How the Market Crushed the Champagne Cartel cover

How the Market Crushed the Champagne Cartel

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For hundreds of years, the bubbly white wine made in the Champagne region of France has held a monopoly. It is a monopoly on a word.
Talk about the exploitation of brand popularity. And as everyone knows, “real” Champagne is ghastly expensive, two and even three times as much as sparkling non-Champagne wine replacements. But you have to pay the price if you want the real thing, right?
That’s the premise. And it is completely wrong.
FEE: Foundation for Economic Education
CC BY 4.0





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How the Market Crushed the Champagne Cartel

If it's time to celebrate, it's time to break out the Champagne! Except you might not. You have a choice over a huge variety of bubbly wines now. Thank the market.

For hundreds of years, the bubbly white wine made in the Champagne region of France has held a monopoly. It is a monopoly on a word.

In most parts of the world, by government decree, you can’t call your Champagne “Champagne” unless it is actually from Champagne and it is made with the official Champagne method defined by the French government.

The rule, which dates from the late 19th century, is enforced with violence. In 2008, Belgian government authorities smashed 3,000 bottles of sparkling wine from California because it was labeled Champagne. Even now, bottling something new that you think is Champagne and calling it that will bring a world of headaches.

Talk about the exploitation of brand popularity. And as everyone knows, “real” Champagne is ghastly expensive, two and even three times as much as sparkling non-Champagne wine replacements. But you have to pay the price if you want the real thing, right?

That’s the premise. And it is completely wrong.

Cartel No More

Finally, consumers have caught on to the racket.

Champagne can be a delight, but sometimes you just don’t want that sense that a drink is about to make you sneeze.

Two new names are on wine-buyers’ lips these days: Moscato and Prosecco. American sales of these two Champagne alternatives are booming. According to the Wine Institute, sales are up 30 percent over the past several years, and 40 percent over the past decade.

Americans have discovered this special drink isn’t just for special celebrations. It’s a whenever beverage — brunch, dinner, or cocktail hour. And it also seems Champagne is losing some of its completely meritless snob appeal.

What’s wonderful is that Moscato and Prosecco have caught on. I tested this in my own office, asking people if they wanted to try a new Prosecco. Not one person questioned the name. It is gaining popularity, perhaps not as much as Champagne, but it is getting there.

There is also a special delight that comes from crushing a pompous and coerced monopoly that has sustained itself for hundreds of years.

To be sure, Prosecco and Moscato are different. They follow a different method of production. It is not aged at all. You will never find a date on a Prosecco or Moscato. The result is not as dry and not as bubbly. It’s a bit more fruity, and one is more inclined to mix it with juices.

But it turns out this can be a relief. Champagne can be a delight, but sometimes you just don’t want that sense that a drink is about to make you sneeze. There is something calming and welcome about turning it down a notch.

But you still get the delight that comes from drinking something both fizzy and alcoholic. And the fizz is what gets the alcohol to the blood just a bit more quickly than you can expect from plain wine or beer. It is this that accounts for the widespread impression that bubbly makes you happy.

I’ve tested this. It does. The whole cultural symbolism here is very powerful. Sparkling wine is a celebration in a glass. It suggests a carefree life, a day of achievement, a sense of being on top of the world. No other drink can come close.

True skill in dealing with sparkling wine comes with the acquired ability to remove the cork slowly and having it make as little noise as possible.

But there are a few rules to keep in mind.

Never pop the cork. It is extremely tacky. Gauche is the word. True and knowing skill in dealing with sparkling wine comes with the acquired ability to remove the cork slowly and having it make as little noise as possible. It is a symbol of class.

Never mix great sparkling wine. The more you pay for the bottle, the less you should be inclined to mix it with orange juice or some other fruit juice.

It really does require a different glass. The traditional flute is fun, but there is something charming about the flat half bowl, too. Yes, the bowl causes the bubbles to evaporate more quickly, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Drink it more quickly, and pour more.

So which ones to buy?

Barefoot Moscato is gigantically popular for a reason. It is light, fruity, and fun, without fuss. Pure delight. Nino Franco Rustico is drier and more sophisticated. It compares to a solid Champagne at a fraction of the price.

Rustico Prosecco di Valdobbiadene is another that most people would mistake for Champagne. It’s clean and delightful.

Cupcake Moscato is fabulous, mainly for the name. (But let’s face facts: as Americans, we are all wowed by great marketing.) Ecco Domani Moscato is on the sweet side, so loving this depends on preference. As someone who prefers dry, this one lifted my spirits as much as the others.

Americans love anything that brightens up life, and these wonderful alternatives to Champagne do exactly that.

It’s not a surprise that the monopoly is finally being smashed right here in the good ol’ USA. From the Boston Tea Party to the Whiskey Rebellion, facing monopolies through consumer revolts is in our blood.