THE STORY OF CHAMPAGNE Jayne v the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC) has all the makings of a film. Sadly, it wouldn’t be a fun frothy comedy like Champagne Charlie, that British wartime comedy that was named after the song inspired by the dandified founder of Charles Heidsieck.
More likely it would be something along the lines of Russell Crowe’s tobacco industry whistleblower thriller The Insider, or Steven Soderbergh’s eco drama Erin Brokovich – anything really where the little guy takes on the might, and lawyers, of big business.
To recap: a couple of years ago, the CIVC, very much the Goliath in this story, set its legal team on to the Australian wine educator Jayne Powell, aka Champagne Jayne. The suits were bothered by the fact that Powell, a great enthusiast for Champagne (indeed, a Champagne Dame, no less, after being bestowed with that title by L’Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne in 2012), occasionally talked about other sparkling wines in her work as an educator on TV and social media, under the Champagne Jayne banner.
Powell, they said, was acting in contravention of the Australian Grape and Wine Authority Act. They also claimed, apparently with a straight face, that she had “damaged the goodwill of the champagne sector”. Her behaviour had the potential to mislead, confuse and deceive her audience, who may not know that only wines made in the Champagne region have the right to use that magic, price-multiplying word on the label.
The experience has been a fraught, stressful, even frightening one for Powell. She feared for her professional and, as the legal costs mounted, financial future and a gagging order imposed by the Melbourne Federal Court meant she was unable to argue her case in public.
The reaction of much of the wine industry — particularly but by no means exclusively among Powell’s peers in the media and wine education — quickly turned from bemusement to anger. Rather like Riedel’s threats to sue the British wine writer Tim Atkin for libel after he published a satirical piece by the American writer Ron Washam (the self-styled Hosemaster of Wine) about the Austrian glassware company on his website earlier this year, the CIVC’s stance looked like a sense of humour failure at best, bullying at worst.
But while Riedel had the good sense to realise that ganging up on the little guy would do more harm to their public image than good, the CIVC pursued Powell to the very end. This despite the fact that, as more than one of Powell’s supporters argued, she’s a person, not a wine.
Thankfully sense prevailed at last in October when the judge presiding over the case in Melbourne ruled that Powell could continue to use the name of Champagne Jayne. Although her ordeal is not entirely over yet — terms have still to be decided about what she can say under the name on social media — she can now work again.
All the same, the case has, like cheap champagne, left a bad taste in the mouth. Here’s hoping that the outcome at least reminds the CIVC’s lawyers that the qualities that make good champagne so special — a sense of balance and proportion — are important in their work, too.