Tuesday, 15 March 2016

"Them motherfuckers racist": how Jay Z's Armand de Brignac is coming out of the darkness and into the light

This article appears in the current issue of Meininger's Wine Business International

Eyebrows were raised when Champagne Armand de Brignac announced last year that it wanted to take its bottles “out of the night and into the daylight”. After all, this is multi-millionaire rapper and businessman Jay Z’s brand, it comes in a gold-embossed bottle with an Ace of Spades motif. It’s as closely associated with nightclubs as Frank Sinatra is with Las Vegas.

That spade shit...Jay Z and Armand de Brignac
The company – Armand de Brignac is now wholly-owned by Jay Z, who bought it outright in 2014 – is unambiguous about its new ambition. “We want to take it out of nightclubs and into the daytime,” marketing director Gerald Loparco said. “We’ve seen a strong evolution in the night industry. The new strategy is to establish the brand in the daylight. We’ve been in nightclubs too much.”

Mindful that bringing a brand blinking into the daylight also means there are fewer dark corners to hide in, the team behind the Champagne has been carefully updating its pedigree and ironing out the inconsistencies in the story of its creation.

The circumstances of Armand de Brignac’s birth are well-known, although the details remain foggy. In 2006 Jay Z – who had been wedded to Roederer’s top marque Cristal for at least 10 years, selling it in his numerous clubs and sports bars and other concessions – took offence at a remark made by Roederer’s new CEO Frederic Rouzaud. The latter, asked what he thought of the rap community being such fans of Cristal, replied, “What can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business." 

“Them motherfuckers racist” was how Jay Z pithily expressed his reaction in his song On To The Next One, adding, “so I switched gold bottles, on to that spade shit,” a reference to Armand de Brignac which – and this is where accounts diverge – he discovered in a New York bottle shop. In another video, Show Me What You Got, he waves away a bottle of Cristal in favour of Ace of Spades.

Armand de Brignac Brut Gold
Eight years later, in 2014, he bought the entire brand from New York drinks company Sovereign Brands.

Armand de Brignac is made by Champagne Cattier, a family-owned house with a couple of hundred years history in the premier cru village of Chigny-les-Roses. Its vineyards, notably the 2.2ha Clos du Moulin, are distinguished, but Cattier has no great international prestige. Indeed, when Armand de Brignac first came to Jay Z’s – and the world’s – notice, Cattier was not identified as its maker. The fact that Armand was a joint venture with Sovereign Brands also took some years to come to light.

From the start, journalists  in both the wine and the music business were intrigued. Armand de Brignac had appeared, fully-fledged and, at over $200 a bottle, in the front rank of Champagnes, almost literally overnight. Critics such as Jancis Robinson MW were effusive. She thought it so good, it made one of her favourite fizzes, Pol Roger 1999, seem “diffuse and ordinary”, she wrote in 2009.

But others were unsatisfied. Forbes.com’s Zack O’Malley Greenburg found the story “unravelling” as he delved into it. It was full of  inconsistencies, he said. The idea that Jay Z had found it in a New York store, for example: Armand de Brignac didn’t start shipping to the US until months after the gold bottle made its first famous appearance in Show Me What You Got. “When I confronted the folks at Cattier about this, they backtracked,” he wrote. He was told, “There’s a misunderstanding regarding how Jay saw the bottle. It was in New York, but not in a store.”

"You can't create a Champagne out of thin air..."

Over the ensuing ten years, Armand de Brignac has become used to fielding questions about its provenance. Its executives are notable for their accessibility and openness. “The Jay Z connection is very simple,” CEO Sebastien Besson tells Meininger’s. “He’s talented about spotting consumer trends.” Was he involved in creating Armand de Brignac? “Of course not. You can’t create a Champagne out of thin air.”

Besson is frank about their ambitions and reiterates what the other senior executives of the company say: their aim is to be spoken of in the same breath as Dom Pérignon, Ruinart and Krug. “We’re not shy about being a new brand. We’re not as visible as the prestige brands at the moment, but it’s amazing how much ground we’ve gained. If we’re in a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York, we’re fighting against the prestige brands.”

