Swiss claim biscuit victory in champagne wars

Marc-André Cornu, owner of the Cornu bakery and Champagne mayor, enjoying a "flute" and glass of local wine Keystone

The tiny Swiss village of Champagne, banned from using its name on its local produce, is claiming a minor victory in a legal battle to overturn the decision.

This content was published on July 5, 2008 - 10:25

On Monday the Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property granted the local bakery Cornu registration of the trademark "from Champagne Switzerland".

Champagne in Vaud, western Switzerland, has 740 inhabitants and shares its name with the famous French wine-producing region. The Cornu bakery makes sweet and savoury biscuits in Switzerland and France under the slogan "Made in Champagne".

But a French trade association, which represents champagne growers and makers, objected to the use of the word "champagne" on Cornu's products. On April 9, a Paris court ruled that Cornu had to close its website and cease selling or producing its "Champagne" biscuits in France - a major market for the Swiss company.

Swiss winegrowers in Champagne have already been stopped from using the label "vin de Champagne".

Marc-André Cornu, co-owner of the Cornu bakery and Champagne's mayor, told swissinfo the Swiss decision now gave renewed hope of winning an appeal against the French ruling.

"I feel very happy after 12 years' wait," he explained. "It's a first victory in 'Operation Champagne' and gives us a lot of hope for the future, as we finally have the support of the Swiss government."

Cornu applied to the Swiss authorities to have the label recognised in 1996, but a high-profile media campaign and cross-party support from 70 parliamentarians seems to have helped unblock the situation.

"The politicians realised that the situation is unfavourable, not only to the bakery, but also to the region and the village. You can't wipe us off the map just like that. It's unacceptable from the French," said local winegrower Gilbert Banderet, who attended the unveiling of a monument in Champagne on Thursday to celebrate the news.

Legal argument

According to the intellectual property institute, the Cornu trademark is fully in line with current Swiss law, as well as with the Swiss-European Union bilateral accords and the Franco-Swiss treaty on the protection of place of origin.

The bakery's products are a different case from those of local wines, said Anja Herren, head of the trademark service. The "from Champagne Switzerland" label for the bakery, "flutes" aperitif biscuits and non-alcoholic drinks from Champagne in Switzerland has a "sufficiently distinctive character" so as not to cause confusion in Switzerland, she said.

But Daniel Lorson, spokesperson for the French trade association, expressed his concern at the Swiss decision.

"I thought the rule of law existed in Switzerland," he told swissinfo. "Cornu has tried to exploit the good reputation of [the sparkling wine] champagne."

Wine solution?

The Paris decision came after local wine-makers were banned from labelling their wine "vin de Champagne".

The village was given until 2004 to phase out the name on its wine after the Swiss government agreed in 1999 to give up any claims it had as part of the bilateral accords with the EU.

Wine sales have since dropped from 110,000 bottles per year to 32,000 in 2007 after the wine was sold with new labels that did not refer to its place of origin.

Although the village is currently unable to appeal against the wine case, the biscuit decision has reinvigorated the locals.

"Now that we have the registration for the biscuit brand, we will contact our lawyers to look into reviewing the judgement on the wine," said Thomas Bindschedler, village action committee spokesman.

"We fully understand that [the French association] has a brand to defend which they've worked hard to create over a long time and it would be very unfair for someone to take advantage of something that they've built up. But they should understand that we want to use the name of our village on our products."

"All historians agree that our village has existed since 885 – well before the emergence of the name champagne in France," said Bindschedler.

But the case is unlikely to be easily resolved, as both sides' positions seem deeply entrenched.

Continuing battle

"We are the victims not the aggressors," said Lorson. "We are defending 20,000 local winegrowers... and when we authorise another party to use the name champagne it weakens its value and makes the product generic."

According to Bindschedler, the French trade association is controlled by the holding company Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) and has the money and time on its hands to pursue a legal case "forever".

"They have lawyers working for them permanently and their job is to make sure that the use of the name is exclusive to them. But they should make a difference between when it is essential to protect the name and where, as in our case, it would be logical to do a deal," he said.

"In terms of international politics this might seem a small matter, but it has a certain importance linked to local identity and expertise," said the president of the Swiss action committee, Albert Banderet. "We will continue our battle to overturn this situation so people realise we also have the right to exist."

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Champagne

In brief

Cornu's "flutes" have been made since 1934 and have always been produced under the champagne label.

The French champagne producers trade association is objecting to the aperitif biscuits being produced by a Cornu subsidiary in France. They say the biscuits misrepresent the "champagne" brand, which is protected across Europe.

Cornu already went to court on the same subject in 1991 when all "flutes" were made in Switzerland. In 1991 the Cornu bakery, supported by the Swiss justice ministry, won its case.

Since 2004, 43 winemakers in the Swiss village of Champagne have been banned from using the "vins de champagne" label after a series of bilateral accords between Switzerland and the European Union came into effect.

In the EU and many other countries, the name champagne is legally protected by the Treaty of Madrid (1891) designating only the sparkling wine produced in the eponymous region and adhering to the standards defined for it an Appellation d'origine contrôlée; the right was reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War.

This legal protection has been accepted by numerous other countries worldwide. As the US Senate did not ratify the Treaty, this agreement was never officially respected in the United States.

Current US regulations require that what is defined as a semi-generic name (champagne) shall only appear on a wine's label if the appellation of the actual place of origin appears and the label was approved by the federal government before March 10, 1996. As US appellations can be quite general, many US sparkling wines use the terms "California champagne" "New York champagne" or even the more general "American champagne". Many French champagne houses also operate American vineyards.

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Key facts

Swiss bakery Cornu, which uses the slogan "Recette de Champagne", makes a SFr10 million ($7.7 million) profit in France on its products.
In Switzerland its profit also stands at SFr10 million.
The French champagne region produces around 280 million bottles of bubbly a year.

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