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Night of 10,000 bubbles

Champagne makers jockey to be the "It" bubbly. Forget what's in the bottle; they're selling mystique.

December 30, 2007|Adam Tschorn | Times Staff Writer

You first saw her at Jay-Z's side in the rapper's "Show Me What You Got" video last fall. Then her graceful curves and sparkling finery started appearing at A-list events all over the country: the Mayweather/De La Hoya after-party at Tao Las Vegas, Barry Bonds' record-setting home run celebration in San Francisco, the Beckham's celebrity-studded welcome party in L.A.

She's Armand de Brignac, the new "It" girl of the Champagne world: a $300 bubbly in a gold-plated bottle originally designed by Andre Courreges. Not bad for a brand that didn't hit the market until 12 months ago.

"Our sales of Armand de Brignac are rivaling Cristal," said Christian Navarro, a partner at Wally's Wines in Brentwood. "So they've managed to shortcut 150 years of traditional marketing."

In case you hadn't heard, Cristal, once the pour of choice for rappers, players and anyone celebrating their king of bling status, is persona non grata in the hip-hop world -- kicked to the curb like so much Cold Duck, after Jay-Z issued a boycott in 2006 after being offended by comments from the Louis Roederer Champagne house's Frederic Rouzaud.

Like the car you drive or the watch you wear, the bottle of bubbly you reach for Monday night to ring in 2008 is the kind of label that speaks volumes about who you are -- and how you want to be seen. It's as much about style as the buckle on your Burberry and the logo on your Louis Vuitton -- a fact that's not lost on the Champagne houses, which have abandoned selling what's in their bottles in favor of creating a mystique surrounding it.

In the derby to claim Cristal's crown as the toast of the town, the "Ace of Spades" -- as Armand de Brignac has been nicknamed, because of the insignia on the bottle -- seems to have come out on top. After cameos in two more Jay-Z videos (and another in a video by Fabolous), it turned up in Academy Award nominee gift bags and has been selling well at several exclusive L.A. wine purveyors.

But in Hollywood, as in fashion, the jockeying to be the "It" Champagne never really ends -- even for the centuries-old houses that can name-drop the likes of Czar Alexander II and Marie Antoinette or are the tipple of choice at official post-Oscar fetes.

If you're keeping score, it's Laurent-Perrier that's poured at the Oscars and the Emmys, Moet & Chandon that has been a fixture at the Golden Globes for more than a decade (as well as sponsoring a handful of fashion weeks around the globe) and Piper-Heidsieck that holds court at Cannes.

Michelle Rowell, Champagne brand manger for Piper's distributor Remy-Cointreau USA, said that's because it fits with the profile. "Each Champagne has a personality," she said. "We're an insouciant, fun brand, and we like to find ways to take the stuffiness out of the Champagne experience."

So, what does the Champagne you're pouring say about you?

Dana Farner, beverage director at Wolfgang Puck's Cut restaurant in Beverly Hills, said that most of the restaurant's popular Champagnes by the glass are price-driven. "When someone wants to come in and show the people they're with that they're there to have a good time, the bottle to impress remains Dom," she said. "It's the one that most of all says, 'I'm here to take care of you tonight.' "

Kell Wimmer, beverage director for the Dolce Group, which includes Hollywood restaurants Dolce Enoteca, Les Deux and Geisha House, said Dom Perignon and Cristal remain the major players -- especially at Les Deux (which is having a Dom-sponsored New Year's Eve bash). "It's so price-point driven. If they want to be a rock star and they want to be a baller, they'll go right for the more expensive ones such as Cristal or Dom. We have a guy who has a challenge with our GM at Les Deux. We typically run 30 to 40 bottles and he'll buy us out. He usually wins that bet."

Event planner Bryan Rabin of Rabin Rodgers, which has thrown some of the city's classiest fetes -- including last year's Skin & Bones gala for the Museum of Contemporary Art -- is partial to Veuve Clicquot. "For me it has always been about and it will always be about Veuve. I haven't had anything to drink for nine years, but when I did drink, it was what I drank. It's got this feel of taste and glamour. In fashion it's like when you become a gentleman, and the first thing you get is a camel coat or a Burberry trench. It's a classic, and classics never go out of style."

But tip too far and your Burberry trench could end up the Champagne version of True Religion jeans -- saturating a market to the point the cool kids move on. Which is why the cases of Veuve stacked next to the cash register at your local Cost Plus World Market are a problem. "We kind of wish they wouldn't do that," said Veuve's brand manager Aisha Thompson. "Are we worried about overexposure? Yeah, it's a concern."

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