Protecting Icewine (August 14, 2002)
In 1987 France's Institut National des Appellations d'Origine des Vins
et Eaux-de-vie and sixteen of the top Champagne houses sued seven Ontario
wineries for using the term "Champagne" in the manufacture and
labelling of their products.
The French sought damages "for loss of sales, diminution of their
market, and depreciation of good will." The case was heard before
the Supreme Court of Ontario between May 19 and June 19 that year. At
the end of the trial the judge ruled in favour of the defendants, stating
that the consuming public would not confuse "Canadian Champagne"
with the French product and the French had taken too long to bring the
action in the first place. The term "champagne," the judge wrote,
had become "semi-generic" (which is like saying you re a little
bit pregnant - either you are or you're not. Either Champagne is a generic
term or it's not).
I made myself very unpopular with the local industry at the time by appearing
as an expert witness for the Champagne houses. I believed then, as I do
now, that no wine region should appropriate the appellations of other
established regions in order to pass off their products as similar. Thankfully,
terms such as Port, Sherry, Burgundy, Chablis, Claret, Tokay, Sauterne
(spelled without the final "s") and Champagne have all but disappeared
from Canadian wine labels. There are still some holdouts: witness Hillebrand
Chablis and London Canadian Chablis, wines which are still available in
the LCBO catalogue.
Now the shoe is on the other foot. Following the success of Canadian
Icewine in international markets, the wine industry has found a lucrative
product less scrupulous individuals would like to profit by. The number
of incidents of fake Icewine, produced and bottled in Canada and in Europe,
is growing alarmingly, especially in Far East markets.
On a recent trip to China for the opening of the Wine & Spirit fair
in Guangzhou, five Ontario wineries presented their Riesling and Vidal
Icewines to a rapturous reception. (Their dry reds and whites were not
as popular.) Thirty feet from the Chican Cellars booth, where the Ontario
wineries doled out their products, was a stand under the banner "Chez
Lee Estate Wine Company." These individuals, local Chinese, were
presenting an Icewine in the familiar elongated half bottle with a stylized
red logo incorporating a maple leaf and a Canada goose. The package looked
exactly like an Icewine you'd find on any liquor board shelf, except that
the label illustration depicted a vineyard with a pagoda (a Buddhist temple)
in the middle of it. The wine was horrible - a sweet concoction of labrusca
juice and alcohol, bearing no resemblance to any Icewine I have tasted.
The product, as far as I could learn, had been imported from Canada.
In the stores around Guangzhou. a modern and prosperous city of 6.7 million
people, I spotted other examples of ersatz Icewine on display - behind
glass in one shop I noted Canadian Icewine White Maple in a red and gold
carton, selling for $30, another called Chateau Crystal Icewine, both
red and white, with an oval picture of Niagara Falls on the labels. The
red sold for about $25. (None of the fraudulent Icewines I saw, incidentally,
bore the VQA crest.)
The local agent for Vineland Estates recounts the story of seeing a bottle
of Icewine in a Guangzhou department store. He asked the clerk what it
was. "That's Canadian Icewine," he replied. "In Canada
it's very cold. They have winter all the year except for two weeks in
summer when it's warm enough for the grapes to thaw so they can pick them
for Icewine. It's the only wine they make."
Two years ago Canada signed an agreement with Germany and Austria which
defined Icewine and set standards for production. It was the first step
in protecting the trademark. Obviously, there is work to be done both
in educating the rest of the world and in going alter profiteers who try
to cash in on the wine's iconic status.
According to Mr. Lin Jian Ping of the Guangzhou Customs Administration,
who spoke at a forum following China's entry into the WTO in 2001, if
a country like Canada wanted to protect an intellectual property such
as Icewine it would have to apply to have the term and definition registered
with his department. The sooner Canadian producers do this, the better.
Otherwise, like the French Champagne houses, they may be too late and
Icewine will become a generic term for anything that's sweet.