Is the champagne in the Jay-z video for real? It's complicated.

Posted by: Burth Helm on October 25, 2006

Ok, existential question time. Wait, don’t leave! Come back! It’s an existential question about rap music and champagne, ok?

Here’s it is: What makes a brand “real”?

Like a lot of others out there, my curiosity was piqued by a mysterious product placement for a champagne in the latest Jay-Z music video “Show Me What You Got.” After a full day of cavorting around Monaco, Jay-z is presented with an ornate gold bottle in a silver briefcase:

jayz champagne.jpg

Recognize that brand? Me neither. In fact, no one did. But two days after the video’s release, a press release hit the wire from a brand called “Armand de Brignac” claiming it was the bottle. The release went on to describe Armand de Brignac as an “ultra-luxury product in the high-end champagne category,” that was “making its North American debut this year, after enjoying success as a premium, high-end brand in France.” Sound a little too convenient? A lot of bloggers thought so (see Idolator, Gawker, and some good investigative work on hiphopgame.com). Jay-z, who has long been known for sipping nothing but Cristal, had recently started boycotting that brand. They speculated that perhaps Jay-z was launching his own brand of champagne. They pointed out that the Armand De Brignac website had only existed since last Saturday, and also noted that the Armand De Brignac bottle appeared to be just a prettied-up version of another, much cheaper Champagne called Antique Gold.

Curious myself, I shot an email to the email address at the bottom of the press release.

I got this back:

Thank you for your interest in Armand de Brignac. Armand is a Champagne of unmatched quality and is bottled and packaged by hand in extremely limited quantities to ensure preservation of the brand’s high standards.

Due to the limited supply and unprecedented demand for Armand, we would like to take the time to individually answer the many requests we have received for information about Armand de Brignac and its availability. Please be assured that we will personally respond to all serious inquiries.

Scott D. Cohen
Director of Marketing
T: 212.343.xxxx
F: 212.343.xxxx
480 Broome St.
2nd Floor
New York, NY 10013
www.armanddebrignac.com



Looked like an auto-response to me. And dialing the number only got a voicemail. But what about that address listed? I decided to hop on the subway and head downtown.

Sovereign Brands LLCpic.jpg
Sovereign brands outside.jpg

That’s what I found. An unassuming building on a nice enough street in SoHo, with the call button for the 2nd floor reading “Sovereign Brands LLC.” I rang the buzzer for a solid few seconds. Nothing. Then a voice on the other end:
Voice: “Hello?”
Me: “Hi.”
Voice: “Who is this?”
Me: “Burt Helm with BusinessWeek. Can you tell me about Armand De Brignac?”
Voice: “Everybody’s gone home already.”
Me: “Well, who are you?”
Voice: “Scott. (Pause). Hold on, I’m heading out, I’ll come downstairs and I’ll tell you about it.”

I met Scott, a friendly young guy in a black wool peacoat who’s about a year out of college. So I asked him, what’s the deal? Is this thing for real or not? He asked me that I not quote him directly. We talk for a bit and then he takes out his cell phone and puts me on the phone with his boss, Brett Berish, who runs Sovereign Brands LLC, who tells me essentially the same stuff, on the record.

So here’s what Berish told me: Armand de Brignac is real, to the extent that it’s a real bubbly wine, made by a real French champagne maker, Cattier, and in that it has been approved by the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC).
The brand itself is also, technically, an actual French brand of champagne.

But here’s where things get interesting. Armand de Brignac is a dormant brand. Cattier has owned it for some time, but the company hasn’t used it for anything in decades, according to Berish. To get approval from the CIVC to call it champagne, however, Berish says, Sovereign and Cattier needed to use an old, previously approved name. So the brand is not one that is currently “enjoying success as a premium, high-end brand in France,” as the press release might have you believe.

So this is, for all intents and purposes, a new brand of Champagne. Berish’s company, which also distributes niche brand 3 Vodka in the U.S., has been planning it with Cattier for the last four years. The bottle’s design is new, it’s a unique blend of grapes, and it will see its first commercial release in North America before Christmas of this year. This isn’t anything too radical in the high-end spirits market. In some ways it's similar to the way that Sidney Frank created the Grey Goose Vodka brand out of nothing, declaring the “World’s Best Tasting Vodka,” even though we’d never really heard of French vodka and even though it hadn’t, in fact, existed before 1997.

