For years, brandy fanciers could sample Cognac Frapin only at the family estate in the heart of Cognac, or at a handful of celebrated restaurants elsewhere in France.
An occasional bottle could be found at Fauchon, the longtime purveyor of fine food and drink on the Place de la Madeleine in Paris. And travelers might encounter it, masquerading under a variety of labels, at government-run liquor stores throughout Scandinavia, a major customer.
Cognac Frapin was not to be found, however, in the United States, where Cognac producers sold more than 27% of their brandy last year. That is changing.
Charles Kenis, president of Bel-Air Imports in Beverly Hills, is working with the Frapin family to market its top-of-the-line bottlings in selected U.S. markets, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and key markets in Florida and Texas.
"We target the outlets, and we target the customers," Kenis said during an interview Wednesday accompanied by Max Cointreau, a Frapin director. (In California, Frapin is distributed for Bel-Air by Southern Wines & Spirits.)
One specialty store mailed letters to its customers and sold 165 bottles of 20-year-old Domaine Frapin--with a suggested retail price of $45 for a 750-milliliter bottle--in three days. Wally's in Westwood is trying the same personal marketing touch.
"I don't think this approach has been done before," Kenis said. But he believes that the product's uniqueness--possibly the only estate-produced Cognac--warrants highly selective marketing. "You have to be creative when you can't throw the weight that others can," Cointreau said, referring to such Cognac giants as Hennessy, Courvoisier and Remy Martin (owned by his in-laws).
Until two years ago when he retired, Max Cointreau headed his family's liqueur operation, which in addition to the orange-flavored Cointreau also owns Pichon, an aperitif; an Armagnac; a Basque liqueur and Paris' noted Cordon Bleu cooking school.
Cointreau's wife, Genevieve, present matriarch of the Frapin family, is president of Cognac Frapin. Six of the couple's seven children work in the business, and a son-in-law tends the 342-acre vineyard in the center of the Grande Champagne appellation within the district of Cognac.
While U.S. consumption of distilled spirits has plunged in the 1980s, Cointreau said Cognac bucks that trend. U.S. sales doubled in eight years and tripled in 12, he said.