There is perhaps no finer marketing machine in all the wine world than the one that operates out of Champagne. (You don’t get to be the world’s official party wine without doing something right.) And a little while back, that machine touched down on the rooftop of downtown’s Ivy Hotel, in the form of Dom Perignon’s national brand manager Nicole Ruvo and international brand manager Ludovic du Plessis, for a little lunch, a little chat with the local trade, and a tasting of three current releases from the estimable house: the Vintage ’99, the ’96 Rosé, and the ’93 Oenothèque — Dom that has been aged sur lie in the winery’s cellar for over a decade, then disgorged and released in a black-labeled bottle to distinguish it from, say, a Vintage ’93. All those years on the yeast, said Du Plessis, brought the wine to “its second window of maturity” with an added measure of complexity.
I was there to taste and to watch the marketing in action. We began with the ’99; Du Plessis began with a disclaimer: “I am not the chef du cave. I’m just going to express myself about the way I experience the wines. First of all, I want to say that Dom Perignon is a style; it’s a style of mouthfeel more than aromatics. The aroma is not the objective of the chef du cave. When we talk about mouthfeel, we are talking about structure; we are talking about weight. The second thing that struck me is the perfect balance between the Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir. The Chardonnay comes to the attack, and then the Pinot Noir comes slower, deeper.” Third impression: “Dom Perignon is seamless — from the first impression to the last impression, you don’t have any interruption. It’s like when Cocteau is making a drawing without lifting the pen. And what strikes me most is the paradox between freshness and maturity. Dom Perignon has at least seven years of aging in our cellars, so there’s a lot of maturity. But you also have a lot of freshness, vivacity. And the last thing is, the wine is very ethereal — it has a real body, but it’s not too heavy. I can say that it has more elegance than power.”
Smooth like butter. A crank might say, “A little light on the aromatics.” But Du Plessis has anticipated him: “The aroma is not the objective of the chef du cave. Dom Perignon is a style of mouthfeel.
“Richard Geoffroy is our chef du cave,” said Du Plessis when he sat down with me. “He’s the guy who creates the wine — he’s our John Galliano. He’s an architect of wine — very passionate.”
Ruvo got up to introduce the Rosé. “One thing I wanted to point out is your glassware. You’ll notice that these are not flutes” — they were white wine glasses. “That’s because our chef du cave is very adamant about Dom Perignon being meant to be enjoyed with food. To be able to taste out of a glass like this allows the wine to open and breathe, and that element helps it to exchange with the flavors of the food. We invite you all do to this in your homes and restaurants and nightclubs, because it is truly extraordinary.
“I think we’re accustomed to flutes,” she explained after taking her seat. “It’s just about education, explaining why we’re doing this.” But what about maintaining the bubble? “I think the flute is great for nonvintage Champagne. With nonvintage, you want the bubbles there, so flutes are perfect. But for a vintage Champagne like Dom Perignon, it’s not a key factor. Our bubbles are so much finer because of the longer aging process, so...’”
The chef du cave might have been adamant about Dom Perignon being enjoyed with food, but Du Plessis was less so. “Dom Perignon is a world unto itself,” he explained. “There are different facets. The night facet, the gastronomy facet…You need to have different messages to different people at different moments. The world knows about Dom Perignon, but there are different ways to experience it. It depends on the targets. If you are speaking to wine lovers, the message is not the same — they want to hear different stories about the brand. Some of them want to hear about Dom Pierre Perignon.” Others might prefer a story about the launch of Dom Perignon Rosé in 1971, at a monster bash “to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the Persian empire.
“The Shah of Iran came,” added Ruvo. “It was kings and queens and all of these fantastic celebrities. We have a very funny client — he’s quite a fixture in New York, he owns the Four Seasons restaurant — and I told this story to him once, and he said, ‘I was at that party.’ ”
So far, said Du Plessis, “I’ve been speaking as a wine lover, because I’m passionate about it. Then later, yes, I will meet everybody and have a discussion about what they expect. As the international brand manager, I need to have a vision of the markets. I know a lot about Asia. I know quite a bit about the U.S. and Europe. But San Diego, this part of the U.S., I really don’t know. So I wanted to be here to see the markets, to see about the new hotels, to meet the people in charge of the trade and discuss with them. To tell them the good word — what is happening in Asia, in Italy, in the nightclubs, in the hotels and resorts. There are different brands, but Dom Perignon is one, maybe the only one, that can cover all the markets, I think.”
He has some case. I once found Dom Perignon on the shelf at Vons in Laguna Niguel. A lot of brand-conscious California wineries — even wineries with high enough production for grocery sales to make sense — would just as soon avoid appearing on the shelf. They’d rather stick to restaurant lists and bottle shops. But Dom goes where it will, confident of its glamour’s indestructible sheen. Said Ruvo of Du Plessis, “Sort of his primary focus is the night. The night is really growing and expanding — we’re seeing this incredible trend internationally. People are not just going out and ordering cocktails. They’re wanting bottle service, they’re bringing eight to ten friends, and they’re wanting to drink tête de cuvée. They’re going in, and it’s the status; they want to say, ‘I’m drinking the best in the world.’ I was just in Asia, and I was shocked. I would go into a nightclub, and it was all tête de cuvée — Krug, Dom Perignon. And our big collectors are going into nightclubs and saying, ‘Oh, we can get Oenothèque? Fantastic!’ ”
The bump in quality may be real, but it seems the increased expense and rarity carry their own benefits. “At first, we said, ‘Oenothèque? No, not in nightclubs.’ But then we thought that you need to have this represented regardless — to have the three faces of the brand there. There are Asians who drink only Oenothèque. I said to one of my nightclub owners in Las Vegas, ‘Try the Black — in Asia, they refer to it as “Black Dom” — and let’s just see what happens.’ He said, ‘No, no — no one cares.’ I said, ‘Just take a three-bottle case.’ That was Wednesday. On Friday, he called and said, ‘I need to reorder.’ ”