Champagne chutzpah

A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. 

When she was studying French at Reading university in the late 1980s, Jayne Powell was so effervescent, Francophile and bibulous, she was known as Champagne Jayne. A trip to France as a 15-year-old schoolgirl had lit the flame and led to a fine French accent and a love of champagne.

After working in publishing in London, organising often champagne-based corporate events there, she decided in 1999 to transfer her skills to Australia – although says she was rather horrified by the narrow range of champagnes then available there. In 2003 she set up a corporate event consultancy, Wine at Work International, and held her first champagne masterclass in Sydney in 2004, having been inspired by a similar one hosted by Serena Sutcliffe of Sotheby’s in London. (She continues to commute between Sydney and the UK, not least to visit her mother in Wales.)

Realising earlier than some of her peers how useful social media could be in the promotion of wine, and herself, she set up a Twitter account and a website, styling herself Champagne Jayne. By 2009 she was lecturing on the confluence of wine and social media. In the same year she registered Champagne Jayne as a business name in Australia.

Three years later, perhaps emboldened by having written a book on champagne that the previous year had won one of the (many) Gourmand World Cookbook Awards (although she quarrelled with her publisher-turned-co-author), she successfully submitted a trademark application for Champagne Jayne in Australia in the entertainment category.

Then followed a bizarre sequence of events. On 8 September 2012 in Champagne she was made a Dame Chevalier de L’Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne. Her website shows her beaming with her new medal hanging on its broad green ribbon round her neck in a clinch with Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger. (Another shows her, in a picture taken by Renata Cooper, in a clinch with George Clooney – long story but more evidence of her persistence.) Less than two months later she received notice that the CIVC, the official governing body of champagne, had in the sternest possible terms lodged its opposition to the Champagne Jayne trademark.

The CIVC lawyers are the most active in the world of wine. Attempts to restrict the name champagne to the sparkling wines of the Champagne region are legendary, and have by and large been notably successful. Casual drinkers may call any wine that sparkles champagne, but anyone who tries to sell a product using the word champagne – not just Babycham and Spanish fizz but also, for example, a perfume or a brand of cigarettes – has been hounded, usually successfully, by the CIVC lawyers. Thanks to their efforts, even in the US the term champagne, once widely used commercially for any old sparkling wine, is now officially restricted to sparkling wines from the Champagne region together with a handful of historic American brands of sparkling wine.

All of the large companies involved in these lawsuits were successfully brought to heel but sole trader Jayne Powell seems to have been made of sterner – or at least more obstinate – stuff. The harder the CIVC pushed, the more she dug in her heels. Her defence was that she had been using the name for 12 years, she was an active ambassador for champagne and that there were several other trademarks (and Twitter addresses) that included the word champagne.

The Champenois were unimpressed, particularly since she did not restrict her comments to champagne. From her tally of more than 21,000 tweets, the lawyers found 84 that mentioned sparkling wines other than champagne. Four mentions of English sparkling wine on her website and three on her Facebook page were also cited in a letter sent to Jayne Powell by the CIVC’s British lawyers in June 2014, just after she had split up with her partner over her stubborn determination to fight to keep her professional name. The proceeds of the divorce actually helped underwrite her legal costs but she admits herself that the saga took a terrible toll and she has had to rely on anti-anxiety medication. She teared up when I asked what effect this saga had had on her mother (who accompanied her at the seven-hour mediation session in London); she is an only child.

I’m sure I would have given in long ago so I asked her, when she was in London recently, why, risking enormous legal costs and effectively having to give up work during the protracted fight, she kept on. She said ‘If I gave up, people would think I’d done something wrong. I was divorced, unemployed and in multiple litigations with no money, but they picked on the wrong woman. I thought to myself, I’m going to go the full monty because I’ve got nothing left to lose.’

From 2013 onwards she was locked in relentless combat with the high-profile Melbourne trademark lawyer hired by the CIVC and their legal team. They not only lodged opposition to her trademark but just before Christmas 2013, when, delighting both her mother and herself, she had appeared on national TV in the UK, recommending a range of champagnes for Christmas on ITV’s This Morning, the CIVC began federal court proceedings.

She managed to convince at least two sets of lawyers to represent her pro bono but sounds like a nightmare of a witness, constantly asking questions of those questioning her. The first lawyer dropped the case and sued her. By 2014 her new lawyer was getting three letters a week from the other side. ’The paperwork grew and grew', she sighed, hand at shoulder height.

The federal case was heard at the very end of 2014 and mediation was ordered, to no avail. The 98-page judgement was eventually delivered in October 2015. The judge said each party had had some success in the litigation and therefore must bear their own costs. He said Powell should have described herself as an advocate for champagne rather than an ambassador.

The CIVC, clearly as determined as Jayne, immediately took up the cudgels again in their challenge of her right to the trademark Champagne Jayne and final submissions were at last made at the end of last year. On 4 April this year came the judgement that she was allowed to use her contentious nickname. In one of his more memorable observations, the judge pointed out that when Buffalo Bill put on a show, it was extremely unlikely that his customers expected to see nothing but bison. Champagne Jayne was to be allowed to continue to refer to sparkling wines other than champagne, although she will have to re-apply for the trademark in five years’ time.

On the face of it, this looked like a David and Goliath battle, but with David in this case being a professional publicist. She made sure that wine writers around the world were aware of her fight, and the fact that she had to fund her own defence. I suspect that, had she been a wine writer pure and simple, her peers would have supported her more readily. As someone who operates on the far side of the gulf that, theoretically at least, separates those who report and those who promote, she has been all but ignored by the Australian wine press. Australian sparkling wine producers have been warned off fraternising with her. She herself says she feels like a pariah in Australia, although there have been some supportive tweets from the UK wine media since she announced her victory.

So what are her plans now? ‘I will continue to educate on champagne and the world’s best sparkling wines, but also about managing brands and small businesses.’ And she has also, perhaps inevitably, enrolled on a masters degree in Law, Media and Journalism at the University of New South Wales specialising in intellectual property.

The word chutzpah comes readily to mind when considering Jayne Powell. The job of promoting the CIVC in Australia is currently vacant, apparently. She thinks she would be the perfect candidate.

SOME CURRENT PARTICULARLY DELICIOUS CHAMPAGNES
These just happen to be those tasted most recently. See my tasting notes in Assorted posh champagnes, supplemented by tasting notes from Julia and Tam. 

WHITE

Billecart Salmon, Blanc de Blancs 2004, Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV, Cuvée Nicolas Billecart 2002
Bollinger, La Grande Année 2005
Dom Pérignon 2009, 2003, P2 Plénitude 2000, Rosé 2005
Egly-Ouriet 2003
Philippe Gonet, Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru 2009, TER Noir NV
Jacquesson, Cuvée 740 Extra Brut
Louis Roederer 2004
Pommery, Cuvée Louise 2002

ROSÉ

Billecart Salmon, Cuvée Elisabeth Salmon 2006
Dom Pérignon 2005
Dom Ruinart 2004
Charles Heidsieck 2006
Lanson, Noble Cuvée NV

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