The Birth of POP!

Never One to Pay Homage to Fussy Traditions,
Pommery has held the Keys to Champagne "Cool"
for 147 Years
.

By Susie Manning Héron

 

When 39-year-old Louise Pommery took control of her late husband’s eponymous Champagne house in Reims, France, in 1858, the headstrong mother of two had a bold business plan that would have made Donald Trump blush. Armed with business savvy and a pioneering vision, she invested heavily in public relations and marketing campaigns, paying close attention to trends and to customers’ taste preferences. Louise’s modern initiatives, sharp instincts and avant-garde approach were revolutionary — and they worked.

Within 30 years, Louise Pommery and her close group of advisors built the winery into one of the most respected Champagne houses in the world. Hardly satisfied with its success, Pommery made waves again in 1874 by producing the first-ever brut (dry) Champagne.

Today, with Pommery available in 87 countries, the house’s legacy of going against the grain in Champagne remains top priority. Controlling hands have changed over the years — most recently in 2002 from luxury brand giant Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy to Vranken-Pommery Monopole, headed by Belgian-born Paul-François Vranken. The house’s signature unconventional approach to marketing and making Champagne, however, shows that for Pommery, being offbeat is just an old trick reinvented.

SQUARE BUBBLES

Everything seems normal as a visitor steps onto the grounds at Domaine Pommery. At first glance, one might say the regal château looks rather staid and traditional. Until a two-story blue inflatable dinosaur comes into view, that is. On the lawn in front of the neo-Elizabethan, Gothic-style buildings, antelopes fashioned out of handball goals with basketball backboards as their heads “graze” on the winery’s grass. Both are part of Pommery’s latest modern art exhibit, Idiocy (turn to page 14 for more on this exhibit). The neon “Bar” sign hanging above the visitor’s welcome desk seals the deal: This isn’t your typical Champagne house.

Thierry Gasco, a Reims native and Pommery’s winemaker, finds his inspiration on these unique grounds and in the history of the place. “Louise Pommery had some amazing ideas. She was very ahead of her time,” says Thierry, the ninth winemaker in Pommery’s history. “You could say that her spirit helps me to be creative.”

Like Louise, Gasco is no stranger to challenges and rocking the Champagne boat. He recalls how POP, Pommery’s most unconventional Champagne, came to be. Gasco’s telephone rang sometime in the mid-’90s. It was his boss, who uttered those words employees hate to hear: “Thierry, can I see you for a second?” “ My boss said to me, ‘Thierry, I want something new with Champagne,’” says Gasco. Tapping into the unconventional spirit embodying Pommery, Gasco came up with the idea of making “seasonal” Champagnes: Summertime, an extra-dry blanc de blancs from Chardonnay grapes, and Wintertime, a blanc de noirs from red grapes. Gasco completed the seasonal theme by releasing Springtime in early 2005 and Falltime in September. (Sorry, but none of these wines are available in the United States.)

Gasco’s boss was pleased by the Wintertime and Summertime concepts, but naturally wasn’t completely satisfied. Gasco’s boss requested something trickier: not different Champagne themes, but a revolutionary sparkling wine to attract and convert a young generation of wine drinkers. “And I told him that I couldn’t make blue Champagne with square bubbles!” laughs Gasco. At the time, the request was no laughing matter, because strict laws allow for the use of only three grape types in making Champagne — Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir — so changing things up requires ingenuity and a good dose of patience.

After talking to focus groups of the young and upwardly mobile in France, Gasco discovered
that the stiff, old-fashioned image of Champagne as a beverage kept the next generation of consumers from popping a cork. The ever-present creative wheels at Pommery starting turning again, and in 1999 Pommery launched a Champagne designed to defy the stifling label “drink only on special occasions.”

POP was born.

POP AND CIRCUMSTANCE
Through word of mouth, POP’s arrival made instant noise, and the bright blue single- serving bottles were a hit. The stodgy drink associated with New Year’s Eve and the terminally un-hip now was the liquid accessory for celebrities, designers and top models in the hottest clubs of London, Paris and New York. The very unconventional POP was a success; and for the first time in a long while, Champagne was cool.

A slightly sweeter, more approachable Champagne, POP was the first individualsized and portable Champagne on the market — and the first bubbly to come complete with a drinking straw. “I really pushed for the bottles,” says Gasco, “but the straws, that was someone in marketing.” Like Louise Pommery’s introduction of brut Champagne in 1874, POP would pave the way for other Champagne houses to follow suit [see sidebar to the left on "portable” Champagnes]. Today, Galleries Lafayette, France’s largest department store, displays neat packages containing cute quarter-sized bottles of the “big boys” of Champagne.

