Despite all of this, however, Champagne consumption largely continues to follow traditional lines: most people still think of it as a celebratory or special occasion wine, and if drunk with a meal, it’s most typically consumed as an aperitif rather than paired with food. Creativity is an asset when it comes to selling Champagne—as its relatively high price and exclusive image can deter the casual consumer—so savvy sommeliers across the country have found innovative ways to introduce more of their guests to the pleasures of Champagne. It’s an exciting time to be a Champagne drinker, and it’s thrilling to see how much passion there is for Champagne among wine professionals today. – Peter Liem
The intention of this feature is to observe, discuss and creatively address the current state of Champagne sales in our industry. What is the perception of this wine among consumers? How can we, as an entire community or as individual salespersons, change or enhance that perception (if desired)? What are the challenges we face in selling this product, and how can we more effectively or creatively overcome them? What are our hopes and goals for this product and its sales, and how can we achieve them?
To begin the conversation, we interviewed a range of sommeliers from unique markets: Cappie Peete (Beverage Director at McCrady's Restaurant in Charleston, SC), Derek Engles (Wine Manager at Lakeside Restaurant at the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas, NV), Joseph Allerton (General Manager and Beverage Director at Michael Symon’s Roast in Detroit, MI), David Speer (Owner/Sommelier at Ambonnay Champagne Bar in Portland, OR), Jeremiah Morehouse (Sommelier at Gary Danko in San Francisco, CA) and Laura Maniec (Owner of Corkbuzz Wine Bar and Corkbuzz Wine Studio in New York, NY).
To supplement the interviews below, we surveyed our membership on Champagne sales and patterns in an attempt to gauge nationwide averages and help sommeliers assess where strengths or areas for improvement may lie in their Champagne programs. Without further ado…
Average percentage of total sales from Champagne: 8%Average percentage of total sparkling wine sales from Champagne: 44%Average selling price of a bottle of Champagne on a restaurant list (MODE, or most commonly sold): $117Average by-the-glass selling price of Champagne on a restaurant list (MODE, or most commonly sold): $21Average selling price of a bottle of Champagne in a retail shop (MODE, or most commonly sold): $44Average percentage of annual Champagne sales that come in December: 22%Most common reason for guests ordering or purchasing Champagne:
66% - in celebration of a particular occasion26% - as an aperitif5% - to pair with a specific dish2% - as a gift2% - other
Most popular styles of Champagne sold: NV bottlings beat vintage Champagne 10:1; basic cuvées beat tête de cuvées 2:1; Blanc de blancs beat blanc de noirs 9:1; NM and RM offerings are purchased (according to our survey) with nearly identical frequency.
What’s the most popular brand, category or style of Champagne on your list?
Cappie: Blanc de blancs. The bright, crisp and often lean nature of these wines complements the delicate flavors of our menu. I also think this is the style people imagine for an aperitif or their first course of wine, which tends to be the most common way my guests enjoy Champagne. As for the most popular brands, Nicolas Feuillatte and Chapuy are both movers—if for no other reason than price point.
Jeremiah: At Gary Danko, Champagne is a big part of the equation because so often people are joining us to celebrate something (whether it be a birthday, anniversary… buying a new house, etc.). Because of this we have a very broad spectrum of choices. By the glass, the J. Lassalle Cachet or Premier Cru is always crowd-pleaser, but a well-reputed Special Club grower by the glass is also a no-brainer. Our by-the-bottle choices definitely range, but generally the drier styles are most popular, and vintage Champagne is in big demand.
Derek: Brut non-vintage cuvées, mostly from the larger Champagne houses. While we see some guests who venture outside of this zone, the majority opt for familiarity.
Joseph: Ruinart Blanc de Blancs.
David: There isn’t really one brand that’s most popular, but I sell plenty of grower Champagne, with guests leaning a bit more heavily toward blanc de blancs. Mostly they just want to try Champagnes they’re unfamiliar with because I have a broad, extensive selection.
What’s the average selling price of Champagne on your list?
