'Champagne of Beers' Outmaneuvers the Lawyers From Champagne

Photograph by Jerry Arcieri/Corbis

Yet another company has been caught trying to trade on the effervescent, intoxicating name of Champagne.

This time the culprit is a California bottled-water brand dubbed Beverly Hills 90H20, which has been pitching itself as the “Champagne of waters.” The trouble is, Champagne doesn’t come from anywhere in California—it’s from a region in northern France known for cultivating perfectly sweet grapes and supremely aggressive trademark attorneys.

Lawyers for the bubbly stuff have a long history of dousing companies trying to co-opt the name. In 1987 they sued Perrier for using the term “the champagne of mineral waters.” More recently, they went after an Yves Saint Laurent perfume and a champagne-flavored yogurt brand in Sweden. They even fired a warning shot at Applewhen they heard the company was planning to release iPhones in a shade of light gold.

The Beverly Hills water brand received its own stern letter from the Champagne heavies. The move is a form of brand protection not all that different from what corporations engage in constantly. Sam Heitner, director of the U.S. Champagne Bureau, explained the legal scuffles to the Wall Street Journal: The problem, he said, is that “mislabeling misleads consumers.”

There’s a perfect foil to the litigious French. Miller High Life, a blue-collar beer first brewed in Milwaukee, has been known as “the Champagne of beers” for roughly a century. How does Miller keep its tag line? Having far more legal resources than a small bottled-water startup helps, but the brewer also appears to have outlawyered its counterparts in France. High Life registered an official trademark for “the Champagne of bottle beers” as early as 1948, and 10 years later the company filed to protect “the Champagne of beers” for good measure.

Is that enough for French winemakers? Probably not. Trademark law is a messy business. The U.S. legal system tends to value brand names, while European law leans toward protecting geography-based rights, according to the American Bar Association. And then there’s the question of when a name becomes generic or “semigeneric.” The room for interpretation is wide enough that Miller has staked out some territory.

Today, SABMiller and Molson Coors crafts entire marketing campaigns around the joint venture’s Champagne coup—gleefully juxtaposing the high-brow bubbly brand with its working man’s product. Consider the narrative of a recent ad: “If Francois knows so much about champagne, how come he never figured out how to put it in cans?”