It has recently been announced that the Napa Valley has been
granted geographical indicator ("GI") status by the
People's Republic of China, making it the first wine region
outside China to be granted this recognition.
The Napa Valley is an internationally renowned wine growing area
located in Napa County, California, United States. The growers and
vintners of the 435 wineries situated in the Napa Valley are known
for their wine making methods that combine cutting-edge science and
traditional techniques. The name "Napa Valley" is
therefore indicative of a geographical region in the US where wines
with specific characteristics are produced. This is known as a
"geographical term" or "geographical
As a general rule, a trade mark cannot be registered – or
offered any form of protection – unless it is capable of
distinguishing the goods or services of the applicant from the
goods or services of another. Accordingly, GIs are not usually
considered distinctive enough to be registered as trade
In fact, in South Africa, the Trade Marks Act precludes the
registration of a mark consisting exclusively of a sign which may
serve as a designation of geographical origin and a GI is generally
only afforded protection if the mark has become distinctive through
extensive use thereof in association with certain goods or services
or if it is registered as a certification or collective trade
However, use of a place name to describe a product which was in
fact made elsewhere, or when the product so described does not have
the usual characteristics associated with products from a specific
region, can mislead consumers. This is of particular concern to
wine and spirit makers where the geographical origin of their
products is often associated with the quality or characteristics
In an effort to address these concerns, member countries of the
World Trade Organisation negotiated the Agreement on Trade-Related
Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights ("TRIPS") in the
early '90s. This agreement included special provisions to
regulate the use of GIs. Article 23 of TRIPS prohibits any false
use of a GI, even if such use is not misleading or does not amount
to unfair competition.
The restricted use of the words "Napa Valley" is
therefore in line with the provisions of TRIPS.
The request for GI recognition in China was made directly to the
Chinese government by the Napa Valley Vintners ("NVV"), a
non-profit trade association responsible for promoting and
protecting the Napa Valley designation. Napa Valley wines have been
sold in China for the past 14 years and, although Napa Valley
accounts for just 4% of California's wine production, nearly
25% of NVV member wineries are exporting to China. Not only is this
recognition a great honour but it also allows the NVV to prevent
the use of the words Napa Valley on wines that are not produced in
The NVV's campaign to protect the "Napa Valley"
designation has also seen it granted GI status in other important
and emerging markets such as India, Thailand, Canada and
According to a recent report of SAWIS (South African Wine Industry
Information & Systems), South African wine exports to China
increased with almost 75% in 2011. Well-known South African
producer Leopard's Leap Wines entered into a joint venture
earlier this year to export nearly 2.9 million bottles of South
African wine to China and it is likely that more South African
producers will start to look at Asia as an export destination for
In this increasingly globalised economy, it is becoming more and
more important to grant GIs the appropriate protection. Although a
number of wine related GIs are protected in South Africa under the
Wine of Origin Scheme, it is becoming more important for South
Africa to protect its wine GI's in other export territories.
While South Africa has taken strides towards recognising this form
of intellectual property, it is yet to introduce a comprehensive
legal framework to provide adequate protection to both local and
Implementing such a framework would surely go a long way to
persuading international communities to recognise South
Africa's own GIs in their local markets.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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