An American chateau? French winemakers say no


Workers collect white grapes in the vineyards of the famed Chateau Haut Brion, a Premier Grand Cru des Graves, during the grape harvest in Pessac-Leognan, near Bordeaux, southwestern France. (Bob Edme/AP)
September 23, 2012

When Dominique Haverlan pastes the label “Vieux Chateau Gaubert” on his wine bottles, he proclaims this to his customers: I am selling you 400 years of French pedigree, the shadow of aged Palladian buildings restored at a cost of nearly $2 million, the fruit of 87 acres of vines tended to like children and the glories of a winemaking heritage here in the Graves flatlands near Bordeaux that reaches back for centuries.

How, then, Haverlan asks, can American winemakers pretend to put “chateau” on their labels from the New World? What chateau? They have chateaux in America? The very word is French, he notes, and the Vieux Chateau Gaubert, formerly Le Bordillot, was standing here before there even was an America. Worse, how can American merchants try to sell such wines in Europe? And even in France — maybe even Bordeaux?

But they are.

The European Commission, the 27-nation European Union’s executive body in Brussels, is considering a U.S. request to drop a ban on import into Europe of American wines bearing the label “chateau” or “clos,” a similar term used mainly on wines from Burgundy in eastern France. An E.U. wine committee is tentatively scheduled to vote on the request Sept. 25, where­upon it will go to the commission for a final decision that, given the tides of globalization in Europe, could well be positive.

“They’re trying to steal our reputation,” Haverlan said during a tour of his sun-splashed property. “The real chateaux, they’re certainly not in the United States.”

Preservation of “chateau” on wine bottles is another chapter in France’s long struggle between tradition and globalization. Throughout the country, peasants and craftsmen are fighting to maintain the value of expensive prestige accumulated over centuries — just the right cheese, or a perfect dress — against an onslaught of cheaper imitations sloshing in on the latest freighter from abroad. With borders disappearing and trade increasingly ignoring origins, their voices are getting weaker every year.

The economic stakes are high.

In France alone, a country of 65 million inhabitants, people consumed an average of more than 12 gallons of wine a head in 2011; the industry employed about 50,000 workers, no small consideration in a stalled economy with 10 percent unemployment. Exports brought in almost $9 billion, helping offset a badly negative trade balance. Among the 27 European Union countries, exports to the United States alone totaled more than $2.2 billion last year.

But for people like Haverlan, the stakes go beyond their pocketbook. In their mind, they are heirs to a national treasure that must be preserved the same way Egypt preserves the pyramids and Greece the Parthenon.

Haverlan, the son of a Bordeaux winemaker, started his first winery at age 21. Since then, he has acquired control of two prestigious chateaux: the Vieux Chateau Gaubert, which produces 180,000 bottles a year selling at just under $20, and the nearby Chateau de La Brede, where the philosopher Montesquieu was born in 1689.

“I believe he had something to do with the American constitution, didn’t he?” Haverlan said with a smile.

Pedigree of Bordeaux

The pedigree of Bordeaux wines has long attracted foreigners. Wealthy British bought Bordeaux chateaux in the 19th century and even before. Then came rich Americans seeking to buy into tradition, followed by Japanese in the 1970s. More recently, it is the turn of Chinese. During the past three years, about 30 chateaux in the Bordeaux region have been purchased by Chinese, out of a total of 7,400.

The most recent was Chateau Bellefont-Belcier, a prestigious first growth gobbled up by a rare metals tycoon. On the other side of the country, a Chinese firm recently bought a prestigious Gevrey-Chambertin vineyard, Chateau Gevrey, for China’s first big move into high-end burgundies.

But foreign ownership is not the issue, Haverlan noted. That, too, is part of the Bordeaux tradition. The problem is that, in France, the word “chateau” on the label has a meaning that the American growers do not respect. According to French rules, only wine from grapes grown on the property and made into wine in facilities on the property can be labeled with the name of the chateau.

This is a guarantee of quality, Haverlan said, but more importantly, it is a guarantee of pedigree, a declaration to the buyer that he is sharing in the heritage that gave rise to his wine.

Bordeaux winemakers have cheated in the past, he acknowledged, but they are governed by a self-policing association and, if they fail to comply, pursued by government fraud-repression experts.

And now Americans are trying to surf on that guarantee. “Our chateaux wines are so well known in the world that the Americans want to grab the reputation for themselves,” Haverlan said. “And if we allow the Americans to take it, what is to prevent everybody else from doing so, the Chinese, for instance?”

In an effort to placate Bordeaux growers, the United States two years ago provided its own definition of what chateau means. For U.S. growers, according to information provided to the European Union, a chateau wine is “produced in the region of the appellation of origin by a producer or group of producers from grapes grown in vineyards owned by this producer or group of producers, or in vineyards that traditionally have been used by the producer or group of producers.”

For Haverlan and the Bordeaux wine industry, that is lawyer-talk for saying the grapes can come from almost anywhere and the wine can be made by almost anyone. “For them, chateau is just a name, a marketing device,” he said.

Requests for an explanation of the U.S. case went unanswered at the U.S. diplomatic mission to the European Union in Brussels, the Department of Agriculture and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in Washington and the U.S. industry’s San Francisco-based lobbying organization, the Wine Institute.

A window closes

The dispute over U.S. wines labeled with “chateau” stretches back for years. Although the ban was already in place, the United States was granted a three-year window to export such wines to Europe in 2006. In return, it was to clamp down on U.S. wineries’ use of such terms as “burgundy,” “Chablis,” or “champagne” for wannabe wines turned out in America far from the regions that produce the real thing.

When European authorities decided that American wineries had not stopped using these terms, they allowed the window to close in 2009. Since then, the United States has been seeking to get its “chateau” wines back off the ban. It renewed the request recently on the occasion of a review of E.U. wine import/export rules that ordinarily would have taken place without notice in the hushed, gray world of Brussels bureaucrats.

“Such an authorization is going to create a precedent for all the terms that signify a winery (domaine, hospices, clos cru), and that constitutes fraud against consumers,” Bernard Farges, president of France’s National Federation of Appellations of Origin, said in a statement.

When Bordeaux winemakers sounded the alarm, French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll donned his armor and pledged to do battle for France. As a result, the request, which had been scheduled for a vote in July, was put off at least until the end of this month.

European officials suggested that in fact, because of the fuss, it might be voted on later in the year, when the publicity dies down, when globalization can march quietly forward and Americans can put wine on European shelves with “chateau” on the label.

“That would be a fraud,” lamented Haverlan, caressing a bunch of pale-green grapes just harvested for this year’s white Vieux Chateau Gaubert.

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