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Trademark ensures there’s only one place to ride ‘Champagne Powder’

A Colorado ski resort’s ownership claim for the term “Champagne Powder” dates back to the 1950s.

(CN) — There is nothing like riding a good powder day in the Rocky Mountains. There are countless tales of people moving to Colorado after falling in love with one ski run or another. The Centennial State is generally known for its loose, dry snow, but different topographic conditions create variations in water content and depth.

That, along with a trademark stamped by the U.S. Patent and Trade Office, is why Steamboat Ski Resort in Steamboat Springs claims to be the only place in the world with "Champagne Powder" snow.

Local lore has it that rancher Joe McElroy coined the phrase in the days of barrel-stave skis with beartrap bindings. The story goes that on a particularly beautiful powder day, he said the snow tickled his nose like champagne.

While the patent office generally rejects descriptive trademarks like “green grass” or “blue sky,” the phrase “champagne powder” was deemed quirky enough to slide.

“When you have a mark that is somewhat descriptive of the beautiful fluffy snow that we get here, everyone wants to use it,” said Tamara Pester Schklar, a Denver trademark attorney who runs Snowgrrl.com. “In order to prevent other entities from using it, their attorneys would have to send a bunch of cease and desist letters.

“For skiers, a powder day gives you that light, fluffy feeling like you're floating on the snow. There's really nothing like it. That's why so many of us live in Colorado and love our Epic passes or whatever ski passes we've gotten for the season.”

Her favorite place to ride is Powder Mountain in Eden, Utah.

“It was literally the deepest powder I have ever experienced, and it was falling as we were skiing, and I had never had a day like that before,” Schklar recalled.

It will always be debatable whether the best snow falls in Utah, Colorado or elsewhere. Not even science can settle it.

In a paper published by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society in 2009, researchers at the University of Utah’s Storm Peak Laboratory concluded, “it is not possible to show that the snow in Utah is the greatest on Earth, [but] nonscientific skier surveys do indicate that Utah's Wasatch Mountains have a strong powder skiing reputation."

The researchers described the properties that made the Utah mountains famous.

"We propose that this reputation is not based on unusually dry snow but a high frequency of days on which both the water content and quantity of freshly fallen snow enable deep-powder skiing,” the researchers wrote. "So-called bottomless powder in which the skier is floating in the new snow, does not feel the underlying snow surface, and experiences 'face shots' (i.e., powder lofting onto their body and face) represents the apex of powder skiing."

The study estimated the water content in Steamboat snow averages 7.2%, making it drier than many surrounding areas. In advertising, Steamboat Ski Resort cites earlier work published by a Storm Peak researcher in the 1990s documenting the area’s snow density at 6% water.

Located in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, Steamboat is 100 miles north of the popular Interstate 70 corridor ski areas. As air travels east from the Pacific Ocean, it loses significant moisture over the Mojave Desert. When an air current hits the Park Range, orthographic lift forces it upward, causing the mass to cool and, under the right conditions, release extremely dry snow.

Steamboat Springs is also home to one of America’s oldest ski areas — Howelsen Hill, founded in 1914. While Howelsen arguably gets the same dry precipitation as Steamboat Ski Resort, it can only be called generic “sparkling wine” snow.

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With the outdoor recreation industry contributing $454 billion to GDP in 2021, the corresponding trademark space can feel as crowded as the bunny hill after New Year’s. After all, there are only so many ways to evoke the spirit of adventure. Even “epic” is owned by Vail.

“Most outdoor companies are going for the feeling of being out in nature, or getting outside and feeling that sense of adventure, trying to evoke freedom,” said Adrienne Fischer, founder of Basecamp Legal in Denver. The firm specializes in outdoor brands.

“In almost any space right now, it's a challenge to find names, so I've always encouraged my clients that the more fanciful or arbitrary a name is, that doesn't have a relation to what they're doing, the more likely we might be able to get a trademark,” Fischer said. “We always tell them don't get attached to a name until we run a search.”

Fischer said Steamboat’s history and consistent enforcement of the “Champagne Powder” trademark strengthens its claim. She also likes the snow there.

“I really liked the back part of Steamboat, they've got beautiful tree runs and I have been there when it has been that Champagne Powder that they talk about, and it's exhilarating. It's a great ski day when that happens,” Fischer said.

But Fischer’s favorite run is the “Long Shot” at Snowmass, which she hit on an unforgettable Valentine’s powder day one year.

Although the Champagne region of France carefully protects its eponymous wine, the bureau has limited jurisdiction in the U.S.

While the French Champagne Bureau protects use of the name "Champagne" on wine in the U.S., it has no jurisdiction over names for snow (Murray Foubister).

Importantly, the wine agreement only applies to wine — not other uses of the name ‘Champagne,’ such as ‘Champagne powder,’” a spokesperson from the Champagne Bureau USA said. “However, we continue to work to ensure that wine place names such as Champagne are protected in all manners."

Although “Champagne” sparkling wine is protected as an appellation d'origine controlee under European Union law, the United States hammered out the Agreement on Trade in Wine allowing American vineyards to use the qualifier “American Champagne” or “Californian Champagne” on certain bottles.

The Champagne Bureau wants to see the 2006 agreement overturned.

“We also advocate for all mislabeling of U.S. sparkling wine to be permanently banned in the United States,” the spokesperson said.

Steamboat Ski Resort’s trademark is limited to association with entertainment and recreational facilities, including skiing facilities, ski instruction and resort lodging. One might argue that’s enough to protect the Champagne Powder donuts they serve, but the resort holds no claim over other uses like champagne powder makeup or paint.

Courthouse News records show Steamboat Ski & Resort Corporation filed just one trademark suit against the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau in 2014. Rather than boutique snow, the issue was whether the Utah city’s “Ski City USA,” was too similar to Steamboat’s “Ski Town U.S.A.” mark. The parties settled out of court that year.

Utah fought to protect its trademarked claim on the “greatest snow on Earth,” against a 1995 challenge filed by Ringling Bros., which owns the “greatest show on Earth.” The Fourth Circuit sided with Utah in 1999, saying the circus company failed to prove dilution or that consumers were confused by the branding similarity.

For Loryn Duke, director of communications at Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., protecting the trademark is personal.

“We want to make sure that for future generations ‘Champagne Powder’ can be associated with Steamboat,” she said.

Her favorite run depends on the day’s conditions.

“If it is a supreme Champagne Powder day where it's just really like fluffy, amazing snow, I really enjoy being in our trees,” Duke said. “But if it's not a fresh Champagne Powder day, I like being on Sunshine Lift Line, it's a great groomer.”

While some cherish fine Champagne Powder, others prefer fluffy Vermont goose feathers or Sierra cement. The best snow, after all, is in the eye of the lift pass holder.

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