One of the first things Barack Obama will do as president of the United States on January 20 will be to insult the French.
Immediately after he takes the oath of office and delivers his inaugural address, the new president will join 200 dignitaries in Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol for the traditional Inaugural Luncheon. Congressional leaders have hosted this event every four years since 1897, toasting the new chief executive in a spirit of bipartisan celebration.
The wine that will fuel these toasts? Korbel Champagne Cellars Russian River Valley Natural' Champagne. Korbel has been the inaugural bubbly ever since Ronald Reagan's second inauguration in 1985, the winery said in a January 9 press release.
The use of "Champagne" on American wine labels has been an issue of contention between Washington and Paris (and Brussels, as the Euopean Union has weighed in) for many years. Although the United States agreed to ban the use of most Euopean place names on wine labels, it insisted on and won a grandfather exeption for certain older brands such as Korbel that had been using the word Champagne for decades. They are not allowed to use it on wine shipped to Europe.
The Office of Champagne USA in Washington has launched a nationwide advertising and peitition effort aimed at protecting place names. It has some allies in the U.S. wine industry. The Napa Valley Vintners Association, for example, is very vigilant against wines with "Napa" in their name when the juice is produced elsewhere.
A spokesman for the Office of Champagne USA declined to say anything on the record and indicated the office would not protest the choice of Korbel for the inaugural luncheon. And with the spirit of goodwill surrounding the new administration, I doubt Foggy Bottom will be getting an angry cable from the Quai d'Orsay.
Still, it's an interesting choice for such a high-profile setting to feature a wine that has been at the center of diplomatic disputes. I have nothing against the quality of the wine - Korbel will do just fine for the toasts. But there are many U.S. sparkling wines that would do as well while celebrating the U.S. origin and character without the marketing crutch of pretending to be something they aren't.
Then again, insulting the French is as American as apple pie. Perhaps some viticultural jingoism is not out of place at a presidential inauguration.