Laura: At Corkbuzz, we mark our Champagne list half-off every night after 10 pm and at weekend brunch for Champagne Campaign… and that’s definitely when we sell the most. I came up with this idea because I love Champagne, and it was really important for me to be able to introduce more people to it and to make it less of an “only on special occasions” wine. I wanted people to have the chance to try these amazing bottles, but I knew the prices were prohibitive for most people. Our most popular or average sold is probably around $135 before the discount, which means it goes for $65. I probably paid around $40 for that bottle, so I only make around $25. I don’t mind that because I get to share these amazing bottles with people. I’m obviously a unique little animal here, but I know that!
Joseph: $80 ($34 wholesale)
David: My average glass price is $13 for Champagne (wholesale is $35/bottle). By the bottle, average price is $85 (wholesale is $48).
Cappie: $115-120 (average wholesale price is around $38).
Derek: $150 (with an average wholesale price of $50; pricing structures are fluid in a large Las Vegas strip resort, as high usage levels and by-the-glass commitments positively affect the wholesale price property-wide).
Jeremiah: That would be about $120 (restaurant) with a $35-45 cost, depending on the Champagne brand. We reward people with better value for seeking high quality, small, grower champagnes. So a Special Club bottling would be priced at a better value than a Veuve Yellow Label. The business side of it is that selling the multiple bottles of the Veuve at a higher markup allows us to sell the Special Club and other rare items at a great price for other somms that come in to eat and drink!
How does your team approach selling Champagne?
Derek: Suggest a glass to everyone at the table upon greeting them; offer a bottle to every table that is celebrating, and offer a half-bottle to every single diner or deuce as a way to begin the evening. On our list, the addition of numerous half-bottle offerings at different styles and price points has definitely increased the total capture rate.
Joseph: Since we are primarily a steakhouse, we try to sell it as an aperitif mostly. Especially when guests are trying to decide on how to start their experience, we are not afraid to suggest Champagne to jump-start the evening.
Cappie: Early on in my career as Beverage Director at McCrady's, I ran an optional Champagne seminar for my staff. The turnout was incredible as everyone loves to drink Champagne but struggles to sell it. Also, since my list is heavy on grower Champagne (which is even more difficult to sell, as few/none of these producers are household names), I emphasized treating Champagne as a serious wine with widely varying styles thanks to the terroir of the different regions, vinification styles of each producer, and different grape varieties. When a guest asks for a recommendation for a wine that will work all the way through the meal, I told the servers and sommeliers to (in most cases) immediately suggest Champagne. Our team learned to get excited about describing the differences in our Champagne offerings just as they would our offerings from any other region that is commonly asked about. It’s valuable to help the guest understand their preferences among the styles of Champagne available.
We also constantly work to squash the idea that Champagne is strictly for the beginning of the meal or for special occasions. On Valentine's Day (which is obviously a holiday where people think about drinking Champagne), I try to take it a step further by offering two options for that day’s six-course tasting menu: traditional wine pairings (which may include a sparkling wine) or sparkling-only pairings. I’ve had a great response to this, and it gives me the opportunity to showcase the versatility and stylistic range of sparkling wine (and Champagne specifically).
Jeremiah: We understand that many people come to Gary Danko and treat it as a celebration, so we want to make sure that we live up to their expectations. With such a wide depth of Champagne selections (over 100, including more than 20 by the half-bottle), our wine team is very hands-on with helping to find the perfect bottle for each guest, and listening to and understanding what our guests are looking for is extremely important.
David: Our list can be overwhelming and intimidating even for the most experienced Champagne drinker—let alone the average consumer. For this reason, we are always happy to spend lots of time with the guests answering questions and talking about the wines, styles, production methods, soils, geography, etc. We try to make it fun while being helpful. Too often Champagne is put on a pedestal, and people forget that it’s actually meant to add to the enjoyment of life. Our pricing is also a reflection of this: We want people to drink more Champagne, more often, so we price it so that almost anyone can come in and enjoy a glass or two.
