HYUNINC

Jay-Z’s Great Champagne Robbery

It might be the best marketing in the history of wine. The story of how a rap mogul transformed a $50 champagne into the next Cristal—and received millions for doing so.

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On a frigid February night, I’m waiting outside a ground-floor apartment in Harlem, beginning to wonder if I’ve got the wrong address. Suddenly, a voice calls my name. I turn around. Striding toward me amid a majestic cascade of dreadlocks is Branson B., the man credited with introducing champagne to hip-hop.

Branson gave rap legend Notorious B.I.G. his first taste of Cristal, the $500-a-bottle French bubbly that quickly joined Mercedes-Benz and Gucci as rap’s most frequently mentioned brands (he himself has been mentioned in over 60 songs). He greets me with a handshake and a chest bump and opens the door, then leads me into a room dominated by a full-sized bar.

Scattered before me are at least 20 bottles of wine and champagne in varying states of consump­tion; dozens more adorn the shelves behind the counter. My eyes fall on an empty gold bottle of Armand de Brignac, a trendy $300 champagne. “Respectfully, I didn’t care for it,” Branson pipes in, as if reading my mind. “I didn’t think it was worth the money.”

He gestures to a neighboring bottle. “This is a Nicolas Feuillatte Palmes d’Or Rosé,

1999,” he says. “I happened to go to a liquor store in New Jersey, and I was looking for something special for my birthday.”

”This,” he says, pointing back to the gilded Armand de Brignac, “is more the aesthetics, the pretty bottle—and everything that goes along with it.”

 ***

What goes along with Armand de Brignac is Jay-Z. The rap­per put the flashy bottle on the map when he featured it in his 2006 music video for “Show Me What You Got.” The video is typical of mainstream hip-hop, with one pos­sible exception: toward the end, a waiter presents Jay-Z with a bottle of Cristal champagne, and Jay-Z declines with a sweep of his hand. In its place, he accepts a gold bottle of then-unknown Armand de Brignac. Coming from some­one who’d been rapping Cristal’s praises for years—and once bragged that he was “popping that Cristal when all y’all thought it was beer”—this marked a major departure.

Jay-Z’s sudden change in attitude wasn’t without cause. In June 2006, a reporter from The Economist asked Fré­déric Rouzaud, manager of Louis Roederer, which produces Cristal, what he thought of rappers drinking his champagne. “That’s a good question,” Rouzaud replied. “But what can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.”

As soon as Jay-Z caught wind of the comments, he publicly denounced Rouzaud and replaced Cristal with Krug and Dom Pérignon in his clubs, as Rouzaud had mockingly suggested. But the release of the “Show Me What You Got” video on October 10 immediately established Armand de Brignac as his favorite. By simply associating himself with the brand, Jay-Z was able to almost singlehandedly lift it from obscurity to the heights of celebrity chic; the gilded champagne sold out its initial production run (and all subsequent ones, according to representatives).

Some observers suspected that Armand de Brignac was Jay-Z’s latest business venture. Accordingly, two days after the gold bottle’s inclusion in the “Show Me What You Got” video, Armand de Bri­gnac attempted to dispel rumors of a financial connection. Representatives issued a press release explaining that the wine was simply an “ultra-luxury product in the high-end champagne category” that was “making its North American debut this year, after enjoying success as a pre­mium, high-end brand in France.”

Amid the aftermath of the divorce between Jay-Z and Cristal, Branson B. found himself in France, hand-selecting grapes for his own Branson B. Cuvée cham­pagne. During the three months he spent in the heart of wine country, he never heard a peep about Armand de Brignac or Ace of Spades. The notion that it had enjoyed “success as a premium, high-end brand in France” just wasn’t true. “Didn’t exist,” he told me.

 ***

Jay-Z may tout Armand de Brignac in his songs and videos, but to some champagne industry veterans, it’s at best a medi­ocre product masquerading as a high-end delicacy. “It tastes like shit,” says Lyle Fass, an independent wine buyer in New York. “At least Cristal tastes good.”

In response to such criticism, employees of Cattier, the French Champagne house that produces Armand de Brignac, like to tout their product’s accolades. In December 2009, for exam­ple, it was named the world’s best-tasting champagne by Fine Champagne magazine. Fass wasn’t impressed. “These wine tastings are garbage,” he says. “Everybody has a wine tasting … There’s a lot of stupid people in the world.”

Armand de Brignac tends to score in the low nineties on the industry-standard 100-point wine rating scale, which places it on par with wines that sell for $50 or less. Yet Armand de Brignac has sold 100 percent of every annual release. “Everybody should take a lesson who wants to sell wine that sucks,” Fass says. “Because it is probably the most bril­liant marketing in the history of wine.”

So why would Jay-Z get involved with a second-tier cham­pagne? Because of the immense profit potential. Fass estimates that Cattier’s pro­duction cost for each $300 bottle of Armand de Brignac is a mere 10 euros. Assuming Jay-Z is an investor, the connection could be through any number of outlets: Cat­tier itself, the brand Armand de Brignac, the importer, the exporter, or the distributor. All of these entities are registered with an array of state and national government agencies in the United States and France. Theoretically, the link could be established with a little bit of sleuth work.