So how did it the bottle get into the Jay-z video? Berish maintains it was just good luck. Late last summer, after word got around that he was working on a champagne, Jay-z’s people asked if the company would send a sample bottle (Berish insisted they contacted him, not the other way around). Shortly afterward, Jay-z’s people called again to ask if he would send a case with the rapper on his trip to Europe. That was about a month and a half ago. Next thing his team knew, Berish says, the bottle was appearing almost once an hour in the Jay-z video on BET. So two days later they put out a press release announcing the brand to capitalize on the buzz.

I’m still a bit skeptical. These guys aren’t new to this game – their other brand, 3 Vodka, came with an endorsement from rapper Jermaine Dupri, who in 2004 became a partner and owner. Berish still insists it wasn’t planned, and that Jay-z has no stake. Still, he says, “Jay-z is exactly who we would have liked as a partner on this. Everyone already identifies him with luxury brands, and given his boycotting Cristal earlier, it works extremely well perfect…But it’s not like we just cooked this brand up to capitalize on that.” The placement has drummed up a lot of potential business, too. The company says its received over 500 “serious inquiries” since Jay-z’s video debuted on October 16.

What about what the internet sleuths uncovered? That the bottle looked an awful lot like another cheaper ($60) bottle of champagne, Antique Gold? And that the website only went up last Saturday? Antique Gold is, in fact, a brand of Champagne made by Cattier, and Berish told me that the same bottle was used for the basic design. The Champagne inside, he says, is very different. “Saying it’s the same champagne because it’s the same gold bottle is like saying that all champagne in a green bottle is the same. No one would say that about Moet Chandon and Dom Perignon.” And the website? After I got off the phone with Berish, Scott told me he put up the site himself. “With all the attention, it seemed like we needed something official, to let people know it’s real.”

Reader Comments

Elmo

October 27, 2006 11:09 PM

Great detective work! I read the HipHopGame.com article and, although it answered a lot of questions, it created just as many. This whole situation keeps getting curiouser and curiouser.
I fear they may not be "keeping it real" on this one.
Here's something you may also be interested in reading: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/111/open_bottled-up.html

XPOSE

October 29, 2006 4:44 PM

I think you better watch your back because you've definitely 'KNOCKED' the hustle. Jay Z's got some serious connections. It's incredible to think that people have actually started to order the champagne. It will probably sell very well because of people's curiosity and journalists like yourself are actually increasing the profile and offering FREE advertising. Guys(the target market) in nightclubs don't care what there drinking as long as the women are impressed.

arnaldo

November 22, 2006 4:48 PM

At 300.00 per bottle...NO THANKS!!!

C.R. Anderson

February 23, 2007 3:11 PM

What a lot of bitchery over bubbly!

Is it so uncommon to see a grass roots biz these days? OHMIGOD Mr. Helm, Sovereign Brands wasn't in a hootenanny Trump-style highrise!!
Would it have convinced you that it was all the more REAL if it had been? Too bad everyone is worried more about profiling the image of business without a pot to piss in, rather than encourage and foster the hard working dreamers making their American business ideal come true. Perhaps that is too "out of vogue" these days, the American Dream.
By the way, have YOU sampled Sovereign Brand products? I am a Vegan Chef in Oregon and I exclusively use 3Vodka, distilled from Soy Beans. It helped me win a silver in a food competition a couple of years ago! KUDOS and Buon Fortuna to the Berish Boys and Sovereign Brands! They've got a good thing going. I'm a tenacious supporter of small businesses and local producers. Well, since you are on the East Coast, that may be an alien concept to you. Sincerely, Chef C.R. Anderson

Denise Snakard

August 7, 2008 11:32 AM

My husband and I had dinner with Bret's mother and father last night. We learned lots about this new product. To begin with, it was not Sovereign Brand Products who priced it at $300, but the French champaign maker, Cattier. The pewter embossed labels are hand - applied by one French girl. If she accidentally puts a label on slanted, "off" or whatever, the bottle does not go on the market........the bottle is destroyed. No two bottles are alike. The stock IS selling out.

Enjoyed your read, and you quoting Bret was most accurate. "Spirits" is nothing new to Bret. Besides a valuable education, a short, but promising, career in banking before this new adventure, Brett learned much at his father's knee. Yes, Bret's father, Barry Berish, was CEO of Jim Beam.

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News, opinions, inflammatory meanderings and occasional ravings about the world of advertising, marketing and media. By marketing editor Burt Helm, Innovation Editor Helen Walters, and senior correspondent Michael Arndt.

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