Sunday, April 27, 2008


Whining About Wine and Champagne

I've written a lot about categorization and naming because they are not just important concerns in document engineering but also in "making sense of the world" more generally. I've discussed these issues as they apply to lobsters, planets, prescription drugs, airport security screening, and other equally diverse subjects precisely because they are such fundamental and ubiquitous concerns. And today I get to write about categorization and naming for wine and champagne, prompted by a story in the 27 April 2008 New York Times titled "Produced in Champagne, but what do you call it?."

The point of today's story is that a village in Switzerland called "Champagne" that has been around for about 1200 years is being beat up by France and the European Union and not allowed to use its name for any of its agricultural products, including wine. So it can't label wine it makes as "wine from Champagne" now, even though even though until 2005 this was allowed.

And there is especially no way that a winemaker from Champagne in Switzerland can call sparkling wine "Champagne," i.e., it can't call any wine "Champagne from Champagne." According to French law, you can only use this name for sparkling wine if you follow a precisely specified production method using grapes from a precisely specified part of the "Champagne Region" about a hundred miles east of Paris.

But this so-called "region" didn't seem like a region to me, because I usually use that word to mean some kind of contiguous geographical area, perhaps defined by explicit features like rivers or mountains or borders. Instead, the "Champagne Region" is defined by enumeration, and it consists of 319 communes (municipalities) in numerous disconnected areas. Being on this list really matters, because CR-designated land is worth 200x as much as adjacent land that is not as lucky to have the CR-label.

So perhaps isn't surprising that there is lots of pressure to expand the size of the Champagne Region, and another New York Times article ("A Tempest in a Champagne Flute" on 27 December 2007) describes the intrigue around a secret plan to add another 40 communes to the lucky CR club. Now I admit that I don't understand all the criteria being applied to decide who wins and who loses, which according to the NY Times are:

Champagne's history, geography, geology, agronomy and an obscure field called phytosociology, the study of plant communities.

Nevertheless, it is a little amusing to imagine that if the debate were really about following the rules or applying scientific principles to the definition of the Champagne Region, wouldn't it be possible that some of the 319 currently lucky communes might be found out as pretenders and kicked out of the CR club? But that doesn't seem to be happening, and the club is getting bigger because global demand for sparkling wine is growing and France's market share is declining. (If you really care about this issue, read Tom Stevenson's Champagne's €6 billion expansion) to see how what's really going on).

Let me end this story about wine naming and categorization with two things closer to home. First, I knew a little bit about the naming rules for champagne because I've visited the Schramsberg Winery in Calistoga California, which bills itself as "America's First House of Sparkling Wine." They don't call what they make "champagne," but they make a point of telling you that they follow the traditional "méthode champenoise" for making it; i.e., "we make it exactly like they do back in France where they call it champagne, so draw your own conclusions." So they want to get you to call it champagne without calling it that themselves.

Finally, in that same Napa Valley town of Calistoga there is another labeling fight going on that involves wine of the regular, non-sparkling variety. There was a story the first week of April in the San Francisco Chronicle ( "Overhaul of labeling rules stirs up wine wars") about a dispute over regional labeling of wines by the origin of their grapes. A famous upscale winery in Calistoga called Chateau Montelena petitioned the federal government to create a Calistoga "American Viticultural Area." However, a less upscale winery called Calistoga Cellars whose grapes aren't exclusively from Calistoga would then be forced to change its name, even though it is located in the town of Calistoga.

I'm not going to take a clear position on this California dispute, because I've been to Chateau Montelena (it is a gorgeous winery, with Japanese water gardens etc. well worth a visit) and like their wine, and I don't want to get on their "watch list" and banned from their tasting room and winery. But we seem to be creating these AVA categories pretty rapidly and capriciously, and even if the Calistoga AVA is created, I don't see why the use of a term like Calistoga to mean "grapes from here" has retroactive priority over the use of the term to mean "our company is from here," especially if Calistoga Cellars makes no false claims about the origin of its grapes. Seems like they are getting the Swiss treatment, and like the village of Champagne, they're getting it from the French, or at least from a winery with a French name.

-Bob Glushko

Here, I do not actually consider it is likely to have effect.
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