Wine consumers in the U.S. have a problem. Our government is one of the few in the world not to take action to protect consumers from being misled by erroneous wine labeling that suggests a wine made in the U.S. is actually from one of the world's special winemaking areas that have a long tradition, particular soils and climates, and strict rules on what can be bottled and sold as wine from that region.
I'm talking about outmoded and highly misleading laws and treaty provisions in the U.S. by which wineries here that happen to have misused terms like "Port," "Sherry," "Champagne" and 13 other place of origin names on their labels at any time prior to 2006 are allowed to keep doing so on a "grandfathered" basis.
Although consumers should rightly expect potatoes labeled as being from Idaho to actually be from that state and that a "Napa Cabernet" started out as grapes grown in Napa, many don't realize they are being seriously misled as to the origin of certain wine products.
Wine not actually produced in France's Champagne region is not allowed to be sold with that designation in over 100 countries of the world. The only major countries that currently permit this kind of labeling are Russia, Vietnam, Argentina and the U.S.
The biggest abusers of this giant anti-consumer loophole are a handful of big producers of sparkling wine misleadingly labeled "Champagne."
When crates of sparkling wines mislabeled as "Champagne" accidentally show up in other parts of the world, which does periodically happen, they are seized by authorities and destroyed. Here in the U.S., however, sparkling winemaking giant Korbel--the country's 12th largest wine producer at 2.4 million cases per year--uses "Champagne" in the name of its brand, Korbel Champagne Cellars, and in all of its marketing. Its website even has a lengthy story purporting to describe the "History of American Champagne."
E&J Gallo, the country's biggest wine company, dominates the domestic sparkling market with over 40 percent of the market share, based on labels like André and Barefoot Bubbly.
Cook's and Tott's are the two other major labels that advertise themselves as "Champagne," with "California" appearing in much smaller letters, providing minimal adherence to the U.S. legal requirement that those who continue to use a grandfathered wine name also indicate the actual place of origin somewhere on the label.
And it's not only consumers who are misled. One even finds people writing about wine who mistakenly refer to products that never came near France as "Champagne." For example, a blog post on The Huffington Post last December made that error in its headline, purporting to recommend "The Best Champagnes under $11." Not a single wine included in that post was actually a Champagne.
Besides the fact that none of the ersatz "Champagnes" allowed in the U.S. are actually from Champagne, and therefore follow none of the strict rules laid down for that region, they bear no resemblance to the real thing. They are typically not made with the grape varieties required for real Champagne (i.e., Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). And most are not made by "méthode champenoise" or "méthode traditionelle," the process of inducing a secondary fermentation in bottle, including lengthy aging of the wine on the spent yeast cells, or "lees," used for finer sparklers.
Bubblies of this caliber rely on a much cheaper process created for industrialized production levels called "charmat." This fast process uses pressurized steel tanks that induce a rapid secondary fermentation after a sugar and yeast mixture is added. The product is then cooled, clarified and bottled, ready for sale. Some cheap sparklers are even made by simply injecting carbonation, just like soft drinks.
There are, of course, very good sparkling wines from other areas of the world. Some sparkling appellations, like Spain's Cava, and Prosecco and Franciacorta in Italy, also have rules about what kinds of grapes can be used, how long they need to be aged and the like. These kinds of standards help to promote quality and ensure that consumers are receiving a product actually made in those regions according to those rules.
We have some excellent domestic sparkling wines too. My recommendations on best buys among domestic sparklers currently on the market can be found in the complete version of this post on my blog.
What all the top domestic sparkling wines have in common is that they are not misleading about where they are made. The ones on the market that abuse the loophole and prominently display the word "Champagne" on their labels, websites and retail store signage are the ones you should avoid. Not only are they committing a fraud on unsuspecting consumers; the wine inside also tends to be of inferior quality to accurately labeled domestic sparklers on the market.
The fact is, sparkling wine as a category has experienced a significantly greater increase in U.S. sales than other wine categories in recent years. There's a demand for both the imported and domestic stuff, and plenty of people buy good sparkling wine that isn't mislabeled as "Champagne." So why do some of the biggest sparkling wine producers continue to use misleading packaging on their wines in this country?
I sent a request for an explanation to Korbel weeks ago, but they never bothered to reply. Korbel's answer seems to be that they've been producing something they've called "Champagne" since 1892, so they're darned well entitled to continue.
Well, we've made a lot of improvements in our society since 1892. Women have the right to vote; racial segregation was outlawed. And there are truth-in-packaging laws that apply to the vast majority of products we buy. That makes outliers like grandfathered "Champagne" all the more insidious. Since consumers rightly expect most of what they buy to be accurately labeled, they tend to believe what they see written on the label.
So this Valentine's Day, if you're love is true, shouldn't your bubbly be authentic too?