The Veuve Clicquot Champagne house has been on the receiving end of a barrage of Twitter humour/abuse in the last few days, due to reports that it has warned off an Italian sparkling wine producer over the use of a “confusing” orange label. Tweets have suggested that the company may take legal action against Prince Harry, the sun and red squirrels. (Prince Harry, fair game, but hands off the sun and red squirrels, they’re much too rare and precious in this part of the world.)
This story captured my imagination for 2 reasons. As a former intellectual property lawyer, I used to make a living out of this sort of thing. I once did a lot of research into the law regarding colour trade marks, more particularly, purple surgical gloves, which was (OK, I do know that this makes me sound deeply sad) probably the most interesting file of my career. NB, I did say former intellectual property lawyer. Now I teach law and drink wine. Rarely at the same time.
Given that my livelihood used to depend on businesses getting litigious over trade names, slogans, branding etc, I think that I am more sympathetic to Clicquot’s cause than the average tweep.
Secondly, I recently read a brilliant book (“The Widow Clicquot” by Tilar J Mazzeo) about the life of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the grande dame who built up the Veuve Clicquot empire and revolutionised the world of Champagne.
This contains several fascinating passages that describe la Veuve Clicquot’s contribution to the Champagne industry, both in technical terms, as she is credited with inventing remuage, but also in terms of her role in establishing Champagne as a luxury product with a strong brand image.
At the turn of the 19th century, wine labels were virtually unknown (so how did you choose your wine at the supermarket?, I hear you cry…), but winemakers burned a symbol into the cork to identify their wine. The Clicquot symbol of the anchor was chosen in 1798 by Philippe Clicquot, founder of the house and Barbe-Nicole’s husband, until his untimely death in 1805 left her a widow (veuve) at the age of 27.
At the time of the 1811 Champagne harvest, a great comet that had been visible since the spring made its most brilliant appearance over the region. Among the French people, it was rumoured to be a portent of great change and possibly of the fall of Napoleon’s empire. To the winemaker, the comet was seen as a symbol of the harvest that took place under the most perfect conditions ever seen. Many winemakers (including Veuve Clicquot) branded their corks with stars in place of their usual trade marks in homage to the “Comet vintage”.
In 1814, Veuve Clicquot became one of the first winemakers to use labels on its bottles. These were originally plain white labels with just the date, the location of vineyard and a few floral motifs.
It was in the 1860s that the house adopted the now-famous “Clicquot yellow”, described as “the colour of the egg yolks of the famous corn-fed hens of Bresse”, for the branding of its new brut Champagne. Until this date, Clicquot Champagne was sweet, to appeal to the valuable Russian market. The new label was registered as trade mark in 1877.
In 2011, Veuve Clicquot won a trade mark infringement case in the Belgian courts against a cava manufacturer, who was labelling its bottles in a similar colour. However, the colour in that case was much more similar to Clicquot yellow, being an orangey yellow, rather than what appears to me to be clearly orange, ie the subject matter of the present “amicable conversation” (not lawsuit).
To maintain a sense of perspective, please remember that the interests of Champagne producers en masse (or should that be en mousse?) are protected by the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne, which has over the years taken steps to protect the dilution of the Champagne brand by preventing its use on bubble bath, underwear, shoes and (rumour would have it) iPhones.
So, while I understand the viewpoint of those who mock Veuve Clicquot for going slightly OTT, the lawyer in me (gone but not forgotten), my admiration for la grande dame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin and my empathy with the desire to fight to protect all that she fought to achieve, lead me to defend her against ridicule and to hope that this matter can be resolved calmly and without further adverse publicity (if indeed such a thing exists …).