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Censored Wine Words Still on Hold

European negotiations stalled since 2009

by Jane Firstenfeld
Clos Pegase
Clos Pegase' iconic winged horse no longer flies to the European market, where naming restrictions and an unsettled economy have muddied the export market.

San Rafael, Calif.—Wineries in the U.S. still don’t know whether words on their labels—including their names—will eventually be accepted on wines they might export to Europe. Since a 2006 trade agreement between the United States and the European Union expired in 2009, a list of terms has been under negotiation. Since then, almost nothing has been resolved.

From the original list of contested terms, only “classic” and “cream” have been approved for U.S. exports to the European Union, according to Gladys Horiuchi at the San Francisco, Calif.-based Wine Institute.

The remaining list includes common descriptors: Ruby, Tawny, Vintage, Solera and Noble. In addition to its common use as an English adjective, Noble is the registered name of a hybrid grape (aka North Carolina 20-119) developed in North Carolina in 1973.

Sur lie,” the winemaking process of secondary fermentation on the lees—considered essential by some artisan winemakers—is still in question. So is “crusted” or “crusting,” a less popular (and to some unappetizing) term that refers to the sediment in Port wines.

“Vintage,” a name or number that appears on literally countless U.S. wine labels, is still in limbo. So are two terms that have identified dozens of U.S. wineries for decades: Chateau (65) and Clos (14).

Leveling the field
Other New World wine-exporting nations have been more successful in securing label liberalization in Europe. Canadian wineries are authorized to use sur lie, noble, classic, chateau and clos. Chile has been approved for the latter three terms. Australians may use ruby, tawny, vintage, solera, noble and crusted. To some, this discrepancy makes the EU’s need to protect these terms seem both illogical and discriminatory.

A Wine Institute statement dated Sept. 25, 2012, stated, “Wines from outside of France using the term ‘chateau’ have been sold in the European Union for decades. The U.S. is simply seeking to have its wineries granted the same rights as wineries in other countries.…U.S. wineries exported wines using the term ‘chateau’ to the EU until 2009, when the EU temporarily withdrew permission for all but those wineries that had registered their names as trademarks within the EU prior to 2006….

“U.S. wineries seek a level playing field in the EU and the opportunity to succeed based on the quality and value of their wines. The U.S. allows fair access to wine imports coming into this country; its wineries should be granted the same access by the EU.”

What’s a winery to do?

When we first reported on the “temporary” ban in March 2009, a spokesperson for Napa’s Clos du Val Wine Co. reported that the 60,000-case winery had ceased shipping to European countries except the United Kingdom, where the winery held a trademark prior to 2002.

Although Clos du Val did not respond to Wines & Vines’ requests for comment this week, we did speak other producers with “prohibited” names.

Clos du Bois, a Geyserville, Calif.-based brand producing some 2 million cases per year, is “not experiencing any trouble with the proposed ban” because the name is trademarked in the European Union, according to Amanda Thorensen, a marketing executive with parent company Constellation Wines.

Some prestigious smaller producers however, have reduced or eliminated exports to Europe. 

“Since 2009, we have not done any work in Europe,” said Cheryl Durzy, director of marketing at Clos LaChance Winery, which produces 60,000-80,000 cases per year in San Martin, Calif., with an average retail bottle price of $25.

“It’s too challenging for wineries our size. We don’t export to Europe: You have to hire a broker, find distribution, and they hate our pricing.”

On the other hand, “We do a lot of business in Quebec. They love our name there,” Durzy said. Clos LaChance is currently shipping “a decent amount” of its wares to Japan, which Durzy calls “a good market.”

In the northern Napa Valley, 40,000-case Clos Pegase Winery also exports more to Asia than to Europe, according to general manager Jackie Downer. The Asian tilt may have its roots in owner Jan Shrem’s long-ago experience as an expatriate and publisher in Japan.

Europe’s floundering economy is also a deterrent, Downer said. “We haven’t exported much of anything to Europe in a number of years. We’re waiting to see what transpires.”

“The issue is still up in the air,” said Michael Kaiser at national trade organization WineAmerica. “The EU definitely wants U.S. wineries to stop (using the terms), but nothing is signed yet.

WineAmerica and Wine Institute both employ consultants who continue to seek resolution. In the meantime, though, if your ambitions include exporting wines to Europe, be extra careful when choosing your nomenclature. According to WinesVinesDATA, since 2009, only three new wineries have entered the roster with the name “Chateau,” and all produce fewer than 1,000 cases per year. None have opted for “Clos.”

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