Champagne has lengthy legal history


“Three be the things I shall never attain: Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.”

— Dorothy Parker

“Champagne is the wine of civilization and the oil of government.”

— Winston Churchill

It seems awfully odd for me to be writing about alcohol, being quite a notorious teetotaler myself, but hey, it’s almost Valentine’s Day and this is a column about law and history, so it’s perfectly apt for us to address the legal history of a certain word — “champagne.”

It’s become almost as common to hear people making fun of the snootiness of “only wines from the Champagne region of France can be called champagne” as they do about emphasizing the “THE” that comes before “Ohio State University.” But they’re not actually wrong to do so. Except, that is, for a small historical weirdness that winds its way from World War I to a 21st Century trade agreement by way of Prohibition.

Let’s start with the historical basis. Northern France is home to the Champagne region, an area known for having the perfect weather to grow the grapes that make fine wines. Many wine varieties originated there, and many of the world’s most expensive and sought after labels come from that region. As such, the French are rightly proud of their wines and protective of the names and trademarks associated with the region. Not only have the French protected them in domestic law, but they have consistently worked to provide protection in international agreements.

The end of World War I gave the French an opportunity, in treaty negotiations, to protect their wine makers- not only against German producers not too far to the east, but also against other Europeans and North American producers. How? By enshrining those protections in the treaty that ended the war.

Thus, the Treaty of Versailles, signed in June of 1919, included paragraph 275, which states, “Germany undertakes to respect any law, or any administrative or judicial decision in force in any Allied or Associated State, defining or regulating the right to any regional appellation in respect of wine or spirits produced in the State to which the region belongs, or the conditions under which the use of any such appellation may be permitted.”

In short, the Treaty of Versailles codified that Germany specifically, and the other signatories to the treaty by extension, had to honor the “regional appellation” of champagne and not use the word in their own bottling and labeling. And that takes us to three important things that were happening in the United States at the end of World War I that give rise to the modern day loophole.

First, a number of European immigrants had settled in California in the 19th Century and had found that parts of that state were also perfect for growing grapes. They immediately adopted the language of their home regions, including the use of the word “champagne.” Thus, by WWI, a number of “champagnes” were made in California. Second, disputes over the creation of the League of Nations, and U.S. membership therein, led the U.S. Senate to reject ratification of the Treaty of Versailles by a vote of 49-35 — the first time the Senate had ever rejected a treaty. As a result, the treaty was never in force in the U.S.

But at the time, no one really cared about Article 275 applying to the U.S., because at the time no one in the U.S was making alcohol, not to mention champagne. That’s because the wartime prohibition act was already in effect to protect grain production, and the 18th Amendment had already been ratified by 45 of the nation’s then 48 states. It was to take effect on Jan. 1, 1920.

When prohibition ended, the producers of champagne in California went right back to using the word — an action that again enraged the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne and led to decades of attempts at an international agreement over the use of the word. That agreement finally came about early in this century when the United States and the EU signed the “Agreement Between the United States and the European Community on Trade in Wine.”

That agreement, in place since March 10, 2006, provides (just as the joke goes) that only wines produced in the Champagne region of France can bear the name “champagne,” unless those manufacturers already had an approved trade name that included the word. This loophole on top of a loophole, on top of a Senate rejection, means that those California bottlers who have been using the word “champagne” for years (we’re looking at you, Korbel) can keep using it indefinitely, and Miller can keep calling themselves the “champagne of beers.: And it also means that Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne again fell short of their goal to completely limit the use of the word to French manufacturers.

So, pick up those long-stem roses, grab some chocolates, and go ahead and pour those glasses of California champagne, because it turns out their use of the word is protected by treaty, international agreement, and inadvertently by action of the U.S. Senate.

David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette, a sister paper of the Galion Inquirer, since 2005.

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