San Diego’s social status is ascendant. Of course, you knew that already — you live here. You’ve eaten in the new restaurants, drunk in the new nightclubs, partied in the new hotels. I mention it only because the word seems to have gone forth and found an ear in the upper echelons of the wine world. And so, recently, we got to play host to the national and international brand managers for Dom Perignon, who stopped by for lunch at the Ivy on their tour of the West Coast.
Brand managers are marketers, and marketing is at the very heart of Champagne — always has been. One of the two extant letters written by Dom Pierre Perignon, the Father of Champagne, is addressed to the town manager of Epernay, and reads, “Monsieur, I have given you twenty-six bottles of the best wine in the world.” I was delighted at the chance to watch these two professional brand managers as they plied their craft, playing the parts of passionate consumer, honored guest, savvy trendspotter, and Bearer of the Brand. (By this, I don’t mean to imply any disingenuousness, only to admire their ability to wear many hats at one meal.)
The two left in their wake a sleek black envelope — the press kit for the Vintage ’99 Dom Perignon. Inside the envelope was a sleek black folder, and inside the folder, sleek black photographs of Dom Perignon, both in and out of a sleek black box. There were other photos as well: Dom with caviar, Dom embraced by a langoustine, Dom with a fine cigar. And there was a written report: The 7 Sensualities. “How can it be so powerful yet complex, so subtle yet mature?” asked chef du cave Richard Geoffroy in the opening quote, marveling at his latest creation. “That’s the wonderful paradox of Dom Perignon Vintage 1999. We created the 7 sensualities to give this unique wine, full of light and darkness, the theatrical setting it deserves.”
The light, in this case, was provided by “the luminous freshness of the fruit,” its opposite by “the dark mineral character of the mature wine. The wine’s relief, complexity, and chiaroscuro are worthy of Caravaggio.” Fantastic. “In these seven intense, subtle experiences for the senses, pleasure leads to revelation and revelation brings further pleasure.”
Dissolving: Three marine metamorphoses
Pearlescent: Thai langoustine soup
Intense: Black mole
“As we journey through these seven stages, an arc of Dom Perignon Vintage 1999 flavors is defined…Beginning and ending with dark flavors, it peaks with bright tastes at midpoint. The ‘7 Sensualities’ are not meant to compose a meal or an appetizer. They are components of an unforgettable ceremony, a unique experience befitting the theatricality of Dom Perignon Vintage 1999. They are the pure expression of luxury the Dom Perignon way.”
Amazing, no? It’s hard to imagine a more self-assured performance, and this is just a press kit. What fun to actually share in that “unique experience”! Sadly, it was not to be — I cannot report to you on the veracity of these claims. What I can do, though, is linger a moment over the report’s opening grafs and shed a bit of gentle light on how your marketing gets made. As I said, I find it delightful to watch a master at work.
The opening gives a bit of history, an image of the days when Hautvillers was still an abbey run by Benedictine monks. “For 47 years,” attests an early, stage-setting sentence, “Dom Perignon worked on creating, perfecting, and establishing the reputation of what would later be known as the ‘Champagne’ method.”
See, that’s true, but maybe not in the way that you think. You read “ ‘Champagne’ method,” and you think, naturally enough, “Methode Champenoise” — bubbly in the best sense. But that’s not what Dom Perignon the man meant. According to Don and Petie Kladstrup’s Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times, “Bubbles were considered a flaw” in Perignon’s day, “a vicious caprice of nature, and Dom Perignon worked assiduously to eliminate them from his wines.” He never quite succeeded, because the Champagne region was cold enough to send the fermenting yeasts into hibernation before they’d finished eating all the sugar in the wine. When spring came and the yeasts woke up, boom — hello second fermentation, and hello bubbles.
However, the Kladstrups write “what he did accomplish was something much more important. He set down what some have called the ‘golden rules of winemaking’…Use only the best grapes…prune vines hard in spring to avoid overproduction; harvest in the cool of the morning…Because of his gifts of observation, very sure taste, and assiduous work, Dom Perignon succeeded in making wine that was better than anyone else’s.” That was the original Champagne method, and “if the few remaining documents are accurate,” most of it was practiced on, of all things, red wine. It’s a ridiculous amount to explain, however, and so the marketer lets you think what you will. This isn’t Wine History 101.
The Perignon report continues: “A man endowed with amazing intuition and foresight, he divined the promise of hidden luxury in the grapes of Champagne.”
Well, sort of. The abbey of Hautvillers had been sacked and burned again and again in the chaotic aftermath of the Crusades. Its vineyards had once made wine for kings (King Phillipe-August, Charles IV, Philippe VI). Perignon, the newly appointed business manager of Hautvillers, had the foresight (hindsight?) to realize that the restoration of the abbey’s fortunes hinged on the restoration of its vineyards. Looking at ruined rows of grapevines and seeing a chance at financial rehabilitation — divining the promise of hidden luxury in the grapes of Champagne. I tip my hat.
And finally, this: “Père Perignon’s wine became the iconic beverage of a new spirit of libertinage that took hold during the Regency and then under Louis XV. This lifestyle earned the 18th Century a reputation as the age of pleasure.” (Note the definite article.)
“A spirit of refinement,
voluptuousness, delicacy, exuberance, and sensuality reigned in every sphere of life, from the salon to the boudoir.”
“Libertinage” is a delightfully unusual word meaning “libertinism,” which means “in the manner of a libertine,” that is to say, “a person who is unrestrained by conventional morality; specifically, one leading a dissolute life.” Well, they got that part spot-on. The
regent was the Duc d’Orleans, in whom, according to old Louis XIV, “all the vices competed for first place,” who exhibited “unbridled tastes of the flesh.” The Duc liked his Champagne bubbly, and according to one of his drinking buddies, “The orgies never started until everyone was in that state of joy that Champagne brings.”
As I say, I don’t wish to be in any way construed as harshing on Dom Perignon, a truly fine Champagne house. They are, after all, carrying on a tradition of extraordinary marketing, and in far less bombastic terms than were once employed. Back in Louis XIV’s day, a couple of royal doctors ignited an already-smoldering feud between Champagne and Burgundy (both were making red wine at the time). One blamed Champagne for the king’s health troubles, including gout and an anal fistula. Burgundy was prescribed as a remedy. The dean of the Beaune medical school weighed in on behalf of Burgundy. The Faculty of Medicine in Reims argued that Champagne brought on greater longevity.
I’ll turn it over to the Kladstrups for the rest: “In 1712, when a professor from a college in Champagne wrote an ode in Latin praising the local wines, the city of Reims rewarded him with huge quantities of Champagne, along with a pension…By the end of the year, Paris was awash in pamphlets, poems, theses, and other wine-quarrel-related polemics…” Now, we have the quiet elegance of The 7 Sensualities.