Monday, August 8, 2011

Champagne Scams

Don and Petie Kladstrup authored a fascinating book on Champagne and its history. If you've ever had a glass of true champagne, do yourself a favor and read this. If you haven't, go get a bottle and read this. Many of the big picture stories are well known but they personalize them in a way rarely seen in wine writing.
The portion of the book that riveted me more than any other, not for its drama but its revelations, told tales of inventive scams. Americans have hijacked French regions' names for marketing purposes. Neither true chablis nor burgundy come in four liter jugs or boxes. Likewise, champagne only comes from the appellation in France. California sparkling wine can not call itself champagne any more. Americans are not the only offenders.

The appeal of the scam is clear. Call a generic bag a Gucci and make more money. Label any sparkling wine champagne and it sold with nowhere near the effort it would take to educate people about the real area where the wine was produced.

Check out how blatant it used to be:

"One of the most daring was Leon Chandon, who realized that if his name were printed just right, people would confuse the champagne he made with that of Moet & Chandon, and buy more of his bubbly. Not only were Leon's bottle labels nearly identical to Moet & Chandon's, but his corks were branded with the same star...And it was perfectly legal. At least, there was nothing in the books that said such things were illegal."

Victor Cliquot (pretty close to Veuve Cliquot) tried the same trick. And "[w]hen the cellarmaster at Ruinart Pere et Fils decided to set up a champagne house of his own, one of his first acts was to hire a retired cavalry officer named Paul Ruinart." The Bousigues brothers found a more marketable name than their own when, in Strasbourg, "they discovered that the name of their waiter was Roederer." Louis Roederer took them to court but found no satisfaction.

In Hammondsport, New York a producer of sparkling wine "had won numerous awards for its sparkling wine" but the proprietors "decided they could make even more money if they had a more prestigious address. To arrange that, they met with officials from the U.S. Postal Service and explained how the soil and climatic conditions of their region were much like Champagne's...within a few days, a small branch post office was opened on the premises of the Great Western Wine Company. The official address: Rheims, New York, which was the common spelling for Reims [a significant location in Champagne] in those days." They still wanted more though, traveling to France and finding "an old woman who had once been a cook...her last name was Pommery...In no time at all, the House of Pommery was reborn, this time in Rheims, New York."

Makes Goats do Roam's play on Cotes du Rhone look like nothing at all.

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