A Dying Culture’s Last Words

The European Community wants to ban the sale  of U.S. wines that carry on their label the terms "Clos", "Chateau", "Vintage", "Vintage Character", and "Classic", among others.

If you ever wanted really good, solid evidence that the European culture was speeding toward insignificance, this trade position just might be it.

There was a time when the Europeans were in the business of imperialism and colonizing. And they were damn good at it too. Sure, they tended to point their colonial and imperial ambitions most successfully at countries that were smaller and less technologically advanced, but still the Europeans were pretty good at being bullies.

One of the primary tactics of the old European colonial impulse was to not just accumulate control of lands and natural resources that belonged to other people, but to leave behind their culture and language. By doing so, an imperial power didn't just enjoy the benefits of raping lands and peoples, but they were able to undermine the indigenous culture and go a long way toward replacing it or overlaying it with their own culture.

This tactic, at least for the European colonialists, made it a heck of a lot easy to do more raping and pillaging of other people's lands and resources in the future, as well as to enjoy a nice holiday without much effort.

Now, the Europeans have not only given up any imperial or colonial ambitions, but they are insisting that their own culture, particularly in the form of language, never be glorified on products that make their way back to the homeland.

Ready for the irony? The European Community must have, at some point, decided that their own home markets were at risk of being raped and pillaged by former colonies who in fact adopted the language that was once imposed upon these colonies by these Europeans.

The process of the European Community banning the use words like "Classic", "Vintage", "Vintage Character", "Chateau" and "Clos" on wine labels is a complicated one that involves intercontinental negotiations, the World Trade Organization, input by Non-Governmental organizations and associations of producers who have skin in the game.

I have no way of knowing this, but my gut tells me that U.S. trade negotiators will eventually cave, forget the obscene silliness of this European demand and agree to accept a ban on American winemakers exporting wine to Europe that have the word "Classic" or "Vintage" or "Chateau" on the label. Already America's own trade associations appear to be caving. You see this when you read the Napa Valley Vintners issuing this statement: "When it comes to the use of words not used to describe a place or an origin, we don't have strong opinions about that."

Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe it's not necessary to have a strong opinion on the attempted theft of generic terms that have no geographic meaning and no implications for quality or place of origin. But maybe the Napa Valley Vintners and the U.S. trade negotiators know something else. Maybe they've realized that it just doesn't matter what restrictions the EU places foreign wines to be sold in that region of the world since their opposites at the trade table represent a dying culture whose people don't care to buy the wines from America that long ago outpaced their own in terms of quality. Maybe our trade negotiators and associations realized before the Europeans have that it doesn't matter what restrictions a dying culture puts on their counterparts around the world.

31 Responses

  1. Will - March 17, 2009

    Hi Tom, interesting blog but… I take issue with your arguements in your recent post becuase within Europe those “label terms” designate specific characteristics of the wine that are checked and legally enforced. eg to be designated “Classic” (“classico” in fact) in Spain the wine, among other rules, has to have been matured in barreliques for at least 18 months. Each region has their own legal definitions for these terms and because there are not such classifications in the States (that I know of, am happy to be corrected) you can’t allow wines to use these terms for marketing within the EU, it would be mis-selling. In the States you can’t advertise something as Organic without it complying to rules, the same goes for those labels you took issue with in Europe.
    Just on an economic side: well in excess of 60% of the world’s wine consumption (actually nearer to 70%) comes from Europe, hence the Europeans will dominate the wine world for the near future, this won’t be the case forever but it is at the moment; so just in terms of customer service – what your biggest client asks for, you provide. Importantly the restriction is just intended for bottles for sale in Europe, so I totally disagree that this is some post modern pseudo imperialist move, it is nothing of the sort, just simply holding imported wine to the same standards that we are used to in Europe. Keep the interesting blogging up. Will

