Pop art

From artist-designed bottles to extravagant events, champagne houses are immersing themselves in a wealth of canny, creative ventures. It’s good for culture – and good for the brands, says Lucia van der Post.

March 11 2012
Lucia van der Post

Once upon a time, when champagne houses wanted to highlight their brand’s supremacy over a rival’s, they waxed on about the bubbly contents. There would be much impressive talk of grape and terroir, of the artistry of the chef de cave, of hints of citrus or toast, or suggestions of pink peppercorns or pineapple. The finish, the balance, and the size of the bubbles would all be carefully assessed. What counted was, above all, the aroma, the flavour in the mouth, the golden liquid itself.

These days we still hear about the delicious contents, of course, but more and more champagne houses are dreaming up artistic extravaganzas that, on the face of it, have little to do with the contents of the bottle. The thinking behind this seems to be that they will not only lift their brand above the rest of the pack, but also that cultural kudos will attach to it, extinguishing for good any lingering associations with crass City traders, rap artists and Formula One superstars spraying the stuff about.

To begin with, many of the brands contented themselves with sponsorship, linking themselves to the world they most identified with: Pommery, for instance, sponsors Frieze, the international contemporary art fair in London’s Regent’s Park; Ruinart also likes to be connected with the art world, pouring the bubbly at the Pavilion of Art & Design London (PAD London) and Masterpiece London events. Piper-Heidsieck goes for Cowes Week (marine adventure, sporty, healthy); Lanson cultivates the opera; while Taittinger (James Bond’s favourite tipple) sponsors, among other things, literary events related to the late Ian Fleming.

But as more champagne companies have got in on the sponsorship act, houses are now looking to much more creative ways of making their brand the one that is noticed, admired and desired. Take Dom Pérignon, the very grandest of names. It has long enjoyed an association with the renowned designer Marc Newson, who has created an engaging series of objects that all have a practical application (they keep the bubbly cool, they make it easy to transport, to keep or to pour).

But Dom Pérignon likes to interpret art in the broadest sense, associating itself with creativity wherever it may be found. That is why last summer it had the extraordinary notion of taking over El Bulli, Ferran Adrià’s acclaimed restaurant north of Barcelona, just as it was about to close its doors forever. To the powers-that-be behind the scenes at Dom Pérignon, its chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy, is no mere blender of grapes, he is an artist just as much as anybody who slaps paint on a canvas, takes a chisel to a piece of marble or, for that matter (pace Martin Boyce), recreates a park rubbish bin. And this, too, is how they see Ferran Adrià: not as a mere shaker of pans and reducer of sauces, but as somebody who has raised the matter of cooking to such exalted levels that they view it as art.

To celebrate the collaboration between these two artists, Dom Pérignon invited a privileged group of people who were themselves engaged in the creative arts, as well as a few selected journalists, to witness the high artistic endeavour involved in producing Adrià’s outstanding food and Geoffroy’s vintage wines.

This was not the conventional notion of art as something static and permanent that you can gaze at and enjoy forever. It was a unique, unforgettable moment in time, a one-of-a-kind experience of the sort money can’t buy. An amazing experience it certainly was, featuring 47 courses of Adrià’s deconstructed dishes, but clearly a one-off event like this has little to do with immediately selling bottles of Dom Pérignon. Behind it lies a campaign to link the champagne house, subtly and irrevocably, with creativity at the highest level.

At El Bulli, nothing was what it seemed. That olive you were eating looked like an olive, tasted like an olive, but it wasn’t, in fact, an olive: it was made of olive-green gel and filled with olive oil. The customers, who came from all over the world, often booking up years ahead, didn’t go there just to eat but to have an extraordinary experience, and to see what true creativity looks like. This is the connection Dom Pérignon hoped to establish in the minds of the “visionaries, artists and influencers” who were its lucky guests.

The house is also launching a series of what it calls Dark Revelation Dinners, based around its recently released 2003 vintage. Richard Geoffroy and chef Pascal Tinguad have created a series of dishes inspired by the story of the 2003 offering – a particularly challenging year due to the spring frost and exceptionally hot summer. These dinners will be open to the public, taking place at a string of restaurants across the UK; watch the Dom Pérignon website for news as dates are announced.

And it seems Dom Pérignon is developing something of a taste for mixed-media events as well. Later this year, the King’s Chapel at the Palace of Versailles will witness what the company terms a “unique creative combustion” celebrating the “power of creation” and the “tension inherent in Dom Pérignon vintages”. In other words, an invitation-only performance by the world-renowned pianist Lang Lang, based on music by the Oscar-nominated film composer Alexandre Desplat, which will then be interpreted visually by stage director Robert Wilson. On the same evening, the Salon Hercule at Versailles will showcase a one-of-a-kind dinner.

In a more directly commercial vein, Dom Pérignon recently commissioned David Lynch, the acclaimed film director who brought us the dark, often-unsettling Blue Velvet and the TV series Twin Peaks, to work on a print advertising campaign for the 2003 vintage. The result, full of Lynch’s experimental brilliance, is a deeply atmospheric photograph of the bottle in a film-set-like forest.

