By TIM HEARDEN
GUERNEVILLE, Calif. -- A winery official here is questioning the timing of French lobbyists' complaints about the use of its California-produced champagne at President Barack Obama's inaugural luncheon.
Bubbly from Korbel Champagne Cellars will be served during dessert at the Jan. 21 luncheon in Washington, D.C., marking the eighth straight inauguration at which the product has been present.
French wine industry representatives sent a letter to Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, arguing that it was illegal for a press release to identify Korbel's drink as champagne because it didn't come from the Champagne region of France, the newspaper The Hill reported.
Margie Healy, Korbel's vice president of communications, said U.S. law allows companies to call their products champagne as long as they clearly identify the origin on the label.
"It would take an act of Congress to change that," Healy said. "We've always produced California champagne, and we will continue to do so until Congress changes the law.
"It just seems a little odd that they're taking the presidential inauguration as an opportunity to take this stand," she said. "Korbel sales were up 5 percent in 2012, so obviously people enjoy our product and we call it California champagne."
The inaugural committee asserts its use of the term is within the law.
"The Champagne lobby should have a glass of their own product and relax," spokesman Matt House told the Capital Press in an email. "We are proud to be serving American champagne at the inauguration, and its location of origin will be appropriately displayed on the label and the menu in accordance with the law an international treaties."
However, the committee has apparently changed its press release. It originally read, "Korbel Natural, Special Inaugural Cuvee Champagne, California," according to The Hill. It now reads, "Korbel Natural Russian River Valley Champagne."
While many consumers may assume that champagne is a generic term, U.S. producers have encountered bans on the use of the term in many countries, where they must refer to their product as sparkling wine.
In 2006, the United States made an agreement with the European Union that any producer that wasn't using the term "champagne" with its origin preceding it would have to call their product sparkling wine, Healy said.
Korbel, which recently celebrated its 130th anniversary, produces 1.3 million cases of California champagne annually while producing about 5,000 cases of still wines and 350,000 cases of brandy for sale at its winery, she said.
"It has been an issue for a while," Healy said of the champagne label. "When Korbel sells its product outside the United States, we have to abide by whatever that country's laws are. ... Here in the United States, we call it by the letter of the law.
"Frankly, though, with the amount of Korbel we sell here in the United States and the advertising dollars we spend on promoting California champagne, we probably do more to promote the term 'champagne' in the United States than anyone in the Champagne region of France," she said. "That's a whole other political issue, but I really don't think it ought to be discussed when we're talking about the presidential inauguration."
Korbel Champagne Cellars: http://www.korbel.com/default.aspx