Laura: My team is very knowledgeable about Champagne because we sell so much of it, so they’ve gotten really familiar with the different producers, styles, terroirs, etc. For example they can easily talk about the differences between, say, Marie-Courtin’s Résonance and Concordance. They use their knowledge and their passion primarily; they’re really ambassadors for Champagne. Secondarily, the thing with Champagne Campaign is that we get to have fun with it. Being able to ring a bell at 10 pm and announce it, embrace it, party with it, and have fun is a huge selling point.
What’s your favorite bottle of Champagne on your list?
Cappie: Vilmart & Cie Grand Cellier from Montagne de Reims. I love this wine because it’s incredibly balanced and can easily pair with your entire meal. I jokingly refer to Vilmart wines as "man's Champagne" simply because of their power. Not to say that this wine isn’t both elegant and fresh; however, the oak maturation and 30% Pinot Noir gives the wine ripeness and roundness that allows it to pair beautifully with meat courses. I’d happily sip on this without food, but I've found it to be one of the most food-friendly and versatile Champagnes on my list.
Jeremiah: Tough choice. I love brut rosé as a style, and both Ruinart and Billecart-Salmon are bigger houses I’ve always enjoyed. I also look forward to selling the 1998 Ruinart Brut Rosé!
Derek: Out of the 40 Champagne selections on our list, my favorite would have to be the 1998 Billecart-Salmon Clos Saint-Hilaire. It’s drinking incredibly right now and will only get better over the next decade. It may be the richest, longest-finishing Champagne I have ever tasted.
Joseph: 2002 Dom Ruinart (blanc) from magnum.
Laura: My favorite at our new Chelsea Market location right now is Ulysse Collin Les Perrieres from Cogny. It drinks like sparkling Meursault; it’s just genius: rich golden fruit and just a bit of oak, which it wears really well.
David: Since my list constantly changes, so does my favorite, but I do often come back to Pascal Doquet. While all his wines are great, I’ve been particularly intrigued with the 2005 Le Mont Aimé, which comes from one of the few areas in Champagne with silex in the soil.
What's your favorite specific Champagne pairing on your current menu and list?
David: I have a limited food menu, so I don’t do a lot of pairings, but I love watching guests enjoy truffle popcorn with any of the Champagnes on my list. At off-site or pop-up events, I love pairing 2009 Demarne Frison “Goustan” Brut Nature (blanc de noirs) with steak: The high acid takes the place of tannin, helping cut through the protein and fat, while the meat helps calm the wine down and pull out the fruit.
Jeremiah: Caviar and Champagne are always going to go hand in hand; right now I am loving our special canapé of smoked salmon with Osetra caviar and crème fraîche on top of a buckwheat blini with a glass of Ruinart Brut Rosé.
Derek: Delamotte with our Asian-inspired monchong (a Hawaiian fish). The dish set consists of pickled daikon radish and cucumber, soy and yuzu reduction finished with sesame and ogo. The soy and citrus flavors combined with the delicate and rich monchong fish shines up against the dry and crisp Delamotte.
Laura: I think the cotechino sausage sandwich we serve at our Chelsea Market location, with salsa verde and aioli on a baguette, is so freaking good with the Ruinart rosé we pour by the glass. It’s just the most luxurious way to snack—the rosé being more full-flavored and rich with this creaminess that matches the texture of the aioli, and of course it pairs with the fat in the sausage while the bubbles and acidity lift it all up.
Cappie: Right now, I pour a btg grower Champagne that’s new to Terry Thiese's portfolio: Moussé Fils Blanc de Noirs Noire Réserve Brut. It’s a blend of 85% Pinot Meunier and 15% Pinot Noir, so it’s pretty full-bodied and red-fruit-driven. When people are looking for a pairing suggestion with the beef tartare that we serve with Goat Lady gouda and beef tendon, I of course suggest this Champagne. It’s a very traditional pairing, but it works beautifully with the fat and richness of both the meat and the cheese. If the guest is feeling more adventurous, I like to suggest this same wine with our duo of Berkshire pork: loin and belly with cherries, corn, chanterelles and peanuts. The ripe nature of the wine stands up to the weight of the pork, highlights the flavor of the cherries, and contrasts the savory nature of the chanterelles and peanuts.
