The French Fire the Latest Round in the Champagne Wars

The accident that turned into a multi-billion dollar industry

This is the story of an accident and a fight. The accident created what is today a $5 billion industry—and that kind of money explains the fight. So we’ll take this in order, then.

As legend has it, way back in 1700 a French monk named Dom Pérignon, cellar master of the Abbey of Hautvillers in Reims, made the mistake of corking his wines before they were fully fermented, allowing carbon dioxide to build up inside. When one of his bottles exploded the following spring, the astonished monk poured himself a glass of the effervescent wine. “Come quickly,” he yelled, “I’m drinking stars!”

What Brother Dom was really drinking, of course, was Champagne, which took its name from the grape-growing region northwest of Paris. Champagne got popular in a hurry (it was Louis XVI’s beverage of choice) and cellar masters gradually unlocked the secret of adding sugars to trigger the secondary fermentation process. Soon, enterprising vintners began to make Champagne outside of France.

That is where the fight started—a fight that, as the ads on these pages show, is still in progress.

In the United States, the Korbel brothers began selling their “Champagne” as early as 1882. Who cared if the stuff came from California? So long as the brand wasn’t violating a trademark, it was free to call its bubbly what the brothers wanted. And Korbel did, as this 1988 ad reveals in all of its chilled splendor. Ads like this made French growers furieux for years. To them, the notion of “terroir”—the region in which a wine is made—is sacrosanct. Everything finally came to a head in 1996, when the international Agreement of Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights finally restricted wine brands in the U.S. and Europe from the indiscriminate use of regional names. The catch? Article 24 grandfathered in brands whose marketing already included the practice—and that meant Korbel.

Which brings us to the 2013 ad, opposite. In its latest left hook in the fight over fizzy wine, a trade association of French growers set up The Champagne Bureau USA, which has been putting out ads like this one, intended to educate Americans about where real Champagne comes from.

But according to veteran beverage consultant Arthur Shapiro, founder and president of A|M Shapiro & Associates, ads like this gravely miscalculate the psyche of the American bubbly drinker, who cares more about price and taste than the semantics of a label. “If it looks like a duck, tastes like a duck and smells like a duck—it must be a duck,” Shapiro says. “California has great sparkling wines, and the bubbles are the same. This concept is foolish because the French growers are talking to themselves.” For the price of three bottles of Veuve Clicquot, Shapiro added, you can buy a case of American bubbly. “And your guests won’t care what you’re serving,” he said, “especially after the first glass.”

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