Raise a Toast to…Champagne!

New Year’s Eve celebrations are all about traditions: champagne toasts, black-eyed peas, lofty resolutions that will (in my case) be abandoned by February. Champagne is synonymous with this and other celebrations, thanks in part to marketing tactics used by French wine merchants 150 years ago.

In the 19th century, wine was a finicky commodity. Champagne perhaps more so: it wasn’t until 1837 that Andre Francois figured out the appropriate amount of sugar for fermentation  to prevent a flat wine or an exploding bottle (Simpson, 2004).  Quality varied greatly. A bad year, or even a few lower quality grapes could ruin a wine. Infestations of phylloxera wiped out vines in the late 19th century, ruining entire vintages  and devastating regional wine production in France – the Champagne region included (Campbell, 2006). Simpson notes that there were few economies of scale in wine production: increased sales did not translate to lower production costs per unit.

Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that champagne marketing focused on things that could be controlled: the name, the brands, and high society connections. Négociants (wine merchants) for champagne cultivated elite buyers to become devoted consumers and attempted to attract new clients from the growing middle class in France and abroad.

Les Négociants

Historian Kolleen M. Guy has written extensively on the marketing tactics used by wine merchants. In her 1999 article, she notes that elaborate labels, prominent family names, and aristocratic ties were used to boost brands; to attract elite consumers, négociants needed their wines to be elite as well. Négociants themselves were often connected to high society allowing them to represent both the wine and the social class.  Noble titles linked the wine to wealth and authority – cultivating a ‘snob appeal’, according to Guy. She writes that négociants often “exploited status and image of public personalities….[which] helped invent new meaning for the noble celebrity and conferred additional status on the commodity” (p. 220).

1878 Advertisement
1878 Advertisement in New York

Négociants worked to connect champagne to traditions to further cement its place in high society. As Guy points out, Fiancé Champagne, Champagne Nuptial, and Bébé Champagne are all more obvious examples of brands that were specifically geared towards celebrations. She writes that brands also tried to connect champagne to the ‘good life’. The myth of Dom Pérignon, a hard-working, pious 18th century monk who ‘discovered’ sparkling wine, was reclaimed in 1896 to connect champagne to the old world. As society was changing at the turn of the century, the act drinking champagne conveyed a sense of stability, stature, and belonging within class boundaries (Guy, 1999).

I came across an interesting study conducted by sociologists in the late 1990s examining relations between status and quality of California wines. They found that the status of the winery can be used both as a signal of quality and as a tool for conspicuous consumption (Benjamin & Poldony, 1999). Purchasing high-end wine indicates a higher social status of the consumer, which arguably can maintain the status of the wine.  The same connection can be made when describing the champagne market a century earlier. Guy writes of the ‘restricted equality’ of champagne (p. 238). Through marketing, champagne became linked to leisure and celebration, ideals that crossed class boundaries. However, its purchase was limited to those who could afford it: the upper-middle class and wealthy socialites. The status of champagne was maintained by this elite consumption:  according to Guy, high quality wines and champagnes were often omitted from the contemporary debate on alcoholism and morality. Apparently, public drunkenness was a lower-class issue caused by cheap liquor, not high quality wines from the well-known maisons of Veuve Clicquot and Moët & Chandon.

Le Syndicat du Commerce

To make sure champagne remained a French tradition, regional wine merchants created the Syndicat du commerce in 1882. Comprised primarily of representatives of the grandes maisons, le Syndicat worked to ensure that the region’s economic security would be protected. In 1889, they succeeded in persuading French courts that champagne must be made from grapes in the Champagne region and production also must take place there. This had to the potential to give the region’s wines a great boost in status, separating them from other sparkling wines.

While this ruling was a victory for the region, it was hard to enforce beyond French borders, something that Simpson notes in his writing.  Wine fraud, notably mixing inferior wines before selling them under the quality label, became an issue. Fraud became more rampant following the phylloxera infestations of 1908-1910 where even merchants in the Champagne region were mixing non-local wines with their grapes and marketing it as ‘champagne’ (Simpson, 2004). The public outcry from the regional wine growers (culminating in the Champagne Riots of 1911) finally prompted the  French government to establish an Appellation d’Origine Controlée for the Champagne region, mandating that the grapes must come from the region. The AOC continues to protect the regional specialty – and its luxury status. 

Happy New Year!

Update 01/02/14: After publishing this, I came across a great article by Thomas Adamson,  Champagne widows helped break the gender barrier, written for the Seattle Times. For those interested learning more about the unique role women played in making champagne production, be sure to check it out.

Further Reading

Benjamin, B.A. & Poldony, J.M. (1999). Status, Quality, and Social Order in the California Wine IndustryAdministrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 3, pp. 563-589.

Campbell, C. 2006. The Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine was Saved for the World. North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Guy, K. M. (Spring, 1999). “Oiling the Wheels of Social Life”: Myths and Marketing in Champagne during the Belle EpoqueFrench Historical Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 211-239.

Simpson, J. (2004). Selling to Reluctant Drinkers: The British Wine Market, 1860-1914The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 57, No. 1, pp. 80-108.

Looking for a good book on wine production in the early 20th century? Check out my book review for Wine and War by Donald and Petie Klaadstrup.

Image: Jackson, J.E. “Champagne and Oysters.” New York, 1878.

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4 thoughts on “Raise a Toast to…Champagne!”

  1. Love this post. One of my new years resolutions is to get more into wine, learning more about flavors, regions, traditions, and of course its history. This is a great way to start! Happy new year!

    1. Glad you liked it, Doug! There are some really great books out there on the subject! I really like The Botanist and the Vintner – it has a nice mix of science and history without being too dense.

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