Fri 12 Dec 2008
So, here’s this little bottle of framboise raspberry liqueur, called Chateau Monet. (This is a liqueur, not a traditional eau-de-vie.) There is, indeed, a depiction of a chateau on the label. The squat, bulbous bottle is satisfyingly old-fashioned looking, as if the producer went to some trouble to acquire bottles that resembled those used, say, in the 18th Century. “How quaint, how authentic, how French,” we think. Then we look at the back label and read: “Prepared and bottled in the USA by La Maison Coulombe, Lewiston, Me & Londonderry, NH.”
Yes, once again we have been victimized by what marketing people call “foreign branding.” Foreign branding grows from the idea, apparently inherent in American life and culture, that anything with a foreign name just has to be better than something made in America. Do you want to get a massage or a Swedish massage? Do you want some onion soup or some French onion soup? A pizza with a lot of cheese or a Tuscan Quattro Fromaggi Pizza?
The best-known example of foreign branding is Häagen-Dazs ice cream, which millions of Americans, including myself for many years, thought came from Sweden or Denmark: “Wow, no wonder it’s so good!” The company has been owned by General Mills since 1983, but Häagen-Dazs was founded in The Bronx in 1959 by Polish immigrants Reuben and Rose Mattus. The name, deliberately concocted to sound Scandinavian, is Duncan Hines spelled or spoken sort of inside-out and reinforced by some consonants and an umlaut. The first store opened in Brooklyn in 1975, and the rest is foreign branding history.
Another example, dear to the hearts of American folk and media culture, is the Ginsu Knife, heavily advertised on late-night television starting in 1978 in those unforgettable commercials that began, “In Japan, the hand can be used as a knife” and ending with a line that became embedded in common speech: “But wait, there’s more!” Far from being made in Japan, the knives, called Eversharp, were originally manufactured in Freemont, Ohio, where they were discovered by a pair of wily entrepreneurs who turned the brand into a raging success: “As Seen on TV!”
It’s no wonder that the 19th Century wine industry in American relied completely on European models and names to sell their wares to consumers more used to terms like “Burgundy,” “Chianti,” “Sauternes” and “Madeira” than a product called, simply, “California Red Wine.” Varietal labeling didn’t really develop in California until after the end of Prohibition, though of course many wines continued (and continue) to exploit the foreign branding concept. This idea applies not only to wineries called Chateau This and Clos du That but to brands like Hearty Burgundy and Chablis Blanc and the old (and actually tasty) Green Hungarian, made by Paul Masson; we drank gallons of these wines, back in the day.
The EU frowns on the use of European place names on American wine labels, and a series of trade agreements have been instituted to prevent producers in America from plastering the terms Sherry, Port and Champagne on labels while Europeans will not pretend that their wines were made in the Napa Valley. (I mean, did they ever? Was there a “Napa Valley Riesling” from Germany?) The trick is that some veteran manufacturers of sparkling wine in California — Korbel and Gallo –were permitted to retain the use of “champagne” on their sparkling wine labels, you know, for old-times’ sake. That loophole seems pretty egregious to me, and also to French trade groups, which have mounted advertising campaigns against it.
“St. Clair Burgundy” label (it says in tiny type that it was printed in St. Louis) is from labeltrader.com, a fascinating site for collectors of all sort of antique paper labels.