IT SEEMS that the partners at Corrs Chambers Westgarth know a lot about French wine, if only on how to protect its intellectual property.
Partner Stephen Stern was awarded the “Chevalier de l'Ordre du Merite — Agricole” by the French Minister of Agriculture — which translates to the Knight of the Order of Merit — Agriculture. Stern received the honour in recognition of more than a decade and a half’s work protecting French wine appellations of origin, such as Cognac, Champagne, Bordeaux and St Julien.
“It’s an award that was inaugurated by the French government in the mid-19th century to reward people who had made contributions towards the French agricultural system,” Stern said. “It’s like one of the grades of the Order of Australia.”
When the work first came to Stern, he had no idea it would last for so long.
“In 1987, the French Government decided they needed to do some work protecting names in Australia, and they asked their English lawyers to recommend a firm, and they recommended us,” he said. “It happened to fall into my pigeon hole by chance.
“But I’ve been lucky that it extended from that one case in Australia to protecting all French appellations of origin in Australia, and many around Asia Pacific.”
Although the need to protect appellations of origin arises less frequently today (perhaps two or three cases a year), it was a different story back in the late 1980s. Stern offered the light, fruity red wine of Beaujolais by way of example, which at that time was being used by 40 or 50 Australian wine producers.
“Originally when we started the work in ‘87 and ‘88, there were a number of Australians who beat the doors down to the press to say, ‘how bloody outrageous of the French to do this sort of thing’,” he said.
“However, in due course, most of the Australians gave up, voluntarily. You’d write to them, and they’d eventually say, ‘alright, we’re not going to use the name, we don’t need French names — we want to be Australian, we want to use Australian names’. And quite a number of them use me as their lawyer now.”
An honour usually reserved for French citizens, the Ordre du Merite — Agricole can only be awarded to those who have provided a service to the country for more than 15 years. The presentation was made in Paris last month by Marie-Helene Bienayme, one-time deputy director and head of the legal and international service of the French National Institute of Appellations of Origin (INAO).
Although 95 per cent of his work has been with French wine, at times Stern has had to deal with cheese, chicken and even lentils.
Even today, he is still working with the INAO on a daily basis, so French wine is still very much a part of his life.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a wine expert, but certainly I love my wine,” he said. “I know a little bit about it — I know enough to get me into real trouble.”