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A Screed Against French-ification
By Linda Murphy
Jul 17, 2012
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Every now and then, I have a need not for speed, but screed -- to rant about a particular development in the wine industry.  My recent tasting of a bottle of Champ de Rêves 2010 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir got me foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog … or perhaps I should say chien enrage.

It’s not the wine that set me off; it’s a rich, fruity, luscious California Pinot Noir that is very much in fashion.  It’s a serious wine, priced at $40 a bottle, and fits in nicely in the field of similarly styled Pinot Noirs.

What has me wiping spittle from my chin is that this new brand, from the folks at Jackson Family Wines (Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, Cambria, Stonestreet, etc.), has been handcuffed with a French name.  Champs de Rêves is French, translating to “field of dreams.” The name was dreamed up, no doubt, by Jackson Family Wines marketers in order to put a new face on the former Edmeades Winery in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, where Champ de Rêves is now made.

Yet shouldn’t U.S. winemakers be over this French fixation by now?  Must they continue to borrow brand and wine names from France, long after they have established themselves as world-class wine producers in their own right?

Fledgling California wineries established in the late 1960s and early 1970s get a free pass for copying Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne brand naming conventions.  Chateau Montelena, Clos du Val, Domaine Chandon and other California wineries are forgiven for embracing the domaine/chateau/clos/belle culture, as they were either founded by French companies, or began their lives so long ago that a connection to the traditions of French winemaking allowed them to appeal to U.S. consumers accustomed to purchasing French wines and California jug conglomerations. 

Yet one would think that four-plus decades of successful, modern wine production would give Americans the confidence to end their reliance on the use of chateau, domaine, clos, and other French terms in the naming U.S. wines have progressed well past the point of needing to flatter anyone; they stand on their own for their quality and interest, and to continue to link to France or any other winemaking country is lazy and counterproductive.  

California is not alone in having difficulty cutting the umbilical cord to France.  There are chateaux and domaines throughout the country (Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington, Domaine Serene in Oregon, Chateau Frank in New York’s Finger Lakes region, Chateau Fontaine in Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, to name a few).  There has long been the belief by many U.S. vintners that if their wine brands sounded French (or Italian or Spanish), they would be viewed by consumers as being as good as wines produced in France (or Italy or Spain).

This was okay 20 years ago or so, but why today?  Why is it that relatively new wineries in the United States continue to adopt foreign names for their wineries and vineyards, such as Clos de la Tech in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains (clos is, basically, French for an enclosed or walled vineyard, and the tech part is a nod to nearby Silicon Valley) … Rôtie Cellars in Washington state (the name suggests a connection to France’s Rhône Valley Côte Rôtie appellation) … Wells Guthrie’s Copain Wines in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley  (copain is French for friends) ...  and Champ de Reves.

What gives?  These wineries produce admirable wines, and aren’t among the maelstrom of brands created to intentionally confuse consumers by their French-sounding/reading labels.  Why go there, when U.S. wines, particularly those made in California, have no more battles to be won, nor more authenticity to be verified?

It’s time U.S. wine producers trust their instincts and achievements, rather than their attachment to all things French.  Borrow where you can, yet create your own, and produce wines to which typical American consumers will gravitate for their American-like names.

Don’t force potential wine buyers to consult a French-American dictionary to read your labels and understand your wines.  You’re way past that.  Be Californian.  Be American.  Be understood by your consumers.  Don’t default to the French-is-better trap, because you really are better than that.

I don’t expect Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat (“a well-exposed vineyard”) in Santa Barbara County, nor Margo Van Staaveren at Chateau St. Jean in Sonoma County, to change what they’ve done for decades.  Their brands were created in another era, when French was good, American less so.

Yet U.S. wine has made such remarkable strides in recent years that I cannot fathom how a new brand, such as Champ de Revês, could take on a French persona.  It’s no longer necessary, and is, in fact, a sign of a winery not keeping up with the times.