Joseph: R.H. Coutier Ambonnay Brut Rosé and house-made fresh spaghetti with mussels, octopus, sausage and tomato-saffron… with “Sweet Serenade” by Pusha T for the music pairing.
What's challenging for you personally in understanding and selling Champagne?
Laura: Well, it’s not really hard to sell when you’re discounting it 50%... The only challenge for me now is that we don’t sell any Champagne before Champagne Campaign starts at 10 pm! If you can get half off later, who wants to spend the full amount? Again, for most people the challenge is the price of admission. People just do not spend $140 for entry-level wines on random Tuesday evenings. Even if people really did want to drink Champagne every day, the price of most of it is such that you’re not likely to splurge unless there’s a special reason—it’s a luxury item. So people deny themselves that luxury and drink Cava instead, for example.
Cappie: I do find Champagne to be one of the more challenging styles of wine to introduce people to. Champagne is a very complex wine and topic of discussion, so in a restaurant setting—where efficiency is of high importance—explaining it in a concise manner is essential to selling it. When I encounter a guest that knows very little about the process of making Champagne and the various styles available, I find that explaining what makes it so unique (and therefore expensive) can be quite difficult (and time-consuming)—unless they are open to me joining them for dinner! This hinders my opportunity to sell Champagne to the novice wine drinker. This often continues down the line to the more experienced wine drinker when I am trying to describe the subtle differences in flavor between two Champagne wines of similar style from the same region. This is something that I am constantly seeking to improve.
Jeremiah: On the surface, Champagne is a pretty easy region to understand, but to really be a skilled sommelier able to work with an expansive selection, it really takes digging in and learning about producers and their unique labels. Sure most guests have heard of Cristal and Krug, but what about Salon or Jacques Selosse? Why should they buy those? For me, becoming more familiar with the producers and their top wines is the next step in mastering my trade.
Derek: For me, in the city I work in, a challenging aspect of Champagne sales is exposure to less prevalent brands. It is often difficult for smaller Champagne brands to break into a market like Las Vegas. The larger houses, with their brand recognition and marketing acumen, are so visible both on and off the strip in Las Vegas that it often feels as though the corporations have cornered the market.
Joseph: Detroit is a unique market and very different than larger or foreign cities. A very small percentage of our demographic appreciates Champagne the same way I do… but this is what makes it even more fun to try and sell them Champagne outside of just special occasions or New Year’s Eve.
David: My biggest challenge in understanding Champagne is getting past the secretive nature of the people in Champagne and learning how various terroirs contribute to the blends in terms of flavor and structure. My biggest challenge in selling Champagne is convincing men to drink it. Women make up the majority of my guests… I guess men are concerned they’ll appear less masculine by drinking Champagne?
What do you think has helped or hindered your sales of Champagne recently? Are there any bigger trends in the industry that you think have contributed to the current sales trends you experience?
Jeremiah: Some people think that Champagne sales only happen around the holidays, but this is not true. It's important to remember how versatile these wines can be with food, throughout the whole meal.
Joseph: I actually feel that the recent SNL sketch about Moet Chandon has helped by making Champagne a more relevant pop culture topic. It’s pretty hilarious, wine-related comedy and makes for just another reason to enjoy this fine sparkling beverage. I’m sure the hip hop industry could be considered a big trend that has impacted the Champagne industry as a whole—though that hasn’t made a large impact at our restaurant.
Derek: While the warm weather and celebratory nature of Las Vegas should be a great catalyst for Champagne consumption, boosting sales of that category is often hindered by the public’s sheer love of drinking red wine. The Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon enthusiasm is in full stride in my restaurant, with two-thirds of all wines sales coming from those two categories. Even with the cuisine of my restaurant being focused on seafood, Champagne is a difficult sell to even those guests willing to venture outside of their comfort zone.
David: I think the hype about grower Champagne in the last couple years has definitely helped my business. I also think its been helpful that consumers are starting to realize that Champagne is wine and should be enjoyed throughout the year—not just at New Year’s or for celebrations. More of my guests seem excited to learn more about the grapes, sub-regions, producers, etc.
