David against Goliath

Coca-Cola vs. Coca Mariani: A Transatlantic Power Struggle

American giant Coca-Cola is squaring up to small-scale French producer Coca Mariani, accusing it of intellectual property infringement. But there’s just one problem: The Corsica-based tonic wine created in 1863 is actually 23 years older than the American soda. In fact, it’s the iconic drink’s “grandfather.”

Christophe Mariani was “dumbfounded” when he received a letter from Spanish law firm Hoyng Rokh Monegier in November 2019. Via its lawyers, the colossus from Atlanta – which sells almost two billion bottles every day – demanded that the small Corsican company change its brand name. “How can the Coca-Cola group attack our product like this?” said the man who rebooted Coca Mariani in 2014 and produces some 10,000 bottles per year. “We were there first!”

In 1863, a pharmacist in Bastia by the name of Angelo Mariani (unrelated to Christophe Mariani) came up with an idea to macerate Peruvian coca leaves in Corsican white wine, thereby infusing the liquid with cocaine and kickstarting a coca-mania. Patent medicines were highly fashionable, and cocaine – whose key components had only just been isolated by chemists – was soon renowned for its therapeutic properties. Vin Mariani – a.k.a. Coca Mariani – was recommended as a treatment of three glasses daily for sore throats, anemia, melancholy, impotence, and “exhaustion among children and the elderly.” According to advertisements at the time, it was “nutritious, more invigorating than quinquina, and tastier than dessert wine.”

A few years years later, Angelo Mariani was in Paris at the head of an increasingly vast empire. He had replaced the Corsican white wine by Bordeaux red, opened a pharmacy at 41 Boulevard Haussmann, and invested in greenhouses and a factory in Neuilly-sur-Seine, northwest of the capital. Using pioneering marketing techniques, he sent cases of his beverage to influencers of the day – politicians, ambassadors, military officers, members of the clergy, writers, and artists – who replied with handwritten letters singing the praises of Vin Mariani.

Angelo Mariani, photographed in Nadar’s studio, Paris, ca. 1900-1916. © Bibliothèque nationale de France/Gallica
An English-language poster advertising Vin Mariani, 1897.

A Storming Success Stateside

Some fourteen volumes of such reviews were published, including letters by Jules Verne, Emile Zola, composer Jules Massenet, tennis player Suzanne Lenglen, aviator Louis Blériot, and even Pope Leo XIII, who thanked the Corsican pharmacist with a gold medal. The renowned elixir “seems to expand all my faculties,” wrote the sculptor Bartholdi in 1896. “It may well be, had I known of it twenty years ago, that the Statue of Liberty would have reached some 330 feet high!” It then barreled into the American market backed by a barrage of advertisements in the press, and Angelo Mariani’s brother-in-law Julius Jaros opened a branch in Manhattan in 1889. Former president Ulysses S. Grant used it to soothe the pain caused by his throat cancer, while William McKinley, Thomas Edison, Buffalo Bill, and actress Lillian Russell were also loyal customers.

But with success came the inevitable copycats. At least twenty imitations were sold in the United States, including French Wine Coca created by John Pemberton, a pharmacist from Atlanta. “Mariani & Co., of Paris, prepare an exceedingly popular Wine of Coca,” he said in a press interview published in March 1885. “I have observed very closely the most approved French formula, only deviating therefrom when assured by my own long experimentation and direct information from intelligent South American correspondents that I could improve upon [it] […]. I believe that I am now producing a better preparation than that of Mariani.”

The same year, under pressure from the temperance movement, Atlanta and its county outlawed the sale of alcohol. To avoid going out of business, John Pemberton replaced the wine in his concoction with a blend of essential oils, sugar, and citric acid. The resulting syrup, mixed with soda water, was sold in the city’s pharmacies from May 1886. And so Coca-Cola was born. According to American journalist Mark Pendergrast, author of an (unauthorized) history of the brand, “Vin Mariani is, in effect, the grandfather of Coca-Cola.”

The Renaissance of an Ancestral Brand

Christophe Mariani is now counting on this heritage to save his company. Formerly a restaurant owner and DJ in Ajaccio, the self-taught entrepreneur and close friend of Angelo Mariani’s descendants revived the Corsican brand after it disappeared in the 1960s. The drink, recreated using the original recipe, is made with French white wine and alcohol distilled from Bolivian coca leaves. “Obviously, there is no cocaine in it,” says the Coca Mariani CEO. “Our product is 22% and can be enjoyed as an aperitif or a digestif, straight or on the rocks.”

Christophe Mariani. © Coca Mariani

Christophe Mariani then registered his trademark in Europe in 2019 – a move that caught Coca-Cola’s attention and led its lawyers to launch an opposition procedure with the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO). The term “Coca,” a diminutive of Coca-Cola, risked “confusing” consumers, according to Marine Carrié, the group’s corporate communications manager in France. “We trust that the EUIPO will rule in our favor. Of course, this will not prevent the Mariani company from continuing to sell its beverage. It will simply have to choose a name that does not refer to our brand.”

This statement shocked the Corsican producer. “We can’t change our name, that doesn’t make any sense. In our archives, I have a bottle from the 1870s with the inscriptions ‘Coca Mariani’ and ‘Trademark Reg. in U.S. Pat. Off.’” Other pieces of evidence put forward by Christophe Mariani include an advertising brochure published in 2003 by Socobo, Coca-Cola’s bottling partner in Corsica, mentioning Angelo Mariani’s contribution to the development of John Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. “Fundamental proof,” in the words of Antoine Chéron, who is representing the Mariani company.

The Corsican David Against the Atlantan Goliath

“Coca Mariani has nothing to do with Coca-Cola; it’s not a soda, it’s an alcoholic beverage made with coca leaves,” says the Parisian lawyer, an intellectual property expert. “The brand is not in conflict with Coca-Cola, it is merely trying to revive an ancestral product that reflects Corsican and French history. People in Corsica are wondering how Coca-Cola could possibly take away the rights of Vin Mariani.”

While waiting for a decision from the EUIPO, Christophe Mariani is chomping at the bit. He is even considering going directly to Atlanta, the historic headquarters of Coca-Cola, to plead his case. “We don’t have much influence compared to an international group, but our beverage has a history spanning 150 years that deserves to be recognized. It’s David against Goliath!”