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Wine, Cheese And Trade: What’s in a Name?

European gourmet food, geographical indications and transatlantic trade.

November 20, 2013

Credit: donfiore -

When the menu for President Barack Obama’s second inaugural celebrations became public, the French were not amused. On his special day, the President was to have something sparkling along with dessert, namely a “Korbel Natural, Special Inaugural Cuvée Champagne, California.”

There was only one problem: “Champagne only comes from Champagne, France,” asserted the director of the Champagne Bureau, Sam Heitner, in “The Hill.” Heitner represents the interests of the French region in Washington, DC.

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The incident caused some snickering about the French, but legally the case was clear:

Based on the 2006 wine agreement between the EU and the United States, Korbel can only use the term “California Champagne” on its bottles – not the other way around.

At the end of the day, the French champagne lobby would rather have Korbel not use the term at all. “We have better protection for our product in China, India and Brazil than in the U.S.,” says Heitner. He also points out that Korbel and others happily re-label their bottles as “sparkling wine” when exporting them to Canada, where the EU was successful in protecting its exclusive bubbly stuff.

The champagne controversy foreshadowed the transatlantic squabbles that have resurfaced since the two sides embarked on their project of a free trade agreement.

Localism in a global world

Producers in the European Union are eager to extend the protection of “geographical indications” (GIs) for a number of regional specialties in the United States – from champagne to Parmesan cheese to Pilsner beer and Nürnberger Bratwürste (the tiny roast sausages from the German town of Nuremberg).

“Our protection primarily ends at the borders of the EU,” complains Reiner Heimler, Chairman of the “Schutzverband Nürnberger Bratwürste,” an association for the protection of the brand. In the United States, the originals are available at Trader Joe’s (which is owned by the German discount supermarket chain Aldi), but butchers around the country happily produce their own versions.

Imperial attitudes

Wine, cheese and sausage makers in the United States, on the other hand, do not see why they should not be allowed to use a product name they have come to regard as generic. As late as 2011, the Wisconsin cheese maker Sartori won the award for Best Parmesan at the Global Cheese Awards.

But in 2012, after pressure from cheese makers in the EU, the category was eliminated and replaced by the (protected) term “Parmiggiano Reggiano,” limiting the competition to one region in Italy. The change drew bitter complaints from the “Consortium for Common Food Names,” a lobby group in the United States.

In Europe, there is a long history of protecting products whose characteristics or reputation can be traced back to their origins in a certain region. As of today, the EU has registered thousands of geographical indications under the TRIPS agreement of the WTO.

And 125 of Europe’s 145 “priority GIs” will enjoy full protection in Canada under the recently concluded trade agreement between the two sides, which will be a reference point for the EU’s negotiations with the United States.

U.S. double standards

The American legal system is geared towards brands and trademarks, not locations. The U.S. allows itself a few notable exceptions: “Idaho potatoes” are registered as a GI at the WTO, so are Florida oranges, and only farmers in the state of Georgia are allowed to grow the sweet “Vidalia onions.”

This may be inconsistent with its fight against GIs on a global level. But then again: Not many German potato growers are probably clamoring to market their products as hailing from Idaho.

Napa Valley, America’s internationally best known wine region and home of the Korbel “champagne,” has more claim to international fame. The region played it safe and secured its “GI” status in the EU in 2007. So should the EU prevail in its fight against American champagne, the Napa Valley producer has location as a fall back option.

Others are way more relaxed about the name game. Lothar Weber who owns Binkert’s German butcher shop in Baltimore with his wife, trusts in the quality of his sausages which brought him fame among the German-American community in the entire capital region. Every time he travels to Nuremberg, he secures the spice mix needed for Nürnberger Bratwürste.

What if the Nuremberg sausage lobby succeeded in enforcing the claim on its website that the meat product “may only be produced in the rural area of Nuremberg according to the specified recipe and carry, besides the official sign of the EU, their own original signet”?

Mr. Weber is not so worried: “Then I would just call them breakfast sausages and that would work just as well.”


In Europe, there is a long history of protecting products whose origins can be traced to a certain region.

The American legal system is geared towards brands and trademarks, not locations.

Idaho potatoes, Florida oranges and Vidalia onions are registered as Geographical Indicators at the WTO.

Napa Valley played it safe and secured its “GI” status in the EU in 2007.

Should the EU prevail in its fight against American “champagne,” the Napa Valley producer can fall back on location.