At The Tippler, a New York City bar located behind an inconspicuous door under the Chelsea Market, a patron described as a Saudi billionaire spent $60,000 on a special, limited production, extra-large bottle of Armand de Brignac (aka Ace of Spades) champagne. (A standard size, retail bottle of Armand de Brignac Brut Gold sells for about $350, but it may be found for about $250). While this purchase was the most expensive bottle of champagne ever sold by the club, and perhaps the most expensive sold in New York City, the expenditure pales in comparison with a double Nebuchadnezzar or Melchizedek (30 liters) bottle of Midas Armand de Brignac champagne that a “financier” bought for 125,000 British pounds in the Playground nightclub located at the Liverpool Hilton Hotel. The “financier’s” total bar bill for the evening was 204,000 British pounds including an 18,500 British pound service charge. The “financier” reportedly also bought forty standard bottles of Armand de Brignac for single women that were in the bar.
The Melchizedek, “gold-plated” bottle weighted about one hundred pounds, and it had to be carried to the “financier” by two servers. The “financier” has been described as being in his twenties, perhaps a foreign exchange trader. The club DJ played dramatic, iconic music from the science fiction film 2001, A Space Odyssey as the bottle moved to the table. After the cork was popped, glasses of champagne were distributed to everyone that was in the VIP area of the club. People in the room were described as having a great time as they toasted the “financier.” One report noted that although the financier arrived with about ten of his friends, after the cork was popped, the party attracted a large number of beautiful women.
Was his status affirmed? Did this elicit envy? Did some feel less worthy? The young “financier” out conspicuously and invidiously spent U. S. gambler and businessman Don Johnson who ran up a tab of about 168,000 British pounds in June of 2011 at the One4One nightclub in London’s Park Lane. Johnson is frequently referred to as the ‘champagne king” because of his extravagant purchases of champagne. Johnson’s splash included paying 120,000 British pounds for a 30-litre Midas bottle of Armand de Brignac.
The Cattier family’s Armand de Brignac is an artisanal champagne which has been recognized as one of the best in the world. It is a popular choice of the rich and famous. Its penetration into popular culture was aided by images of a gold finished bottle appearing in a 2006 music video by rap artist Jay-Z, Show Me What You Got, a song from his album Kingdom Come. The images in it begin with Jay-Z sitting in an exotic fast car with racer Dale Earnhardt, Jr. challenging race car driver Danica Patrick sitting in another dream machine to show him what she’s got. The rest of the video includes: a race on the winding roads of Monaco and Monte Carlo, glamorous women on high performance speed boats, and a silver carrying case being opened by Jay-Z and offered to a beautiful opponent at a card table at what appears to be Le Casino Royal to reveal a shiny, gold bottle of Armand de Brignac. These are fantasy scenes that some people dream about. In my view, the images at the casino are much more tantalizing than the casino actually is. The story of the marketing breakthrough featuring Jay-Z appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
What Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption” and “invidious consumption” work because many of us are voyeurs. We enjoy peering into the lavish lives of the rich and famous, and complain about their outrageous behaviors. Some spend lavishly to reaffirm a superior social status. Others spend lavishly to make others feel envy, and perhaps diminish the self-worth of some people. And yes, perhaps some just enjoy their flamboyant consumption practices.
Yet, if all we did was focus on the conspicuous and invidious consumption aspects which make many of us uneasy, we would miss out on the economic impacts, and fascinating aspects of artisanal champagne making. The economics at the point of consumption are obvious. Numerous people work in the distribution of the product and at the club where they derive their livelihoods. Hopefully, some of the staff at the club benefited from the 18,540.80 British pounds service charge on the Playground bill. I’m not sure what the gratuity was. The patrons at the Playground helped the club cover its expenses and pay its taxes. The VAT tax included in the bill appears to be 30,901.33 British pounds. Many profited.
And then there is the artisanal craft: Armand de Brignac Brut Gold (aka Ace of Spades) champagne is one of the cuvées of the Cattier family which has owned vineyards in the Champagne village of Chigay Les Roses since 1763. Maison Cattier house is independently owned and operated by family members. It began making its own champagne in 1918, and acquired Clos du Moulin in 1951. Maison Cattier sells about a million bottles of a variety of well-regarded cuvées and a champagne based spirit in seventy countries. Armand de Brignac, its most prestigious champagne, is crafted in relatively small quantities each year. Jean-Jacques Cattier is the resident connoisseur and oenologist who oversees the creation of Armand de Brignac supported by eight others. His son Alexandre Cattier is also an oenologist and helps run the business. The name of the champagne has its origins in the 1950’s. It was inspired by a character (de Brignac) in a novel that Jean-Jacques Cattier’s mother was reading at the time. Cattier entered into a brand marketing partnership arrangement in 2006 with New York importer and distributor Brett Berish’s Sovereign Brands. The distinctive Armand de Brignac bottle has a unique shape, is custom plated and polished to achieve its unique gold appearance. It is identified with handcrafted and stamped pewter labels one of which features a graphic representation of an ace of spades. The design was inspired by fashion designer André Courrèges. The Arabesque ace of spades symbol is part of the French monarchy’s insignia. Each standard bottle is placed in a black lacquered wood gift box lined with velvet and fitted with a metallic authentication plate. Jean-Jacques Cattier believes that three words capture the essence of Armand de Brignac: exclusivity, tradition and excellence.
Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay grapes are carefully selected from vineyards in three of France’s most famous terroirs of the Marne department in the Champagne region, including Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne and Côte de Blancs. During a few weeks generally in late September of early October, premier and grand crux grapes are selected from the best villages and picked by hand. The juice is slowly extracted using a high quality, traditional hand press. The first fermentation with yeast converts the natural sugars in the juice into alcohol and wine. Only a fraction of the first pressing is used to make the multi-variety blend. For each bottling, three distinct vintages from outstanding harvest years are blended, and fermented a second time in each bottle. The blend is hand bottled and sealed for aging on traditional wooden racks in chalk cellars that are 30 meters deep. This allows it to age at an evenly cool temperature. Each bottle is aged slightly inclined neck down for at least three years. Near the end of the aging process, each bottle is riddled, slightly shaken and turned each day for a month. Afterwards, the sediment is disgorged. Then, a special aged liqueur de dosage made from reserve wine and a very small amount of sugar is added. Each bottle is corked, sealed and dressed with its distinctive labels by hand. The bottles are rested for at least six more months. Each bottle contains about 250 million bubbles. The largest sizes such as the Midas bottles are special, limited productions. Handling them is extremely difficult due to the pressure from the champagne. Significant advances in glass making had to be developed before the 30 liter bottle could be offered.
Conspicuous and invidious consumption, yes, but there is also the craftsmanship, which, as Richard Sennett has explored, is an important social good. I admire the artisans that are involved throughout the entire champagne making process. Only a few of the special editions of the Midas Armand de Brignac Brut Gold are associated with the conspicuous and invidious consumption. Many more of the standard sized bottles, less extravagant but still expensive bottles are consumed by a broader public. I’ve never sampled Armand de Brignac, but I admit that it might be nice to sample a glass.