Selling Champagne Today

Sparkling wine sales are traditionally heaviest during the holiday season. Pop, fizz, chin-chin: these are the sounds of merriment. But after January 1, Cava, Prosecco, Cramant, Franciacorta and Champagne lose their “fizz” in the consumer consciousness. So what are producers and retailers doing to spark sales during the more dormant months? Actually, more than one might imagine.

As a champagne consultant and writer, I have always advocated for champagne as a wonderful year-round go-to drink. No matter the season, the time of day, or the cuisine pairing, there’s always a place for champagne. Retailers know this, of course, but the issue is convincing and educationg customers about champagne’s wide variety of drinking occasions. I start by encouraging clients to keep a bottle of champagne in the fridge ready to go – not for a specific celebration, but just to pop open spontaneously – to welcome the end of the work day, for example, or to enjoy as a retro apéritif. I encourage my clients to see champagne as a wine of comfort and welcome, for home entertaining and cuisine-pairing.

And, of course, since there is a range of champagne styles, so it opens up a world of possibilities. There’s the sweetness level from extra brut to demi-sec, so you’ll find something to go with raw oysters all the way to dessert champagne. Then, you have youthful to mature. So an NV (non-vintage) wine for cocktail to a vintage wine to go with a meal. Lastly, there is the stylistic difference between the different blends of champagne: classic blend (a third of each of the three champagne grapes), blanc des blancs (100% Chardonnay), rosé, blanc des noirs (predominately black-skinned grapes) and single village wines. By changing a few habits and mindsets, retailers might just be able to get customers to purchase an extra bottle or two of bubbly on their next visit to the store.

Setting a Strategy

To sell champagne, it pays to have a strategy. Mike Martin, who handles the top champagne account sales at Selection Pas Mal – a New York importer carrying eleven brands of champagne, including the darling labels Laherte Frères and José Dhondt – groups his wines by Champagne regions. He emphasizes to his retail accounts that having a wine from each of the three main regions of Champagne provides diversity: the Vallée de la Marne is Pinot Meunier-predominant; Côte des Blancs is Chardonnay land; and the Montagne de Reims is known for its Pinot Noir. Martin focuses on selling styles of champagne rather than brands.

This sales concept, which Martin cleverly calls “distribution of style,” is more about educating the consumer on champagne styles than about pushing individual, lesser-known champagne houses on the consumer. This education-based and comprehensive sales model encourages a year-round rather than short-term, seasonal attitude toward champagne consumption.  “What I give the customer is an understanding of just how different these Champagnes can be, and also ways of selling the correct Champagne to the person looking for a particular style,” Martin explains. “Since all three are different, the merchant now has a few more suggestions to offer his customer.”

Staff training for retail accounts is another one of Martin’s key strategies. He teaches the staff about the three main regions that make up Champagne and also trains retailers how to ask the best questions to gauge their customers’ champagne preferences. Once the staff has taste-tested the wines they’re selling they feel more confident in their knowledge and, thus, make more sales. And to help break from the holiday-only stigma, Martin suggests emphasizing the culinary-accompaniment potential and cuisine-versatility aspects of champagne.

Champagne comprises a surprisingly considerable portion of sales for many A-list wine retailers. The prestigious Park Avenue retailer Sherry-Lehmann has long been one of  New Yorkers’ go-to place for bubblies. Known for the breadth and depth of its champagne selection, Sherry-Lehmann currently carries more than 260 champagne selections. COO and partner Shyda Gilmer says that champagne makes up almost 20% of the retailer’s total annual sales and has been on the upswing, with double-digit growth last year.

While Sherry-Lehmann has a long history of partnerships with high-profile champagne brands (including Roederer, Perrier-Jouët and Dom Pérignon), it consistently maintains marketing efforts and special offers in its catalog, which goes to a mailing list of 110,000 customers five times a year. In addition, about seven times a year Sherry-Lehmann has the cellar masters or proprietors of champagne houses conduct staff training and host in-store tastings. Gilmer also emphasizes the importance of its sponsorship of high-profile events, such as Fashion Week and Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), for maintaining the seamless association of champagne and Sherry-Lehmann.

