alcohol-labeling laws weren’t a big priority. For a long time, domestic sparkling wine producers felt comfortable using the term.

Then in 2006, the United States and the European Union signed a wine-trade agreement, and this time the U.S. agreed to not use the term, along with other protected terms of wine origin like “Port,” “Burgundy” and “Chablis.” But anyone who already had an approved label was grandfathered in and could continue to use the word. That includes domestic brands like Cook’s Champagne and Korbel, as well as Miller High Life, which had “The Champagne of Beers” as a tagline on their labels dating back to 1906. (A small concession: The wines can only use the term in conjunction with their actual place of origin, i.e. "California Champagne.")

Lately the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, or CIVC, has been suing or threatening to sue people who try to misuse the term “Champagne.” They took issue with a company that promoted its water as “the Champagne of Water.” A flooring company had to discontinue their “Champagne Collection.” There was a kerfuffle with a sorbet made with legit Champagne in it, but after a legal battle was still allowed to be called “Champagne Sorbet.”

The CIVC even enforces the uses of the word to describe a product, most famously when it preemptively stopped Apple from describing an iPhone color as “Champagne.” I get it—Champagne doesn’t have a single color, and it feels like shorthand for something luxurious or high quality. Yet I still see the term used to describe lipstick colors, a shade of marble and even jellybean flavors.

As far as words that sound like “Champagne” but are spelled differently, there was the case of Champín, a berry-flavored Spanish children's soda with a clown on the label. The CIVC tried to sue, but a judge threw out the case saying there was no way the two products could be confused.

I couldn’t find any additional examples of products that use an alternate spelling. (But my goodness, there are plenty of people who can’t spell “Champagne”!) There’s a song by the band Five Finger Death Punch called “Sham Pain,” and you can still buy a T-shirt with the famous (if corny) quote, “Champagne for My Real Friends and Real Pain for My Sham Friends,” on it. But I certainly wouldn’t suggest pushing the point—the CIVC seem intent on protecting the reputation of Champagne.

—Dr. Vinny

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