The Bubbly Backstory

Long before the First World War nearly destroyed Champagne as a winemaking region, another war gave birth to it: the First Crusade, launched by Pope Urban II in 1095. According to Don and Petie Kladstrup's book Champagne: How the World's Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times, the First Crusade set up the Champagne region to be the great marketplace at the crossroads of Europe's major east-west and north-south trade routes. It also facilitated the transfer of vineyards to the Church (by way of the Crusaders' wills), after which they were cared for by monks, "the true oenologists of the day."

That set the stage. But Champagne did not begin making the jump from wool region to wine region for another century or so. What happened? Marketing. Marketing has been Champagne's genius "from the very beginning," said Petie when we spoke, "when it was a wool-trading place, and they decided, 'Well, maybe we can entice one or two extra merchants if we offer them a little bit of free wine. '"

If bubbles are what Champagne is famous for, it's marketing that has made Champagne famous. It comes as small surprise that Champagne was the first product advertised on a poster, and I can think of few things so firmly wedded in the consumer consciousness as Champagne and celebrations -- maybe diamonds and engagements. Exhibit A: In 1867, a US consular officer named Robert Tomes published a book entitled The Champagne Country, in which he recounted, among other things, a visit to the city cemetery. After beholding stones bearing names such as Heidsieck and Clicquot, he remarked, "I had never thought of those jolly names, so associated with gaiety, weddings, feasts, and merrymakings, being crowned with death's heads and bloody bones."

Those bubbles make a splendid example of the region's marketing genius. The monk Dom Pierre Pérignon did much to improve the quality of winemaking in Champagne. He did not give bubbly to the world. Yeast gave bubbly to the world, and Dom Pérignon fought it all his life. But Champagne after World War I needed a champion, and the good monk was a fuzzy enough historical figure that the Champenois could graft a history onto him without much objection.

They decided to honor the "250th anniversary of Dom Pérignon's 'invention' of sparkling Champagne" with a three-day party. "There were papers by leading scholars and speeches by government officials," reports Champagne, "all rendering homage to Dom Pérignon's genius. There was also a lot of Champagne poured, so much, in fact, that no one noticed that not a single paper or speech ever specified exactly what it was Dom Pérignon really had done. But none of that mattered. The celebration achieved its purpose. Sales of champagne soared and Dom Pérignon became the man of the hour."

The previous century had seen marketing help transform Champagne from a sweet wine to a dry one. Louise Pommery led the way, though she was following her customers when she made the switch; she'd heard the rumblings from across the channel. "Champagne was trying to distinguish itself," said Petie. "England was the chief customer, and England already had so many sweet wines -- Port, Madeira, Sherry. Champagne was trying to figure out a way to make itself unique, and also, if the wine was dry, they could sell it as something to drink throughout the meal."

These are the tame stories. There are better ones -- Champagne at society orgies, Champagne bootlegged into America, Champagne smuggled through Russia ahead of invading armies. You'll have to buy the book for those, because I want to get back to the Kladstrups' central theme: the intertwining of war and Champagne. Even here, amid the ravages of war, marketing exerted its influence. After Napoleon's defeat, Russia, Prussia, and Austria all invaded France. Champagne became occupied territory, and the producers' cellars were plundered. But Jéan-Remy Möet, we learn, "remained sanguine through the worst of it as he recalled an old French proverb: 'Qui a bu, boira' (he who has drunk once will drink again). Jean-Rémy was convinced, as he told friends, that 'All of these soldiers who are ruining me today will make my fortune tomorrow. I'm letting them drink all they want. They will be hooked for life and become my best salesmen when they go back to their own country.' He was right."

Whatever else has changed in Champagne since the wars -- the trend towards corporate ownership being the most obvious shift -- the importance of marketing has remained the same. Said Petie, "The incredible success of Champagne advertising is a reflection, in a way, of the idea of working together. It comes out even now. When we were talking to various Champagne producers about publishing the book, you could almost guarantee that one of the first phrases out of their mouths would be, 'Well, we want to make this a Champagne-wide event. We don't want to stress one brand over another.' They are very, very conscious of the idea that they sink or swim together."

To that end (at least partly -- surely a devotion to quality is also at work), Petie said that "There are more regulations in Champagne than anyplace else. I think it's the most strictly controlled wine in the world. One of the great dramas it's facing right now is that the Champagne growing area is planted to the maximum. If demand keeps growing, what do you do? Do you decide you can open up other land for planting grapes, and perhaps reduce the quality? Or do you raise the prices? That's the great discussion." Added Don, "And the Champagne community is sharply divided, with one side saying, 'You're going to destroy the image and the quality of Champagne if you go further,' and the other side saying, 'There's a market for it, let's expand the boundaries.'"

In parting, Don offered this, the latest relation of war and bubbly, and a final testament to the power of marketing: "Even today -- as Americans were boycotting French products because of the war in Iraq, and especially French wine, the one exception to all of this was Champagne sales. While everything else plummeted, sales of Champagne actually increased." Petie chimed in, "One producer said, 'People who drink Champagne don't boycott. '"

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