MILAN (Reuters) - Hotel heiress Paris Hilton dressed provocatively in a skimpy leopard print outfit and showing off her bare legs is not an image Italian winemakers feel is fitting for their Prosecco white sparkling wine.
Yet Hilton, in various high-heeled stages of undress, graces the ads of Rich Prosecco, an Austrian company selling the bubbly in 27 countries. What's worse, in the eyes of Prosecco producers, Rich Prosecco also comes in cans and in two fruit varieties.
"Hilton hotels are a sign of quality; Paris Hilton is not," said Fulvio Brunetta, president of the wine growers association of Treviso, the northern Italian city in the Veneto region where Prosecco is made.
Paris, a symbol of celebrity privilege in America, gained notoriety in 2003 when a home video of her having sex with a boyfriend was posted on the Internet.
She parlayed her notoriety, fueled by tabloid headlines about her partying lifestyle, into a celebrity career that has included reality television, a book and film roles.
Last year she spent more than three weeks in jail for violating probation in a drunk-driving case.
"Paris Hilton is sensationalism. It's not good. It's not adequate for Prosecco," Brunetta said.
The association is planning two meetings next week to decide on ways to protect the Prosecco name and insure that any company selling Prosecco is actually using wine made from the Treviso area.
"Without stricter rules, Rich Prosecco or another company could sell Prosecco made in Brazil or wherever," Brunetta said.
That's not going to stop Rich Prosecco, which says it sources its wine from the Treviso area.
"We follow exactly European laws, which are very strict, especially concerning wine," said Rich Prosecco Chief Executive and owner Gunther Aloys, who founded the company in 2006 in the Austrian ski resort of Ischgl.
To respect wine laws, Rich Prosecco's two fruit varieties, with a lower alcohol content and called Rich Passion and Rich Royal, are not labelled Prosecco.
Last year Rich Prosecco sold 10 million cans, primarily in Germany but also in China, India and South Korea, for about 2 euros (about $3) a can.
The company's rapid growth mirrors the rise of the Prosecco region, which last year produced 50 million bottles, up 14 percent from 2005, and is increasing exports to Canada and the United States, though Germans remain the top foreign buyers.
The winegrowers are concerned that Rich Prosecco may give their wine the image of a cheap fruit drink.
And then there's the cans, advertised by Paris, nude and painted in gold in one ad reminiscent of the James Bond film Goldfinger.
"In the U.S. and Australia they toast with beer bottles," Brunetta said. "That's their culture. The culture of Prosecco is one of friends meeting around a good bottle."
Rich Prosecco's Aloys says he is helping build the wine's world renown and does not understand the fuss.
"It's as if someone from Champagne would oppose us selling champagne cans with Kate Moss for example. It's just marketing and Paris Hilton is the most famous girl in the world."
Last year Paris's grandfather Barron Hilton said he would donate 97 percent of his $2.3 billion fortune to charity.
Jerry Oppenheimer, who profiled the Hilton family in his 2006 book "House of Hilton," has said Barron Hilton is embarrassed by the behavior of his socialite granddaughter Paris and believes it has sullied the family name.
Barron Hilton has not commented on the book.
Reporting by Mathias Wildt