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The Four Legal Categories of Wine in America

I receive a lot of questions regarding the legal protection of different types of wine in America on a somewhat daily basis. This entry serves as an overview of the American legal protection of different classifications of wines.

Background

The history of the U.S.’s protection of intellectual property is one that embraces individualism and technological advances, rewarding innovation and autonomy. On the contrary, European IP regulations preserve culture and history, as well as honor traditional practices. (See generally Bernard O’Connor, The Law of Geographical Indications 123–128 and 153–163 (2004) (noting that EC laws recognize two categories of wine: “quality wines produced in specific regions, so-called quality wines psr (produced in specified region), and table wines”). For further information on the protection of GIs and designations of origin for agricultural products and foodstuffs within Europe, see Council Regulation (EEC) No. 2081/92.) The legal regulatory systems of wine production in both the EC and other New World wine producers like the U.S reflect such differing philosophies. These philosophies can be found in both federal and international regulation of wine production and promote American wines in international markets.

The Origins of Legal Protection of Wine in America

Pre-Prohibition American wine producers did not possess an individual wine culture; instead, early American vintners emulated wine styles of and borrowed wine nomenclature from European wine producers, constructors of Old World wines. Old World wine producers have since vehemently urged New World wine producers to adopt the Old World appellation system, so that New World wine products will have labels that agree with the Old World appellation of origin system. (See generally Richard Mendelson, From Demon to Darling: A Legal History of Wine in America 143 (2009).) However, embracing their individualist philosophy in wine production, Americans refused and continued to employ many wine names on semi-generic wine products that did not correspond with the traditional European geographical origin system. Along with this individualistic approach to American wine production, American laws protecting wine products developed in tandem.

Contemporary Legal Protection of Wine in America

The American protection of GIs derives from the Lanham Trademark Act of 1946, as well as from wines and spirits regulations of the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF). (See Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(e) (2006); see also Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, available at http://www.atf.gov/.) Whereas Section 2(e)(2) of the Lanham Act prohibits the trademark registration of marks that are “primarily geographically descriptive,” it does not forbid the usage of such marks. For wines and spirits specifically, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) polices the use of geographical indications and requires that a Certificate of Label Approval be obtained “to bottle and remove alcoholic beverages from the bonded area of the domestic plants where the beverage was bottled or packed . . . .” (For additional information on COLAs and registration, see COLAs Online, available at https://www.ttbonline.gov/colasonline/publicSearchColasBasic.do/. Additionally, the United States Codified Regulation on Labelling of Wines requires labeling of all wines that are produced domestically or imported. See Michael Blakeney, Geographical Indications and TRIPS, in The Intellectual Property Debate: Perspectives from Law, Economics and Political Economy, 256 (Meir Perez Pugatch ed., 2006) (citing 27 C.F.R. (Codified Federal Regulations), Part 4, “Labelling and advertising of wines.” § 4.30.).)

Accordingly, the TTB has created a list of GIs that have geographical significance, “including those that are distinctive of specific grape wines, and appellations of origin as applied to wines.” (Id. at 257.) The TTB recognizes four categories with respect to wines and the cataloging of geographical names: “generic[1] names, “semi-generic[2] names, “non-generic, non-distinctive[3] names, and “non-generic, distinctive names.”[4] Under TTB regulations, wine producers may use generic names without restriction as long as BATF has found the wine name to be generic. Wine producers may use non-generic distinctive names on wine produced in other areas as long as the product is “similar to the original and words such as ‘type’ or ‘American’ are directly conjoined to the geographical name.” TTB regulations restrict, but do not forbid, the use of semi-generic names when the wine product originates in a region other than that denoted by the wine name. In such an instance, the label must denominate the wine’s actual place of origin, and the wine product itself must express the traits and attributes typically associated with the semi-generic name. Finally, wine producers may only use non-generic non-distinctive names for wine products produced in the specified region or place. The current U.S. legal system for protection of wine products, however, has prompted much distress in an international wine market where the taste for American wines has persistently expanded but where legal disputes have left acrimonious aftertastes


[1] See Blakeney at 257. (Including vermouth and sake, which can be used without registration of the name. See 27 C.F.R. Part 12 “Foreign non-generic names of geographical significance used in the designation of wines,” § 12.21 “List of examples of names by country,” available at http://www.wineinstitute.org/fedlaw/regs).

[2] “[E]xamples of semi-generic names that are also type designations for grape wines are ‘Angelica’, ‘Burgundy’, ‘Claret’, ‘Chablis’, ‘Champagne’, ‘Chianti’, ‘Malaga’, ‘Marsala’, ‘Madeira’, ‘Moselle’, ‘Port’, ‘Rhine Wine’ (syn. ‘Hock’), ‘Sauterne’, ‘Haut Sauterne’, ‘Sherry’, ‘Tokay’), which may be used if the correct place of origin is directly conjoined to the name[.]” See Blakeney at 257 (citing 27 C.F.R., Part 12 “Foreign non-generic names of geographical significance used in the designation of wines,” § 12.21 “List of examples of names by country,” available at http://www.wineinstitute.org/fedlaw/regs).

[3] “[N]ames (such as ‘American’, ‘California’, ‘Lake Erie’, ‘Napa Valley’, ‘New York State’, ‘French’, ‘Spanish’), which may be used without registration for wines originating in the named place.” See Blakeney at 257 (citing 27 C.F.R., Part 12 “Foreign non-generic names of geographical significance used in the designation of wines,” § 12.21 “List of examples of names by country,” available at http://www.wineinstitute.org/fedlaw/regs).

[4] “[N]ames (such as ‘Bordeaux Blanc’, ‘Bordeaux Rouge’, ‘Graves’, ‘Medoc’, ‘Saint-Julien’, ‘Chateua Yquem’, ‘Chateau Margaux’, ‘Chateau Lafite’, ‘Pommard’, ‘Chambertin’, ‘Montrachet’, ‘Rhone’, ‘Liebfraumilch’, ‘Rudescheimer’, ‘Forster’, ‘Deidescheimer’, ‘Schloss Johannisberger’, ‘Lagrima’, and Lacryma Christi’), may be used only for wines from that place.” See Blakeney at 257 (citing 27 C.F.R., Part 12 “Foreign non-generic names of geographical significance used in the designation of wines,” § 12.21 “List of examples of names by country,” available at http://www.wineinstitute.org/fedlaw/regs).

Lindsey A. Zahn

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Lindsey is the founder and author of On Reserve: A Wine Law Blog. She is an alcohol beverage and food attorney and is admitted to the New York State Bar.

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