Winemakers appeal to Portman for more help on labeling issues

The United States and the European Union signed a historic agreement Friday that restricts for the first time how each other’s wines may be labeled.

But, according to industry representatives on both sides of the Atlantic, the so-called “Wine Accords” are but the tip of the iceberg in properly acknowledging each other’s products.

Historically, many U.S. producers have used names like Chablis, Port and Burgundy on their labels. Although these names often denote recognizable wine styles, they also happen to be names of actual winemaking regions in Europe — a fact that hasn’t sat well with the EU wine industry.

And now, in a sign of how far the quality of wines has come in the Napa Valley, the United States’ premier growing region, its winemakers are expressing a similar concern. Some wines being exported to the EU — or even sold domestically — now bear a “Napa” designation, although there may be no wine grown from Napa grapes in the bottle.

“We see [Europe’s] experience as our future,” said Tom Shelton, president of Joseph Phelps Vineyards.

The EU is calling for full protection for its winemaking regions. Similarly, Napa winemakers are seeking geographical indication (GI) status within the EU, which has been denied in the past.

Neither side got everything it wanted in Friday’s pact, signed by U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman and EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Mariann Fischer Boel.

Effective immediately, it prohibits the future use by U.S. producers of 16 of these “semigeneric” European place names, such as Chablis, Port and Burgundy, if a label is not already using them, although it allows labels currently using the designations to continue to do so for now.

It also recognizes U.S. winemaking practices traditionally shunned by Europe, such as floating oak chips in wine to enhance its flavor, rather than only aging it in oak barrels.

“Winemakers on both sides of the Atlantic have the right to be proud of how tradition, climate and expertise combine to create unique tasting experiences,” Portman said. “This agreement honors these differences.”

A statement issued by the Center for Wine Origins, an advocacy group set up by European winemakers, called the accords “a real missed opportunity to make progress.”

Despite the seemingly small step, however, a senior trade official said the idea was to “build confidence and trust” in the first phase “then move on.”

In the next round of talks, set to commence in 90 days, Europe will seek a phase-out schedule of existing semigeneric names, grandfathered or not.

Champagnes “are some of the top consumer brands in the world,” said Sharon Castillo of the Office of Champagne, the region’s trade association that operates in Washington. But “half the market is dominated by impostor labels.”

In fact, producers representing Champagne, Sherry, Port, Napa Valley, Oregon and Washington state last year voluntarily signed a joint declaration on the importance of protecting place names.

As we became more sophisticated, we voluntarily withdrew [generic names] from our labels,” Shelton said. “But voluntarism isn’t going to be enough, we need some enforcement.”

In exchange, he and his Napa brethren hope to win GI status from their European counterparts.

Hugh Davies, president of Schramsberg Vineyards in Napa and the president of the Napa Valley Vintners, was in town this week with several other winemakers to state their case to Congress and the administration. He said, “The notion that location matters is something we’re trying to press.”

Rep. Mike Thompson (D), whose district includes Napa Valley, said: “I think we need to ensure that we don’t get into a situation like where a wine company in Beijing was making wine and calling it a Napa Valley wine. … It’s not truth in advertising.”

Thompson and the senior trade official both believe that a recent World Trade Organization ruling on foodstuffs puts Napa on the right side of the issue.

In response to a letter by Thompson late last year, who suggested that Portman may need to bring the issue before the international body again, Portman wrote back that he “asked my staff to look carefully into this matter and to consider how best to address” the European Commission’s refusal.