  2. JohnLopresti - March 17, 2009

    Returning to the US from Europe once for me evoked a retrospective similar to the hype now issuing from the EU, a bemusement at what possibly could have changed in folks so starkly once they crossed the Atlantic in marginally seaworthy sailing boats, that after they got here they began to pine for the nuances of their parent countries’ languages, as American English morphed into a new way of speaking, mostly forward thinking, but with some phrases appreciative of our ancestors’ refinement.
    Maybe newly nominated US Trade Representative Ron Kirk, former mayor of Dallas TX*, can help serve as peacemaker in the perennially fastidious dispute between Europe and the New World concerning terminology, though I suspect the titans involved in this skirmish most likely are the equivalent of the respective chambers of commerce, timed to coincide with a time that US enology and viticulture are attaining a new altitude of excellence. This was ongoing in the 1980s when these sciences began to surpass the traditional offerings from the old sod on the Continent. Yet, there has been a continuum of interchange that has modernized both parent and child in the label and vinification disputes.
    Taking a more confined regional view within the spectrum of US wines that might seek export to the EU, maybe USTR-nominee Kirk might be suggesting to those European partners in trade that he could try to convince US producers to expand into terminology for labels clearly identifiable as New World: consider, for example, in his own home state, the labels at one of the oldest cabernet sauvignon vineyards on the llano estacado, the following are some of the recent labels:
    “Texas Hills, 2003 Orange Muscato”
    “Llano Estacado, 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Cellar Reserve”
    “Flat Creek, Travis Peak Select, Reserve Cabernet Sav.”
    “Travis Peak Select Cabernet Sav. 2002”
    “Les Trois Dames Claret 2003”
    Some of these TX wines won awards at the “Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo International” ++
    Not a sangiovese ‘classico’ in the bunch.

  3. Arthur - March 17, 2009

    European wine has several active and aggressive PR/lobby agencies in the U.S.
    I have been thinking that if this is not feasible for the U.S. wine industry (how many American-based wine conglomerates have concerns on several continents and thus are not going to take the lead on defending American wines?) then we should start a grass-roots movement to oppose the importation of European wines labeled in the (traditionally American) varietal manner.
    Yes, Rias Baixas Albarino, Aslatian, Austrian and German wines followed this labeling format for decades.
    SO WHAT?
    I say we make it a tit-for-tat.
    It’s obstinate to be sure, but why should we be rolling over?

  4. Thomas Pellechia - March 17, 2009

    Arthur, get your tongue out of your cheek. 😉
    John, are there really wines labeled “Cabernet Sav.”? They should be hanged for that.
    Also, how many months are those “Reserves” required to age in oak out there in Texas before they can be called Reserve? I believe that’s what Will was getting at.
    In the end, it’s only words…right?

  5. JohnLopresti - March 17, 2009

    Tom, I think the winery site published it that way based on what the award ribbons transcribed; it was a rodeo win, though. Try the TX Wine and Grape Growers Assoc link to the winery of the month:
    The link is to the Newsom Vineyard winery and its allied “Rock’n-N Bed and Breakfast near the vineyard.”

  6. Tom Wark - March 17, 2009

    I might have some sympathy for the EU’s argument if they wanted to regulate the term “Classico”.
    And is there really any danger of compromising European products by allowing wine into those country’s that might carry the term “Vintage”?
    Do the French really regulate the term “Clos”? Is there something about an open space surrounded by woods that is so integral to the French wine world that any other wines with this word on the label must be banned from the country?
    But I have an idea. Let’s ban all European wine products from being sold if the U.S. if they carry any English language words. It might give Americans the impression that the wine is made in America.

  7. KenPayton - March 17, 2009

    A Dying Culture? European culture? The Spanish, Portuguese, French, Greek, Italian, German, Austrian…. All of them? Better change my travel plans.

  8. Derrick Schneider - March 17, 2009

    Didn’t American wine makers get in a huff when Italian wineries wanted to start labeling their Primitivo as Zinfandel? I don’t think we imposed an outright trade restriction, but I seem to remember some sort of anguish about said bottles. http://www.american.edu/TED/zinfandel.htm
    And Napa wineries have no love for wineries that have Napa in the name because they got grandfathered in on the TTB’s restriction about naming your winery after the place where it’s made.
    The Europeans have more wine terms than we do for obvious reasons, but we are quick enough to squawk when it’s our interests at stake.

  9. KenPayton - March 17, 2009

    “…wines from America that long ago outpaced their own in terms of quality.” This remark is unfortunate. Neither the Wine Advocate nor the Wine Spectator would have made such a statement.
    Can you provide a link(s) to an informed source? Where might we read an impartial evaluation?
    There isn’t any.

  10. hallgeiro olsen - March 18, 2009

    “And is there really any danger of compromising European products by allowing wine into those country’s that might carry the term “Vintage”?” – Tom Wark
    Actually there is. European laws are a lot more strict for example when it comes to where the grapes are grown and if they have been watered. In the states grapes can come from 150 miles away and coming from irregated fields. You do this in Europe and you risk loosing your AOC (or it’s equialent). Harvest methods, vines used, grape origin, additives and cultural practices are all factors that decides what the label should read (very bureaucratic maybe, but we know what we get). The Anology (in another comment)about organic food is actually spot on.

