Three be the things I shall ne’er attain: envy, content and sufficient champagne.–Dorothy Parker
by Jack Robertiello
The rumors have been swirling for months that NONE of us will be able to get enough of the bubbly to meet millennial demands. Journalists, spurred on by shrewd marketers trying to build sparkler-mania, have already started working their sources, trying to drum up enough worried wine-watchers to support the ultimate millennial disaster story–NOT ENOUGH CHAMPAGNE.
Like other infamous and untimely demises, the vanishing supply of sparkling wine will probably turn out to be a myth. Won’t it?
“Some people have created quite a bit of panic about the millennium and its celebrations,” says Jean-Louis Carbonnier, head of the Champagne Wines Information Bureau in New York. “But there’s really no reason at all to be concerned.”
Yet certain prestige bottlings and cuvees may quickly disappear, Carbonnier warns, and if the top priced brands like Dom Perignon, Dom Ruinart and Cristal start to tighten up, then buyers will be forced to be more creative in their purchasing plans.
But while beating out other operators with well-developed sparkling wine clientele to prestige cuveés and select vintages from top-of-the-line producers may take a bit of finesse, mass-distributed French champagne will be available in abundance, he says, reassuringly.
But others are not so confident. Michelle Drinks, manager of San Francisco’s Bubble Lounge, where sparkling wines are the focus, says distributors are already withholding some champagnes until the end of the year, in some cases until next year, to get a better price. She believes sparkler distributors can already look forward to a 30% increase in volume next year. “People are realizing that champagne’s something everyone can enjoy.”
Events like the Champagne Wine Bureau’s Champagne Challenge, have put some life into the bubbly.
Prestige cuvées, already likely to be allocated to favored operations which consistently showcase and move significant amounts of product, are getting harder and harder to procure. And although most attention is focused on prestige cuvées and best vintages, like those of Cristal and Dom Perignon, a concern about shrinking supplies is starting to emerge across the board, says Drinks. The Bubble Lounge, which one might think could exert a certain influence over distributors and champagne houses due to its NY-SF bi-coastal buying power, doesn’t usually have any trouble. Usually.
“Most distributors don’t have either the Dom Perignon or the Cristals–even ours is making it harder for most clients, but we can usually get them. Yet even we can’t get any more Dom Perignon 1985; they’re completely out.” Even though her purveyors are likely to hold back cases for her, she’s still looking at the possibility of extra storage space to stock up for what she believes will be a run on the bubbly.
The extent to which wine buyers are worried seems to depend on who you are, and where you’re doing business.
“We’re buying some special bottlings to expand our selection, and some wineries are releasing older stock that we’re looking at, but we don’t feel it’s necessary to be stockpiling champagne for the millennium,” says Andrea Immer, beverage director of NYC’s Windows on the World. “The shortage discussion is really only relevant for retail stores and then probably only for things like the Dom Perignon 1990.”
Dedicated to the good life, Chicago’s luxe Narcisse thrives on the connection to champagne’s high profile lifestyle,but managers don’t worry about the so-called bubble shortage.
But many marketers, distributors and manufacturers are bracing for–and aggressively spreading the word about–what they hope will be a booming year. According to an interview with David Brown, vice president, director of marketing and advertising of Freixenet USA, published in Adams Business Media’s Beverage & Food Dynamics this month, most sparkling wine producers will run out of product before the end of 1999. In fact, he expects total sparkling wine sales will rocket up in 1999 by 33%. (Brown has published and distributed his sparkling predictions in a brochure called “Millennium Planning Guide for Retailers and Restaurateurs.”)
Imported champagne and sparkling wines last year continued a three-year growth pattern, ticking up 1.5% in volume over the previous year, while domestic sparkling wines rebounded from a slight 1996 decline to increase 2.5%, according to the Adams Business Media 1998 Wine Handbook. Imported sparklers, including champagne, are already above 1993 consumption rates, and while sales for 1998 are expected to be up only slightly, 1999 promises great things, according to many producers.
And the year-end holiday is traditionally already the dominant season for the category; purchases in December 1997 accounted for 37% of the entire year, more than from May through September.
PLAYING HARD TO GET
For Kathryn Sullivan, a partner in Chicago’s Narcisse, dedicated to champagne, foie gras, and “the good things in life,” the champagne scare is just that. “I think there’s a bit of hysteria about this, a great promotional hype. We’re talking to our suppliers and building our inventory up, but I don’t know how much of a shortage there will be.”
Sullivan’s Narcisse isn’t likely to be stiffed this year or next on high-market champagnes, the wines that she sells year round. But she has learned that to play in Chicago, you must carry a full line of a house’s products if you expect to keep the pipeline open in the holiday season. “In Chicago, if you want Cristal, you need to be carrying the other Roederer styles as well.”
And she thinks that while the millennial fever might mean lesser known champagnes will be dumped without the sort of promotional, advertising and operational support the big boys bring, the wines are frequently very good.
Narcisse even lists a number of their champagnes by house, giving a full page to each with a brief history and lengthy descriptions of the vintage and NV wines from Ruinart, Roederer, Tattinger and Moet. Also making the list are select vintages and NV from Krug (which Sullivan claims to sell more of than any operation in the midwest), Pol Roger, Heidsieck, Clicquot, Perrier-Jou