What's In a Name?

Great Western

I am a licorice lover. And by licorice, I mean black licorice. Preferably Dutch black licorice, which is not so much sweet as pungent and even slightly salty. I find black licorice addictively delicious, but other colors bland and boring. Licorice, in its purest form, is the root of a perennial plant loosely related to beans and native to southern Europe and parts of Asia. Black licorice is heavily flavored with this root; red licorice contains none at all. In my opinion, they shouldn't be allowed to call red licorice by that name, but I suppose 'sweet, waxy, chewy red candy' doesn't have quite the same marketing appeal.

Licorice is not the first consumer product to have its name co-opted, and it likely won't be the last. Often, this results from clever and pervasive brand marketing. When you reach for a tissue, how often do you call it a Kleenex, regardless of the actual brand? If you cut yourself, do you reach for a sterile plastic bandage? Or a Bandaid? A trademark or brand name can achieve such market dominance that its brand name replaces the original product name in popular usage. There is even a process known as generification, by which products like Hoover, Thermos, Dumpster, and others have become so identified with the generic product category that they have lost the intellectual property rights to their own names.

Generification may be beneficial to these large commercial brands. If you're searching for a vessel to keep your coffee warm, the Thermos brand's familiarity could make you more likely to purchase that product over another with an unfamiliar brand name. But what if all the brands were able to call themselves 'Thermos', regardless of quality considerations? The brand loyalty and recognition the Thermos trademark has gained would quickly dissipate when people purchased inferior products and were dissatisfied with those purchases. Luckily, our trademark laws don't allow that to (legally) happen.

But every day, we allow wines to hit the market wearing names that don't belong to them: Carlo Rossi 'Chianti', made in California not Tuscany. Great Western New York State 'Champagne', a distant kissing cousin to the French bubbly. Gallo 'Chablis Blanc', with not a hint of the stony, flinty awesomeness of the real McCoy. And- God forbid-'Pink Chablis'. Chablis is not-not!-pink.

These wine regions are famous for a reason. Over centuries, their vineyards and wineries identified and perfected what grape varieties and winemaking styles complemented their climate, soil, and cuisine. They are subject to strict regulations designed to ensure that when you buy a bottle of red Burgundy, it will have the recognizable flavors of Burgundy and a Chianti will taste like a Chianti. There are-of course-gradations of quality as with any other agricultural product. But generic wines shouldn't be allowed to co-opt the names and hence reputations of historic regions.

The very worst case is Champagne. True Champagne comes from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes grown in a cool northerly region. The grapes barely ripen, leaving plenty of bracing acidity. The wine goes through a second fermentation in the bottle, creating bubbles. It's aged on its lees before release, gaining complexity. Great Western's New York State 'Champagne' follows none of those rules and tastes nothing like the original. That doesn't mean it's bad, or that you should not, if you like it, buy that product. But you should know you're purchasing a Fiat that just happens to call itself a Ferrari.