It’s been a decade in the works, but Napa Valley Vintners learned early Thursday that the Peoples’ Republic of China has agreed to recognize and protect the Napa Valley name. It’s a critical first step in preventing the name to be used on any wines except those from this valley.

Linda Reiff, executive director of the Napa Valley Vintners, said the decision to grant “geographic indication status” was published in a report by the Chinese General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine.

“Unfortunately it was written in Chinese,” she said, adding that a translator had confirmed the good news for the elated Vintners.

“We are thrilled by the news that China, an economic world power and growing wine importer, has decided to grant Napa Valley this status, and we are honored to learn that we are the first wine-growing region outside of that country to achieve it,” Reiff said.

Protecting the Napa Valley name in China has been an on-going challenge as wine has increasingly become a popular beverage, with both imports and domestic production sky-rocketing in the last decade.

“The annual growth rate of China’s wine market has been over 20 percent since 2006. In 2011, consumption of wine in China approached 1.6 billion cases, elevating China from the seventh to the fifth in terms of the world’s largest wine consumption country, according to statistics from China Wine Information website. It is estimated that the value of China’s wine market will exceed RMB100 billion yuan (approximately $15 billion) in 2013.”

Scott Gerien of Dickenson, Peatman and Fogarty, who served as legal counsel for the Vintners China project, said it was no secret “that China has had a reputation for products being counterfeited” and for appropriating names that are synonymous with quality and luxury status; hence the Napa name was turning up on wine labels that had no connection to the Napa Valley. Contacting producers misusing the Napa name, he added, produced positive results in some cases but not all of them.

“We haven’t had any incidents lately,” he said. The new status, he said, “is a big tool in the box” to provide consumer protection against wines falsely labeled as being from Napa Valley.

“China is a big country,” Gerien said when asked how easy it would be to enforce this new ruling from the government. With the geographic indication status, if any Chinese-made wine or imports from other countries with Napa labels turn up, it’s now possible to refer the problem to the Chinese agency, which is empowered to seize and destroy the wine, he said.

“At least we’re in the ballpark,” Gerien said.

Previously the Napa Valley Vintners have achieved similar status in the European Union, India, Thailand, Canada and Brazil. As was the case when achieving geographic indication recognition from the European Union, the Vintners made the request directly from the trade association to the government. This had not been done in China.

Reiff said the Napa Valley Vintners have been taking trade missions to China for the past 14 years and finding increasing enthusiasm for California wines. Although the trips were focused on marketing, she said, “each time we went over, a group met with Chinese officials. We went at it on our own and we eventually found the right people to talk to.

“The team (at the Chinese agency) are really committed and dedicated to getting a handle on (the counterfeiting problem). They know that it’s critical to succeed as a sophisticated market.”

“The Chinese market is only going to increase in importance to us in the coming years,” said Bruce Cakebread, president of Cakebread Cellars, and one of the Vintners who actively participated in the negotiations. “We needed to make sure we were safeguarding our brand and its reputation. It’s clear that they see the value in this from both the prospective of the producer, but also from the prospective of the consumers in China.”

“Having the Chinese government’s official recognition protects the integrity of the Napa Valley brand,” Reiff said. “This is a ‘win’ for Napa Valley and a ‘win’ for the Chinese consumer.”

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