Regular readers of Extra Crispy may have noticed that I am an enthusiastic cheerleader for and drinkers of all forms of sparkling wine. Champagne, prosecco, cava, blanc de blanc—pop or saber some bottles and let the bubbles flow whenever you feel like it, I say. I’m not hugely picky, especially when it’s served at a very bibulous brunch. I am, however, pretty particular about the terminology used around this. (Language. It good.) Shockingly enough, some folks are not, including our soon to be teetotaler-in-chief, who will be serving Korbel Natural “Special Inaugural Cuvée” California Champagne at his inaugural meal. Props to supporting domestic beverage makers, sure, but if it comes from California, that sure ain’t real Champagne.
This is not about snobbery, unless you happen to think that using correct terminology is snobbish (which may explain in part why we’re in this national pickle). “Champagne” doesn’t just mean any old bubbly yellow liquid in the same way that Roquefort isn’t just any stanky blue cheese. It’s from a particular place (the Champagne region of France), from grapes grown and vinified according to stringent guidelines. Good gracious, you don’t just get to make sweet, carbonated brown water and label it Coca-Cola just because you feel like it. Words have to mean things.
In the case of Champagne, Le Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC) oversees the national, European Union, and international laws around the precise usage of the term. For the most part, vineyards and bottlers are pretty compliant. Except in freaking California. There’s a loophole through which Korbel, Cook’s, Andre, and the like have wriggled.
California has produced its share of sparkling wine since the 1860s, usually indicating on the label that it is “domestic Champagne” or “California Champagne.” During World War I, most French Champagne production facilities were decimated. As part of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the war, Article 275 included the provision that nations party to the treaty would curtail the use of “Champagne” on sparkling wine labels to the bubbly produced in the region, using the specific methods that had been outlined. Thing is, the United States signed the treaty, but the Senate never actually ratified it, so the American producers kept on keeping on.
In the 1980s, CIVC started popping off loudly about the matter, and in 2005, the EU and the US agreed that the term “Champagne” (or Sherry, Chablis, Claret, Retsina, and a few others) wouldn’t be allowed to be used on labels, unless—and this is key—a brand was already using the name. By the time it went into effect in 2006, the California kids were grandfathered in, and here we are with some decidedly lower-end brands leaning into the facade of fanciness, presumably hoping no one will notice or know the difference.
I will, in all fairness, note that "Korbel Russian River Valley Natural Champagne," (also not from France) was served at President Obama’s inaugural meal, much to the annoyance of the French. But perhaps that was a bit too too close to home for the incoming administration.