Price, rarity, history and quality - in that order

To exist in the rarefied atmosphere of the great Champagne marques, one has to satisfy four criteria – price, rarity, history and quality – often in that order. The first two are amply taken care of. Last year the new ultra-cuvée of Armand de Brignac was launched, a Blanc de Noirs that retails in Harrods for £695. There is another new wine, a demi-sec, which sits alongside the original Brut, a Rosé, and a Blanc de Blancs, all of which sell for between £250 and £350. Some 3,000 bottles of the Blanc de Noirs are made, and its price puts it in the same bracket as Krug Clos de Mesnil, Dom Pérignon Oenotheque, and other icons. One level down, the Brut and its siblings are on a par with Salon, Dom Pérignon, Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque and the like.

Creating a history for Armand de Brignac is trickier. The company now takes care that Jean-Jacques Cattier and his son Alexandre are on hand to provide a bit of Gallic credibility. The Cattiers were there at last year’s launch at the Churchill Hotel in London, sticking gamely if lugubriously to the story. “This is a big adventure for us. We launched the prestige brand less than ten years ago and we’re now in more than 100 countries. We can’t quite believe it,” Jean-Jacques said.

Image result for frank sinatra and vegas
Armand de Brignac and nightclubs "like Sinatra and Vegas..."
The setting for the tasting was a windowless book-lined room, reminiscent of a St James’s Street club, all dark wood and plush armchairs. The leather-backed volumes on the shelves were real, although they had a slightly ersatz look; closer inspection revealed they were unreadable Victorian treatises on land management, or bound editions of engineering periodicals.

If the bogus-yet-plush setting was somehow appropriate, it has to be noted that there is nothing fake about the wine in the bottles. Armand de Brignac is a very good Champagne, from excellent terroir. It’s not only Robinson who rates it highly. Two other critics of international standing, Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan MW, called it “extraordinarily exceptional.” In 2010, the Brut Gold NV was voted the world’s best Champagne by Fine Champagne Magazine (the winner in 2014 was Roederer Cristal Rosé 2002).

But there are dissenting voices too, and discreet enquiries around the London trade are likely to be met with a gentle pursing of the lips, and an arched eyebrow. “It definitely has a following but I’m not convinced of its quality,” one major London merchant told Meininger’s, making the point that “part of its cleverness is its anonymity – no one knows it’s Cattier”. Back in the Churchill, critics drew ironic comparisons between the fakery of the décor and Armand de Brignac’s lurid packaging.

The juice is exceptional...

Chief marketing officer Bernadette Knight (who comes from luxury conglomerate LVMH, whose list includes Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon, Krug and Ruinart) is unfazed by the criticism. “There’s some work to do on messaging,” she said. “We’ve got a job to do to reintroduce the brand. But the juice is exceptional and there is passion on the winemaking side. It’s an authentic and honest brand.”

Knight and her global marketing team (“all wine and Champagne specialists”) have been on a charm offensive, running “traditional tastings which allowed both trade and consumers to better understand, taste and feel the attention to detail, pride and passion that the 11th generation family winemakers, the Cattiers, have put into each bottle of Armand de Brignac.” She has placed the wine in upmarket restaurants worldwide, from Zuma and Hakkasan in London to LA’s Beverly Hill’s Hotel and Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, Johannesburg’s Signature and the St Regis, Singapore. “As we grow, what will remain most important to us is the continued focus on craftsmanship, quality and small batch production,” Knight adds.

The input of Jay Z himself is harder to nail down. He has an empire that is estimated to be worth some $550m, so a few thousand bottles of Champagne can’t occupy him that much. “He brings his sensibility to the brand. He was involved in  the design of the bottle, and he directs where the company goes, but he isn’t involved in the winemaking process,” Alexandre Cattier says.

Knight adds to this: her boss is looking far into the future. She tells Meininger’s, “He wants to create a legacy for his family. He has said, ‘This is the legacy I want to leave behind for my children’s children.’ Jay is a businessman. He wants to make a true luxury brand that stands with or without him.”

Every multimillionaire wants to own a winery. Jay Z has a brand, but is he looking around for something more concrete? “This is a family company,” Besson reiterates. “There may be a vineyard in France, one day.”






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