“ In the end, I think that POP’s huge success comes from its size — it’s easy and fun,”
says Gérard Blanloeil, Pommery’s export director, who also holds an oenology degree. Blanloeil adds that POP’s success in the United States has been unrivaled. Americans got the concept immediately, while some other countries questioned the approach. “In the U.S., there are no taboos, so few barriers,” Blanloeil says. “You can be very creative in the U.S.”

POP’s size makes it particularly well suited to the U.S. market, according to Nathalie Vranken, Paul-François Vranken’s wife and the driving force behind Pommery’s brand imaging. “When you hand a bottle of POP to a French girl, it’s going to take her a few minutes to get used to it,” says Vranken. “An American, on the other hand, will take to it right away. For her it’s like holding a beer bottle.” Vranken may be right, but one thing’s certain — there’s no mistaking a POP for a Bud. And at a cool $45 for a box of four bottles, the price point won’t fool you either.

THE FIRST STRAW

Concept was key for POP, but not at the expense of quality. “First, we absolutely had to make sure that the quality was there,” emphasizes Blanloeil. POP’s sugar level is slightly higher than that of abrut Champagne, making the bubbly more accessible to otherwise non-Champagne drinkers. But Mrs. Vranken insists Pommery is not sacrificing substance for style. “We are not fashion victims,” she says. “We’re not putting diamonds on Converse sneakers here.”

At bottom, Champagne is and will always be a luxury product, with the price tag to match. “Before you even put Champagne on the shelves, it’s expensive,” Mrs. Vranken says. “Both the grapes and then the storage.” By law, bottles of Champagne must be stored for at least three years before release.

In POP’s case, the Champagne’s production was more involved than usual. “We also looked at the pressure in the Champagne. If you’ve tried drinking Champagne through a straw before, then you know why — it will make you temporarily blind,” Blanloeil says of the overwhelming fizziness. Decreasing POP’s pressure allowed for easy straw sipping with moderated fizz.

And that infamous straw, Gasco explains, constituted a whole separate project in and of itself. “We had researchers designing the size and shape of the perfect straw for POP. We couldn’t use just any straw for it to work.”

BUBBLING WITH ARTISTS
With its shiny blue bottle and fashion-conscious attitude, POP had the makings of a one-hit wonder, but the wine’s success encouraged Nathalie Vranken to riff on the theme. Vranken took POP one step further with Pink POP (a rosé Champagne), which has also met with wild success in the United States, according to Blanloeil. Vranken’s newest venture, POP Art, brings into play one of Louise Pommery’s passions — supporting the arts.

With POP Art, Pommery allows artists below the age of 30 from around the world to design a series of six POP bottles. Artists send the bottles to Pommery for judging and for the chance to win a 15,000-euro ($18,000) grant. Says Vranken: “It’s becoming really big now. These young artists are pushing each other to send in their bottles.” In 2003, POP Art’s debut, a mere 12 artists submitted bottles. This year, Vranken received 80 entries. Pommery produces a limited collector’s series of sorts, marketing 30,000 copies of each of the winner’s six works. “They are real works of art, my POP Art,” says an obviously proud Vranken, who freely admits that she strives to be à la mode (in fashion) at all times.

Being à la mode at Pommery takes on a literal meaning, as well. For the past 10 years, Pommery has commissioned designers from Christian Dior to Paul Smith to create gift bags for chosen Champagne vintages and styles. This year, designer Shanghai Tang dresses Pommery’s Brut Millésimé 1995 in chic Asian style with a sleeve of jacquardaccented fuchsia silk and handles in bright green leather. This cutting-edge design seems only natural for Pommery, a Champagne house that’s been one step ahead since the beginning.

Designer Shanghai Tang’s leather and
silk bag for Pommery’s 1995 brut.


STAYING AHEAD AND LOOKING BACK
At Pommery and in Champagne, life is good for the moment. “Champagne is doing very well right now, and the demand is rising,” says Blanloeil. Meanwhile, demand for French wine overall is at an all-time low. “The French are just now starting to realize the importance of marketing and public relations — unfortunately, they’re about five to 10 years behind,” says Blanloeil. He credits Champagne’s ongoing success to being a recognized international brand and to sizeable marketing budgets.

“ We’re not sitting in an ivory tower here in Reims,” says Vranken. “We knock on wood that we’re doing well for now, but we never know what can happen.” Gasco echoes Vranken’s sentiments. He places high importance on innovation and on listening to the customer — a very un-French approach. “It’s extremely important to be innovative these days. We are not alone here,” says Gasco. “And we have to look at the consumer.” Without knowing it, Gasco tips a hat to his muse. The year was 1874, and Louise Pommery created the first brut Champagne — the style that would soon define Champagne — after listening to her customers.


Susie Manning Héron is a freelance writer based in Lille, France, and is a former associate editor for The Wine Report.