The issue of geographic labeling, which has been a point of contention for years between the European Union and US wine producers has become a hotly debated issue in California. European wine producers have objected, understandably, to the use of European geographic descriptors like Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis, Chianti, Rhine and similar label language on cheap California wines. Of course, the EU can ban such language on imports but they would like to see such language banned from all US labels.

Led by large producers like E&J Gallo and Canandaigua of New York, the US has stalled. After all, Gallo's Hearty Burgundy is a constant bestseller.

The issue in California centers on wineries or brands with names that are the same or similar to an American Viticulture Area. The example now causing some pain in Napa is Napa Ridge, a million-case brand which was launched by Beringer in 1985 as a lower-end brand. It became very successful in the under $10 market and was sold last year to JFJ Bronco Winery, operating as Classic Wine Co.

Bronco, based in Ceres in California's Central Valley, is a 44m gallon winery, producing enormous amounts of inexpensive table wine and bulk-process sparkling wine. Beginning in 1991, the company started buying up brands that were in financial trouble, including brands with Napa connections, like Rutherford Vineyards, Napa Creek and Domaine Napa. Bronco reportedly paid $40m for the Napa Ridge brand, a price that would make no sense without that valuable Napa name on the label.

Under federal regulations, brand names such as Napa Ridge, in use before 1986, are not required to contain grapes from the region used in the name. However, the place where the grapes are actually grown does have to appear somewhere on the label.

There were criticisms from the beginning directed at Beringer for fielding a brand that implied the use of Napa grapes when in fact, the source of grapes was almost always outside Napa. That protest became more vehement when the brand was purchased by the Franzia family - owners of Bronco. At least Beringer was considered "one of the family" while Bronco was regarded as an outsider, trying to trade on the Napa name. At the same time, it was learned that the Franzias were building a large winery in southern Napa, which would give them a Napa base for wine processing.

This led the Napa Valley Vintners Association (NVVA) to propose a plan late last year to phase out over a 10 year period the use of wine brand names that are based on a geographic name, if the bottle did not contain the amount of wine from the area required by federal regulations. If the wine is from one county - Sonoma or Napa for example - 75% of the grapes used must come from that county. If a particular AVA is used, such as Napa Valley or Oakville, 85% of the grapes must be from that area.

The Napa Vintners took their case to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) hoping for fast action. But, just in case, they also made a last attempt around the BATF, asking for a special law from the Californian legislature, protecting the Napa name.

"We're sponsoring this legislation to protect the integrity and the reputation of the Napa Valley name, which has over the years, gained fame and value for wines produced (there)," said Jack Stuart, president of the NVVA. Stuart and other supporters said the bill is a truth-in-advertising measure that would help consumers who expect wine with the word ``Napa'' on its label to be made of Napa grapes.

A California state senate committee has approved a first reading of the bill, but a BATF administrative law judge said that Bronco was within its legal rights to put whatever wine they wanted in its Napa brands, as long as the correct region of origin was also on the label, even though that information need not be in large type.

The case now goes to the director of the BATF, who is not bound to abide by the ruling.

Fred Franzia, co-owner of Bronco, said the BATF ruling was a victory for the industry. "No one assumes Hawaiian Punch is from Hawaii," he said. Meanwhile, Napa vintners are declaring the ruling opens the door for consumer fraud.

In the meantime, there must be more than a few people in Champagne having a quiet chuckle over California's geographic labeling dispute.

Larry Walker