Champagne's globalised allure might be the motivation behind rapper Jay Z's latest luxury takeover, writes Tristan Rutherford
It’s the most unlikely takeover in corporate history. In 2014 an American rapper who once asked ‘since when y’all niggaz know me to fail’ mustered the ultimate success: buying a prestigious champagne brand from 13th-generation growers, the Cattier family.
To visit Armand de Brignac invites further astonishment. The venerable house is nestled in the prettified village of Rilly-la-Montagne between Epernay and Reims. Car doors are opened by staff wearing Savile Row suits. Birdsong twitters in the breeze. It’s a rural village near the River Marne, not the Brooklyn ’hood of hip-hop star Jay Z.
Yet three years ago Jay Z rocked up on a serious quest. On the 90-minute limousine ride from Paris he must have mused the value of the Armand de Brignac brand, a champagne that sells at source from €250 per bottle. Like cognac before it (where the favoured brand was Courvoisier), champagne became a must-drink for America’s hip-hop fraternity in the Nineties. This was despite a total dearth of marketing aside from aspirational rappers swigging the beverage on MTV.
In turn, music fans would order whole bottles (preferably magnums) of the cuvées, or blends, selected by their hip-hop heroes. Louis Roederer’s Cristal was particularly ‘bigged-up’, despite CEO Frédéric Rouzaud instructing rappers not to buy his prestige product. Such demand caused US champagne consumption to sparkle while Europe remained flat.
By the early 2010s the rap community’s fickle (although undeniably wealthy) opinion formers had turned to another brand. As the lyrics to Jay Z’s Smile explain: ‘Twenty years ago we drove Bentley Azures, we drinkin’ Cristal... Drinkin’ Ace of Spades [the rap nickname for Armand de Brignac’s spade-embossed bottles] like it’s codeine now.’
What if Jay Z could snap up the brand and shake up the staid champagne industry? If Louis Roederer could sell champagne while actively insulting its clientele, surely the rapper could deliver an even more saleable product.
‘Jay Z saw a unique business opportunity,’ says Armand de Brignac CEO Sebastien Besson. ‘He saw the value in creating the world’s greatest champagne, and he can afford to take a very long-term view of the project.’
How active is Jay Z in the process? ‘Our shareholder respects the independence of the vignerons in Champagne,’ says Besson. ‘But the decisions on new cuvées and bottle sizes are made in New York.’ We’re not just talking jeroboams or methuselahs here. Armand de Brignac is the only champagne house to bottle in the 30-litre ‘midas’ size, which sells in nightclubs for up to $250,000.
The priciest cuvée is the Blanc de Noirs, a cinnamon-honeysuckle distillation of 100 per cent Pinot Noir that sizzles on the tongue as only €750 can. Demand is so intense that when plans were leaked for a 2018 collection pack, containing all five cuvées, word went viral. ‘On the internet some fans already claimed to own one but we haven’t even officially released it yet,’ laughs Besson.
Like rap music itself, champagne has a uniquely globalised allure. The product is marketed in 198 countries. Germans created the grand houses of Krug and Heidsieck. ‘All you need is a shareholder with long-term access to capital, of which Jay Z is certainly one,’ says Michael Baynes of Maxwell Baynes Vineyards, who handles château purchases across France.
Grapes are classified into 320 individual villages, or cru – 17 of them grand cru, 43 premier cru. ‘Even though your neighbour’s terroir may be metres from yours, if he resides in a different cru the price of his wine will be affected dramatically,’ explains Baynes. Armand de Brignac buys only the finest grand crus.
For marketing maverick Jay Z, the acquisition of makes sound business sense. Bollinger can sponsor Royal Ascot – but Jay Z’s 20 million Facebook ‘likes’ will help the next generation celebrate success. The Armand de Brignac brand allows the firm to charge €800 per bottle, meanwhile, compared to £45 on Ocado for the same Decanter-rated Veuve Clicquot 2008.
‘Consumers aren’t just buying a product like a bottle of bubbly,’ says Paul Charles, CEO of the PC Agency, which advises luxury brands such as the Monaco Tourist Authority. ‘They are buying into the brand’s essence, which will encompass consistency, culture and usually an innovation – be it golden bottles or a high-profile owner – that cements its market position.’ Star value is what Jay Z has in abundance. ‘Celebrity endorsement works even better if the personage is a long-standing ambassador,’ continues Charles. ‘Take George Clooney with Nespresso, where the decade-long relationship has had a substantial sales impact.’
Charles also notes the ‘huge risk’ involved with such tie-ins, ‘as brands linked to Tiger Woods found to their cost’. But as Jay Z’s USP is that of a billionaire bad boy, there’s little he can do to stop fans lapping up his drink. Like Clooney, he’s in it for the long term, with a far better pick-me-up to promote than a cup of coffee.