Monday, May 2, 2011

Rant: Barefoot Cellars, Avoiding My Champagne Questions

It is poor customer relations for a major winery to ignore three emails, even if the questions contained within those emails make them uncomfortable.  E.&J. Gallo Winery recently made such an error in regards to my own inquiries.  And it all centered on Barefoot Cellars and their use of the term "Champagne."

Back on March 14, I penned a rant, Protecting Champagne From The U.S., in which I decried the fact that over 50% of the sparkling wine in the U.S. is labeled as Champagne. True Champagne only comes from a specific region of France. Though the U.S.-European Union Wine Accords permits some U.S. wineries to continue to legally use the term "Champagne" on their labels, I questioned the reasons why a U.S. winery would want to use the term. Just because you "can" do something does not mean you "should" do it.

I then issued a challenge to those U.S. wineries: "To any U.S. winery that labels its sparkling wine as Champagne, please give us a valid reason why you do so. It is insufficient to say you do so just because you legally can do so. Explain why you believe it is valid to deceive consumers into believing they are purchasing real Champagne when they are not. I don't expect any such wineries though will respond."  One winery did step up, E.&J. Gallo Winery, though I think they might regret it now.

On March 15, I received an email from Marie Shubin (, the Director of Global Consumer Relations at E.&J. Gallo Winery.  In essence, she only stated that it was legal for Barefoot Cellars to use the term "champagne."  That was not in dispute. She failed to address the heart of my concern, the reasons why they use the term beyond the fact it is legal for them to do so. 

So, on that same day, I emailed Marie back, where I stated: "I know and understand that it is legal for you to use the term "champagne," because the use was grandfathered in, but I am more concerned about why you do so. Just because something is legal does not necessarily mean that it "should" be done. Barefoot does not produce actual Champagne, which only comes from a specific region in France. So why call your wine something that it is really not? I think that only serves to confuse consumers and does a disservice to true Champagne. Why not just call it sparkling wine? "

Over a week passed and I did not receive a reply so I sent a follow-up email on March 24.  Again, I did not receive a response, so I sent another follow-up email on April 18.  As of April 29, after about 45 days, I still had not received any response from Marie. Why no response, especially from the Director of Global Customer Relations?  A clear customer service failure.

Thus, on April 29, I sent Marie one final email, stating: "I am extremely disappointed and puzzled as to your lack of response to my three prior emails during the last 45 days. As the Director of Global Customer Relations for E&J Gallo, I would assume you are responsible, in part, for responding to consumer emails in a prompt fashion. At this point, I shall attempt other means of getting my questions answered." I received an automated response that Marie would be out of the office from April 30-May 10.

But Marie finally did respond to me on April 30.  First, she apologized for the tardiness of her response, yet offered no explanation for the delay. Why did she ignore my three emails for about 45 days? Second, she again repeated the fact that it was legal for them to use the term "champagne." That is nonresponsive to my questions, and makes me question whether she actually read my emails or not. I already told her that I understood it was legal for them to use that term so I didn't need her to repeat that fact to me.

Lastly, she stated: "We do extensive consumer research on all of our products and packaging. As a result, we know that our consumers are familiar with Barefoot California Champagne and know what to expect when choosing it."  That is also nonresponsive, being overly vague and failing to provide a clear rationale. Those words say very little and seems to indicate to me that their consumer research led them to the conclusion that they would sell more wine if they labeled it "champagne" rather than "sparkling wine."  A pure mercenary motivation, with no desire to properly educate consumers.

They are certainly not alone. It is probable that most of the U.S. wineries, if not all of them, which use the term "champagne" are motivated merely by the money, believing their customers will buy more of their product if it is labeled Champagne rather than just Sparkling Wine.  I is very likely that no winery will step up to the plate and say they are doing it just for increased sales.  

I am disappointed that Barefoot Cellars, and many other wineries, use the term "champagne" for their sparkling wines. I and others would like to see that change and hopefully some wineries will take the intiatitive to do so.  Let us educate consumers properly, and teach them that true Champagne only comes from a specific area of France. 

But I am also very disappointed how E.&J. Gallo Winery handled my inquiries. Ignoring multiple emails is no way to handle any business, even if the questions make you uncomfortable. Especially if you are the Director of Global Customer Relations, and not just some low level employee.


nicole said...

I completly agree with you. No sparking wine produced in the US should be called Champagne. I don't even think 'Champagne style' is appropriate.

ryan said...

I have to say while I think it's silly for them to label it Champagne, it's just as silly to feign ignorance as to why they choose to.

Marketing is all that a brand like this has behind it and small things like whether to put 13% alc or 13.5% alc are debated as much as whether to put a blue border on a blue label.

On the other hand Champagne is DUMB for allowing this. The question should be why allow this, they have a valid right to demand removal. I think the fault in this case is with the Campagne lawyers, and the more interesting question is what concessions were given to the French to allow for such a crime to continue.

If the loophole is there, people will exploit it. As someone who has worked in Marketing, you really would have to be stupid not to take advantage of every opportunity to have an edge over your competitors. Ethics are not of interest unless they caused someone to actually stop buying the product, and I can pretty much GUARANTEE that the buyers of Barefoot "champagne" could give a rats ass about "origins".

If I were as upset as you seem, I would try to find out why they were allowed to steal the name in the first place. #RantOver :)

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Nicole.

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Ryan:
The Champagne region did not really "allow" this to happen. The U.S. and the European Union, after 20 years of negotiations, reached an accord, which allowed some U.S. producers to continue to legally use the term "champagne." Many French Champagne producers (as well as some Port producers) were upset by this fact.

So it was not France negotiating with the U.S. over this matter. It was the EU, as a whole, negotiating with the U.S. And negotiations certainly dragged out for a very long time. The Wine Accords addressed a number of different issues, and the EU made concessions to the U.S.

Ryan said...

Well then, let's blame the EU, and USA and shame them for allowing it. Seriously. Barefoot is doing business, and have no reason to give up something they are legally allowed to do, not to mention something that might effect their sales.

Let's make a fuss about why this is allowed, not the savvy biz folks taking advantage of it. Or build a backlash to the use of it, but to ask "why do they do it" is just silly.

How about this: give me a list of the "offending parties" and we'll start something for people to sign on to.