Linguist, lexicographer, writer, editor, broadcaster

Drinking your words

My latest column in the Malaysia Star.

A recent New York Times article about Pu’er teas reminded me that I’ve been meaning to talk a bit about the names of food.

The article explained that the tea was thought to reduce cholesterol and cure hangovers, so the Pu’er name had become immensely powerful in selling teas.

This is something like a brand, which means the mark, name, or identifying characteristics of a product that help people identify it.

Usually, though, a brand belongs to a single company. The whole category of curative teas is called a vertical, meaning a single group of products which all compete for the same customers and the Pu’er teas are a smaller vertical still inside the larger one.

You’ll find a similar brand-like behaviour with prosecco, an Italian sparkling wine. According to another story in the New York Times, in 1984, Fabio Zardetto shipped 50 cases to the US. In 2007, he shipped 100,000 cases.

Now, he’s not quite yet in a position to compete against champagne, the French regional designation for the most famous of the sparkling wines. But he’s doing quite well.

He and the other Italian prosecco winemakers did it, of course, by turning their product into a brand and then marketing it. They create an atmosphere of desirability around their product so that distributors would carry it, wine experts would write about it, and customers would buy it. That is largely how names like “prosecco.”come to our attention these days.

Zardetto’s problem, and that of all the Italian prosecco-makers, however, is that “prosecco.”is the name of a grape. Therefore, anyone can call their sparkling wine a “prosecco.” even an Austrian company that sells the wine in cans at gas stations and features a nude, gold-painted Paris Hilton in its ads.

It’s hard to protect a brand name. In Europe, there are cultural, historical, and geographic ties to the names. Wines, beers, breads, balsamic vinegar, olives, and other things are all controlled in varying degrees in this way.

So a group of prosecco-wine makers are looking for protection for the name from the European Union.

The EU government make rules about what products can take what name. Prosecco, as similar as it is to champagne, is forbidden by law from taking the name “champagne.” The prosecco-makers, in turn, hope to forbid other growers and bottlers under the EU’s jurisdiction from using the name “prosecco.”

It’s the same with cheeses. “Parmesan.”and “parmigiano-reggiano.”are strictly controlled in Europe. You can’t sell a cheese by those names in Europe without meeting strict requirements as to where and how the cheese is made.

In the US, of course, we can and do call any cheese “parmesan.”or “parmigiano-reggiano.”

Of course, the US is the country where cheese product – a food-like substance that looks kind of like cheese and tastes kind of like cheese but might not contain any cheese whatsoever – can still be called “cheese.”

Outside Europe, of course, EU laws hold little sway unless there are international agreements. What work is done to control the naming is vaguely performed by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which is part of the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Basically, they try to ensure that when something is labelled, for example, “soy sauce.” you’re getting what you think you’re getting.

If you’re Japanese, you want to make sure that “soy sauce.”means a condiment brewed and fermented from soybeans, whereas if you’re an American manufacturer, you want to make sure that the meaning of “soy sauce.”is broad enough to include a condiment that contains an extract of soybean or some other protein, flavour enhancers, and artificial colouring. Again, something that is called “soy sauce.”but is sometimes very far from being soy sauce at all.

A decade or two ago, the Meritage Association of Napa valley created the “Meritage.”name so that they could label what are blended table wines as something other than, well, “table wine.”

The conventional wisdom about wines says that blended wines — those made from more than one kind of grape, like table wines — tend to be inferior, or at the very least too variable to be counted on from bottle to bottle, from case to case, or from year to year.

Nobody with any class or sophistication ever bought a table wine to go with an expensive meal. So the vintners of table wines wanted to class up (improve the image of) the category a bit.

To be a meritage wine, there are specifications as to the types of grapes that must be included (at least two of the grapes used in red wine from Bordeaux), and a vintner must be admitted officially as a member to use the name, which is jealously guarded.

Many controls on the names of other wines specify explicitly that a certain percentage of the wine must be a certain grape in order to take a certain name. Not that violations aren’t found but we have to take their word for it at every pour, don’t we?

Probably the most outrageous example of a product straying far from what its name originally meant is ketchup (or catsup), but I’m not even going to go there. Pass the fish sauce.

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Grant Barrett