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Friday, November 19, 2004

What is "Champagne"?

Orginally, a sparkling white wine was called "champagne" only if it came from the Champagne region of France. But in many countries the name has taken on a generic meaning: bubbly white wine that somewhat resembles the sparkling white wine produced in the Champagne region of France. Understandably, winemakers in Champagne (like the makers of Coke, Kleenex, and Aspirin) have fought the drift from specificity to generic use of their name. That's right, you folks outside Canada: Bayer has successfully defended its brand name "Aspirin" in Canada; here, we buy generic A.S.A., not generic aspirin.

According to The Washington Post (free registration may be required), it now looks as if the World Trade Organization is going to permit winemakers elsewhere to continue calling their bubbly, "champagne". This interim ruling is different, though, from a similar one that prohibits Italian ham producers from importing parma ham to Canada because a firm has the Canadian trademark for "Parma Ham".

The WTO has its hands full with these issues:

According to the E.U., this is "a short list of 41 products whose names are being abused and parroted" by non-E.U. producers. The European bloc also has plans to seek protection at a later stage for 600 more "regional quality products."

The E.U. is not alone. India is keen to protect Darjeeling tea, Sri Lanka its Ceylon tea, Guatemala its Antigua coffee and Switzerland its Etivaz cheese.

For the most part, I don't much care if producers in another country convert a regional term into a generic term; usually the increased competition benefits consumers. Nevertheless, from a longer-term perspective, if converting a regional appellation into a generic term means that consumers receive less information about a product's characteristics, then this drift is not unqualifiedly a good thing for consumers.
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