  11. St. Vini - March 18, 2009

    Will: You are fooling yourself. Europe’s consumption is shrinking and quickly (check VinExpo’s own figures on this (and they’re French!) http://www.marketwire.com/press-release/Vinexpo-942894.html and myriad other places on the web).
    The U.S. is already the world’s largest wine market by value and by 2012 or so, we will be the largest in gallons. The EU, with shrinking domestic consumption, will be under increasing pressure to export wines (or rip out vineyards) and the US will continue to be the most important export market. Short-sighted trade protectionism like this is going to bite Europe in the ass when they come knocking on our door.
    Last, the EU is not a major export market for most US producers unless they’re at the commodity (sub $8) range of the business. Only the UK is of any significance (29% of 2008 exports in dollars) and that’s a declining percentage. Plus the types of wines exported to the UK from here are the cheapest of the cheap. No big loss…..

  12. Chaud Neuf - March 18, 2009

    I blame the three tier system.

  13. Dylan - March 18, 2009

    I don’t believe Tom meant that the cultures of European countries were dying as much as the wine market was being stressed over there. As evidenced in recent articles regarding French Millenials’ drinking habits–they are drinking less wine.

  14. tom merle - March 18, 2009

    Will wrote: “to be designated “Classic” (“classico” in fact) in Spain the wine, among other rules, has to have been matured in barreliques for at least 18 months” Having just returned from this country I can tell you Classico is simply not used in Spain, or at least in the Spain I visited. Maybe Will is thinking of Italy, but the word does not have this meaning in that country.He is wrong on all items. Crianza, Reserva and Gran Riserva are the terms used to refer to ageing, but 18 months is not one of the time line distinctions. I doubt the Europeans would ban “reserve” from labels.

  15. franklin - March 18, 2009

    Love the tone set by the “pillage and rape” of small unprotected countries.
    How bizarre to ignore the US own history of hunting down Indians for sports and fencing them into reserves- double standards much?
    As for the huff made about the terms, I’m with Ken Payton on this one, why make a stink when someone says Napa red- when its not from Napa.
    Aren’t you peculiarly enough still allowed to label bubbly as Champagne? Come on now, you know your wrong and trying to justify it with arguments that hold no merit what so ever- if your so smart get your own descriptions for labels- why use the European ones.
    John Lopresti- please update your fact file on what “clos” is, surounded by trees? !! its a single vineyard surrounded by a wall.
    “Do the French really regulate the term “Clos”? Is there something about an open space surrounded by woods that is so integral to the French wine world that any other wines with this word on the label must be banned from the country?

  16. David - March 19, 2009

    I’m always embarrassed as an American when American wineries use terms Clos or Chateau(I think Vintage and Classic are fine) as part of their brands. It seems so transparent and so unoriginal.
    Anyone who has started a winery and can only come up with borrowed phrases to describe their offerings deserves to not be sold in Europe. Heck I also think they should be banned in the US.
    How pathetic is it to have to rip off a dying culture?

  17. 1WineDude - March 19, 2009

    I certainly agree that the move is complete BS on the part of those EU countries.
    But… “Ready for the irony? The European Community must have, at some point, decided that their own home markets were at risk of being raped and pillaged by former colonies who in fact adopted the language that was once imposed upon these colonies by these Europeans.”
    Uhm… that’s going a bit too far (and this is coming from **me**!)…

  18. Fourcroy Noël - March 19, 2009

    To compare European imperialism with french wine nomination is as intelligent to compare fast food health destruction and US Iraq invasion…

  19. JohnLopresti - March 19, 2009

    re: franklin, that byline was from the adjacent commenter, sorry if there was an association, not my view, entirely.
    As for the reserved words concept, the post has invigorated some rootstock research, on the thesis that somewhere among the Coudercs, Telekis, riparia, berlandieri, rupestris and their ilk are some splendid viticultural and enological terms to which we might turn if we are to ‘Americanize’ labels. The idea was maybe the Hungarian and Czech developers of our common rootstocks would be more accepting of some permissiveness in US labels, though the French did legion work to reengineer rootstocks to tolerate or resist phylloxera after the obliterations of the late XIX century, leaving the lexicon of possible names sprinkled with those of many French botanists.

  20. Sgt. Sassafras - March 19, 2009

    Dont blame us squirrels, not our fault…

  21. el jefe - March 21, 2009

    huh. Based on some of the arguments written above the use of the word “oak” should be banned because our aging programs are not as heavily regulated. After that, and by the same twisted logic, can banning the names of the grape varieties themselves be far behind?

  22. KenPayton - March 22, 2009

    And he calls himself ‘el jefe’. For any Latin American the term is a reminder of a cruel history.
    Words matter.

  23. David Falchek - March 22, 2009

    U.S. authorities aren’t too quick to crack down on misused generic terms. Sherry, Marsala, Champagne are all misused fairly regularly.
    My favorite TTB overreaction: A small winery was called on the carpet for making a fortified wine that included their address, which was in LaPort, Pa.

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