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OPINION | BOTTLE SHOTS: Putin's edict on Russian champagne petty, mean

by Seth Eli Barlow | September 22, 2021 at 1:52 a.m.

What's in a name? Not much, according to William Shakespeare, who famously said: "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Unfortunately, the winemakers of Champagne don't seem to agree.

Over the summer, everyone's favorite autocrat, Russia's Vladimir Putin, signed a law stating that only Russian-made sparkling wines can be called champagne (shampanskoye in the mother tongue). Imported French Champagne — which famously can only bear that name if the grapes were grown in the country's Champagne region — are forbidden for using the word on its labels.

The word Champagne has been legally protected since 1891, barring a few U.S.-based companies that have been grandfathered in (i.e., Cook's California Champagne), but, as politicians are wont to do, Putin's new law ignores hundreds of years of trademarks and tradition.

Why? There are many theories here, but the most likely is that it's a win-win issue for Putin. He gets to bolster Russian winemakers' business by promoting local wines while thumbing his nose at the polite politics of Western Europe. The Russian government reported a drop in domestic sparkling wine production of 33% in the first half of 2021. This was due, in large part, to new regulations that require Russian wine to be made from 100% Russian-grown grapes. (That this was not already a regulation is strange yet also very "on brand" for Russia.) This has made the price of Russian grapes (and therefore the wine) soar. What better way to force consumers to buy domestic wines at higher prices than outlaw your imported competition?

Russia's primary sparkling wine-producing regions lie in the Caucus Mountains and in Crimea, that bit of Ukraine that Russia helped themselves to in 2014. It should come as no surprise that an owner of one of the country's most significant winemaking projects is one of Putin's biggest financial backers.

As is so often the case in politics, especially in Russia, there is a long and not very well-hidden money trail to be followed. In this case, following the money leads me to think that there's a second, more petty reason behind all of this: I think Vladimir Putin is Regina George levels of petty and that there's nothing he likes more than ruining someone else's day, especially when that someone is richer than he is.

Bernard Arnault, the third richest person in the world, is the CEO of a little company called LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, a luxury goods conglomerate that owns brands including Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co., Sephora, and the Champagne houses of Ruinart, Moët & Chandon, Krug, Dom Perignon, and Veuve Clicquot. Russia is a major market for these Champagne houses, and this new legislation costs them millions of dollars. I doubt that sticking it to the richest man in Europe was Putin's impetus for this bubbly kerfuffle, but I'm sure the thought of it makes him smile.

As always, you can see what I'm drinking on Instagram at @sethebarlow and send your wine questions and quibbles to sethebarlowwine@gmail.com

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