Laura: The problem I often see with sommeliers and beverage directors is that they want to get involved with Champagne, they’re excited about it and want to help sell more of it, so they’ll offer something like 17 Champagnes by the glass, but unfortunately what often ends up happening then (if you’re not careful or monitoring your stock) is you either end up serving flat/oxidized wine or dumping it down the drain. I wish more people would do Champagne Campaign across the country—my goal with that is not to sell my own concept but to help the Champenois sell more Champagne in general. Other people should do it! Here in NYC, Peter Liem and Daniel Johnnes are throwing La Fête du Champagne, which is a grand tasting with a ton of producers and also a big gala dinner in October, so hopefully people like them doing bigger events like these are going to help overall Champagne interest and sales even more.
What resources would help you better sell Champagne?
David: I’ve traveled to Champagne a few times, and all the trips have been extremely helpful to understanding and appreciating the region and wines. Aside from that, getting more information here from producers—large and small—about what the various terroirs, villages and vineyards add to the flavor and structure of the wines would be helpful. A great map outlining specific parcels, vineyards and topography would be fantastic as well.
Cappie: I unfortunately haven’t traveled to Champagne, but it’s obviously at the top of my list! The more information I have about a bottle or producer, the easier I can sell it or help my staff feel confident selling it. Due to the fact that my list is quite grower-heavy, I often struggle to find information on several of the wines. It would be helpful if the producer websites were more thorough and/or tech sheets were more readily available.
Jeremiah: One of our team members, Martin Sheehan-Stross, recently returned from Champagne and has been sharing lessons and experiences with us all, and I’ve recently purchased a couple books on the region and specific producers. A Scent of Champagne by Richard Juhlin has been especially useful.
Laura: I use champagneguide.net ALL the time. Any time I’m trying to look up a cuvée, I use it. If the distributors or producers had more information, tech specs, info on winemaker philosophies, etc., that would definitely help. I think a lot of times their info is a little “fluffy”—I don’t care so much for the marketing speak; I just want to know if the wine went through malo.
Derek: A grassroots educational program delivered by producers and distributors of Champagne would be really valuable to us in the Las Vegas market. I could see a program that’s focused on servers and bartenders as being a great first step in getting people on the "front lines” to have Champagne knowledge and recommendations at the ready every night. With over 5,000 restaurant employees in this city, there is amazing untapped potential here for the Champagne industry.
Joseph: I’ve had the privilege of traveling to Champagne, and I feel that if I had a captive audience and was able to share some of the experiences I had while I was in Champagne from a tasting standpoint, then I would more than likely be able to showcase what a great value Champagne really is and why people should simply drink more of it, more often.
Any other fun thoughts/comments you really want to share about Champagne?
Joseph: Allegedly, the classic Champagne coupe was adapted from a wax mold made from the breast of Marie Antoinette.
David: Champagne is often better on the second day when it’s had exposure to some air. Also there’s a huge misconception that Champagne will go flat overnight. Just get a good compression stopper, and the wine will stay effervescent for weeks (the problem is the wine will oxidize after it’s been opened).
Laura: I think the buzz you get from Champagne—the Champagne “drunk” if you will—is a much happier, friendlier buzz/drunk. There’s a bubbly, joyous sensation… and your teeth aren’t red. I would also love to see more blind tasting of Champagne in our professional community.
Jeremiah: I really think a great Champagne selection can make a great impression on your guests. It’s often one of the first sections on a wine list, so people see it first. Like anything, a good first impression can have a lasting effect.
Derek: When I visit wine regions around the world, I always ask the winemakers or estate owners what their favorite thing to drink is outside of their own region or country. And whether I’m in Tuscany, Piedmont, the Finger Lakes or Willamette Valley the answer is always the same: Champagne.
It's always been a challenge for me to convince people to drink Champagne over Cava or Cremant in particular since they're made in the same way and come in at such a more accessible price point. I think for the average consumer, the "taste differences" between, say, Cremant and Champagne just aren't substantial enough to sway them to a true Champagne. Anyone have luck in convincing guests otherwise on a regular occasion? What is your approach?