Lighten Up, Toravich

July 7, 2021

Little Vladimir is throwing his food around again.

I’m old enough to remember when Stolichnaya vodka was pretty much the only consumer product from Russia to be sold anywhere in America. That alone gave it an exotic allure, especially with “Imported from the USSR” emblazoned on the label.

Now, suppose that a bunch of American distillers had demanded that only the stuff they produced could be called “vodka” in America, and that imported vodka had to call itself “fermented potato juice.” At best, it would have given Leonid Brezhnev a hearty chuckle; at worst, it might have prolonged the Cold War.

That came to mind with the news that Moët Hennessy, bottler of Veuve Cliquot and other premium Champagnes, has given in to the latest tantrum of Vladimir Putin. Per his decree, any Champagne not produced in Russia must call itself “sparkling wine”; Moët Hennessy raced to produce special labels for Russia without the offending true nomenclature.

Well, this is certainly an...inversion. For decades, France and the European Union have insisted on the doctrine of “protected dominion of origin,” whereby only products that actually come from a certain region should be able to bear the name of that region. And for decades, the United States and other countries have persistently ignored them. Decreeing that wine can’t use the name of the place that it actually comes from takes this hostility to the next level.

You might think this is simple trolling, except this isn’t the first time Putin has gotten into a snit over food. He banned tomatoes from Azerbaijan last year because he was displeased with their fight with Armenia. He also blocked various European food imports in retaliation for sanctions imposed after his 2014 annexation of Crimea.

I don’t know whom Putin thinks he’s fooling, or protecting, with his denial that Champagne is Champagne. But I can picture the ghost of Brezhnev, whom he is said to admire, appearing one day to whisper in his ear: “Lighten up, toravich.”

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