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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.




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