Then there’s Perrier-Jouët, which is marking its 200th anniversary this year with the launch of its Bi-Centenaire Legacy Champagne, a vintage designed to be passed on to future generations that consists of two magnums of Belle Epoque 1998. The magnums are encased in a striking resin sculpture by American artist Daniel Arsham. The piece comes in two halves that fit together to make a whole.

It was about three years ago that Perrier-Jouët started to explore the notion of involving customers more deeply with the brand. Now, however, those who buy the €10,000 Legacy Champagne and its accompanying art are also given the chance to visit the Perrier-Jouët house in Epernay, which is not normally open to the public. They and a friend will then be treated to a VIP experience at the Perrier-Jouët Hotel Particulier Maison Belle Epoque, where they can learn about the 200-year heritage of the champagne house. It includes a tour of the cellars and a ceremonial laying down of the Legacy Champagne.

Here there are two options: the customer can, of course, take the magnums away, or he or she can leave them in the cellars of the house, where they will be looked after in perfect conditions for up to 100 years, so that one day his or her heirs can inherit them. A life logbook containing photographs and messages can be stored with the champagne to create a truly personal legacy. As for the sculpture, either one half can be left in the cellar with a single magnum, or both halves can be taken home and displayed in considerable splendour. In all, there are only 100 of these experiences and sculptures available, and they can be bought through the wine shops at Harrods or Harvey Nichols.

Then there is Ruinart, which is positioning itself as the “art and design” champagne house. It decided to become involved with the Masterpiece fair, fast establishing itself as a leading event in the world of antiques, design and fine art. Besides holding champagne-tasting masterclasses at the event, Ruinart also asked Studio Nendo, a very cool Japanese design and architectural practice, to come up with a memorable object linked to the brand. The result is the Kotoli, an exquisitely austere and simple wooden gift box. It contains a metal perch that holds two stemless flutes, a newly designed bottle-stop and a bottle of the Blanc de Blancs, the house’s signature cuvée. The box was launched amid great fanfare at the designer Kenzo’s former home in Paris and is now on sale for £120 at Harvey Nichols’ wine shop. A new Masterpiece project with another artist is now being planned.

Veuve Clicquot, meanwhile, wants to be seen to be associated with an altogether edgier, more underground, alternative world. In an enterprise timed to coincide with both the Frieze art fair and the London Restaurant Festival last October, Veuve Clicquot entered the newly trendy arena of the pop-up restaurant in south London’s subterranean Old Vic Tunnels. The artistic connection, however, wasn’t with some grand established artist; instead the champagne house lined up with Lazarides, an avant-garde gallery, which commissioned artists to create installations that explored the myth of the Minotaur – in the process transforming the underground space into a labyrinthine gallery.

The culinary side of the event was handled by edgy catering company Kofler & Kompanie, which pioneered the pop-up restaurant concept Pret A Diner in Berlin and other trendy cities. Word spread virally and culture vultures and foodies alike headed to south London in droves. It was a sellout, such a success that Veuve Clicquot will be involved in more Pret A Diner events in the future. The only way to know when and where they are happening is to follow the Veuve Clicquot and Pret A Diner websites. That, in this cool world, is the point: you have to be in the know, you have to be alert.

Pommery, meanwhile, is owned by ardent lovers and collectors of art, the Vranken family, so for the house to embrace the world of contemporary art is merely an extension of the owners’ private passion. Every year something like 120,000 people visit an exhibition in Reims that is overseen and supervised by Mme Vranken and includes a mix of established and little-known artists. From September to March, the Experience Pommery show brings art lovers right into the heart of the Pommery world, since the works are shown at the Domaine Pommery itself.

As the official champagne sponsor of Frieze, Pommery feels it should put its credentials on display. Last year, for instance, it commissioned the well-known Chilean painter and sculptor Federica Matta to come up with six colourful illustrations to embellish the bottles of its Pop range. The flying hearts, smiling suns and mermaids enlivened small 20cl bottles that were a sell-out success.

At Krug, the buzzword has always been “happiness”, which the house sees as its raison d’être (“we’ve been crafting happiness since 1843” is the mantra). But Krug, too, is beginning to reach out into the art world. Late last year it asked various patrons of the arts to donate something that represented their idea of happiness to its exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Sylvie Guillem donated signed ballet shoes; Manolo Blahnik some purple-and-gold stilettos. Marc Quinn gave a signed T-shirt specially designed for the exhibition, while Bella Freud donated a photograph of her parents, Lucian Freud and Bernadine Coverley, taken before her birth. Proceeds from the show went to support the Royal Academy Schools. This was Krug’s first venture into the realm of the arts, but word is that the house is now plotting other interesting initiatives.

Whether any of these activities generates extra sales of the bubbly is hard to know. What is clear, however, is that more and more champagne brands are thinking up ever more enterprising ways of linking themselves with artistic endeavours. Charles Saatchi may recently have had some scathing words to utter about the world of contemporary art (being a buyer these days “is comprehensively and indisputably vulgar”, he declared), but in Reims and Epernay they beg to differ.

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