Summer Promotion

In the age of online shopping, Sherry-Lehmann still uses its Park Avenue storefront window display as a key showcase for “special” wine promotions – of which its partnership with Veuve Clicquot’s Polo Classic last summer is a prime example. In conjunction with this partnership, every Friday last June it hosted free cocktail-hour tastings of the entire line-up of Clicquot champagnes to draw in clients.

Champagne houses have been slow to embrace social media as a free platform for their outreach and marketing. But, last October, notoriously marketing-savvy Nicolas Feuillatte, the fifth-most sold champagne in the U.S., launched an iPhone app called MobileToast, which entertains users while leading them, with a search engine, to the nearest retailers and restaurants carrying Feuillatte bottles.

The app lets the user correctly “open” a bottle of champagne. With one fingertip, the user unwraps the foil and uncorks the bottle. The cork pops and fizzes with a satisfying sound effect, and the user can even simulate pouring the champagne into the flute of another iPhone user. The app also contains a detailed fact page with food-pairing suggestions for every champagne bottling-from the Nicolas Feuillatte Brut to the top-of-the-line Palmes D’or.

Pascal Boyé – Feuillatte’s director of sales for North and South America and the face of the brand in the U.S. – realized ten years ago that giving the trade and media a chance to meet the cellar master was integral to building brand understanding and loyalty, especially given the mystery and competitive branding around champagne. Boyé calls this the “direct translation.” Every other year in April he hosts a themed event in New York for cellar master, Jean-Pierre Vincent. Last year’s theme was “component wines,” which anyone outside of Champagne rarely gets a chance to taste. These are the types of marketing strategies that will distinguish a brand in the retailer’s mind.

Year-Round Programs

The market leader and most recognized champagne label, Veuve Clicquot, has worked out a year-round “seasonal platform” program which covers all the in-between holiday months. December to March is “Clicquot in the Snow,” May to October is “Veuve Cliquot Polo Season” and Halloween to the end of October is “Yelloween.” In this way, Veuve Cliquot ties champagne to lifestyle, reminding consumers that there are reasons to enjoy champagne all year round.

“With ‘Clicquot in the Snow,’ we were planting the seeds for people to think of drinking champagne après ski, like in Europe,” explains Vanessa Kay, Vice President of Clicquot USA. This year in New York City, Clicquot adopted the “après skate” concept with a pop-up lounge in Bryant Park for post-skating relaxation. In Vail, Clicquot provided champagne at the Snow Tube-a-Thon.

Last summer, Clicquot hosted its third-annual Polo Classic on Governors Island. This is an event studded with stars (among them Prince Harry, Susan Sarandon and Mary J. Blige), but open to the public. The message was very much about making champagne part of your summer.

Clicquot also has been quick and savvy with the use of social media to reach its audience. With close to 14,000 followers, “@Veuve_Clicquot” is one of the most active and most followed Twitter accounts among champagne brands, giving the brand day-to-day presence in the lives of its loyal clients and helping to draw in new clients. The tweets make the yellow label dynamic and alive, and they keep the drink on the minds of their audience, from Hawaii to Abu Dhabi.

Also, Kay explains that Veuve Clicquot’s Facebook fan page holds fans captive by focusing on “social engagement and a personal experience.” Now there is a “Clicquot Cam” on the page featuring flip cam videos of Clicquot events and experiences – a more intimate look at the brand.

How about playing with bottle sizes as a marketing strategy? Pol Roger came up with a clever idea for Mother’s Day: half-bottles for Moms! The message is that all Moms deserve a few sips of champagne for a break during their day, and a half-bottle of the entry-level NV White Foil won’t break the bank nor seem decadent.

Champagne’s static and stuffy image seems to be loosening up. From the champagne houses to the importers and retailers, everyone is coming up with creative ways to move champagne from the oh-too-rare-special-occasion wine list into everyday life. And it seems to be working.          


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