What is the origin of name protection for wine and cheese?

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Answered by: Matt, An Expert in the Greece, Rome and the Meditteranean Category
I'm sure you've seen those advertisements saying Champagne only comes from Champagne, France, not from the Napa Valley in California. Or maybe you've read about Parma, Italy's cheese makers complaining about Kraft Foods using the name Parmasean for the stuff in that familiar green box. The artisanal wine and cheese makers of Europe are engaged in an ancient battle. They are trying, hoplessly, to stop something that has been going on since Ceasar ruled in Rome.

Nearly twenty-five centuries ago the wine makers of the ancient world were imprinting clay wine jars with seals naming the vineyard, port of origin, wine type, even the names of stamping officials. These were baked into the handles of the clay jars, called amphorae and were tamper proof. They are the oldest wine labels, and they protected the brand name of certain high-value wines, such as the famous Greek wines from Cos and Lesbos, as they were transported by ship to the the Black Sea port on the Dneper River in the east, to Gaul in the west.

Like today's premium wine and cheese, Moet et Chandon and Parmigiano-Reggiano, those ancient wines were luxury goods that commanded high prices. Sadly for the Greeks, though they did their best to protect their brands, they discovered that that was very hard to do across international borders.

Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 B.C.), usually called Cato the Elder to avoid confusion with his famous grandson, wrote a book on agriculture, de Agri Cultura that is the earliest work of Latin prose to be discovered. Its lack of flowery language is exemplified in these instructions for making sharp wine sweet:

“To make sharp wine mild and sweet: Make 4 pounds of flour from vetch, and mix 4 cyathi of wine with boiled must; make into small bricks and let them soak for a night and a day; then dissolve with the wine in the jar, and seal sixty days later. The wine will be mild and sweet, of good colour and of good odour.”

His practical instruction included advice on the best kinds of grapes to grow for given soils, how to equip a vinyard, how much to feed chained-slaves toiling in the vinyard, when to plant, when to prune, and when to harvest. But the thing that is most interesting are his instructions for making Coan wine in Italian wineries, from grapes grown on Italian farms!

In making the signature sea-flavored wine of Cos the Romans managed to make generic what was specific. That is, they made a commodity out of a specialty wine that had gained a level of prestige in the ancient world. They made all of those stamped clay jars meaningless. It is an example of the Romans doing to the Greeks what modern Italians and French complain of Americans doing to them. What had been a name signifying origin became a name indicating style. It might be hard-hearted to say what goes around comes around, but in the case of wine and cheese it seems to be true.

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