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My first call goes to the French offices of the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, the leading Champagne trade asso­ciation. A woman named Brigitte informs me that Cattier is 100-percent family owned, but that the brand Armand de Brignac might have a different structure. She suggests trying the French department of agriculture. Via e-mail, one Isabelle Ruault explains that the brand Armand de Brignac is regis­tered to an export company owned by J. J. Cattier. Ruault supposes the brand belongs entirely to the family, but the exact details are impossible to know.

Turning my attention stateside, I place a call to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explo­sives in Washington, D.C. A representative redirects me to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which in turn points me to the New York State Liquor Authority in Harlem. There, a man named Kashif Thompson informs me that Armand de Brignac is distributed by Sovereign Brands, LLC, and imported by Southern Wines & Spirits. Southern is one of the largest liquor distributors in the country, and it’s known for having personal relationships with some of the biggest names in hip-hop. A call to the Florida Department of Business and Profes­sional Regulation turns up a list of Southern’s owners. Jay-Z is not listed among them.

The last link is Sovereign Brands, whose owner is listed as Brett Berish. Berish, I later learn, distributes and owns a line of spirits called 3 Vodka. The brand was launched in 2004 as a partnership with Atlanta-based hip-hop mogul Jermaine Dupri, who overlapped with Jay-Z as a member of Island Def Jam’s executive ranks. I also discover that shortly after Armand de Brignac’s 2006 launch, Berish issued a press release saying that “Armand de Brignac and Jay-Z have not entered into any agreement, sponsorship or otherwise.” However, he didn’t specify whether there was a financial agreement between Sovereign and Jay-Z. Besides Berish, the only other owner listed for Armand de Brignac is Shannon Bullinger, Sovereign’s operations manager. If Jay-Z has a Dupri-style partnership with Berish, it’s not on the books.

Next, I return to hip-hop’s sommelier. Standing behind the counter of his champagne speakeasy in Harlem, Branson gazes intently at an empty bottle of Armand de Brignac.

”The funny thing,” he says, “is I drank that before.”

He points across the bar to a bottle of another Cattier champagne, Antique Gold, strik­ingly similar to the empty Armand de Brignac sitting in front of us. “That bottle there, a friend of mine brought it back from Monaco,” he says. “It’s like 60 dollars, 70 dollars, 80 dollars in the store.”

I nod, realizing the magnitude of what Branson has just said. Antique Gold has been around for decades. Armand de Brignac looks nearly identical and costs four or five times as much. Both are made by Cattier. The only real difference seems to be the Ace of Spades label slapped on the more expensive bottle.

My visit to Branson didn’t yield a concrete paper trail between Jay-Z and Ace of Spades, and my calls to government agencies in the United States and France had yielded only circumstantial evidence, but there was one last chance: a transat­lantic trip to the birthplace of Armand de Brignac.

In the tiny village of Chigny-Les-Roses, France, a guide leads me down Rue Dom Pérignon, stopping in front of an unnumbered house with all its windows shuttered. She takes me into a garage whose floor is littered with dusty champagne bottles and elaborate metal contraptions used to insert corks. Then she flips on an electric lantern, and we descend a narrow spiral staircase some 90 feet into the ground. The tem­perature quickly drops from a dry, sunny 80 degrees to a brisk 45 degrees moistened by 90 percent humidity.

We arrive in a room glimmering with golden bottles of Armand de Brignac. They hang by the dozen in racks, slanted at a slight angle so that sediment col­lects in the necks and can be removed easily in the next step of the champagne-making process. The thousands of bottles sitting like gilded test tubes are impressive, but what really strikes me is that the bottles are completely blank. There are no labels, and nothing to distinguish a bottle of Armand de Brignac from, say, a bottle of Antique Gold, which Cattier stopped producing in 2006—the same year it started producing Armand de Bri­gnac.

I nod politely. When I ask Bienvenu for the name of the New York wine shop in which Jay-Z allegedly found his first bottle of Armand de Brignac, the affable Frenchman quickly becomes defensive.

After the tour is complete, my guide takes me back into the daylight and over to Cattier’s headquarters for a meeting with the company’s brass. First to greet me is Philippe Bien­venu, Armand de Brignac’s commercial director.

He introduces me to a few more Cattier employees, includ­ing the family’s kindly patriarch, Jean-Jacques Cattier, and his son Alexandre. As we walk the bright corridors of the Cattier headquarters, Bienvenu traces the origins of Armand de Brignac to Jean-Jacques Cattier’s mother, who first thought up the name in the early 1950s. Shortly after Armand de Brignac’s debut in 2006, Bien­venu claims, Jay-Z came across it purely by chance. “When we started to ship product to the U.S. and especially to New York, Jay discovered our champagne in a wine shop and bought a few bottles,” he says. “There has never been any partnership, any financial involvement, or something like this between Jay and us.”

As I press Bienvenu for more details, the cracks in the story begin to show.

”How,” I ask, “did the champagne find its way into Jay-Z’s ‘Show Me What You Got’ video?”

”He discovered our champagne by pure coincidence in a wine shop and a few months after came to Monaco to shoot a video,” Bienvenu replies. “On that occasion, he ordered a few cases that we shipped to his hotel there. We couldn’t imag­ine when we shipped those cases that the purpose of this was to include our champagne in the video.”

I nod politely. When I ask Bienvenu for the name of the New York wine shop in which Jay-Z allegedly found his first bottle of Armand de Brignac, the affable Frenchman quickly becomes defensive.

”I don’t know which wine shop,” he says. “I can’t tell you any more details because I don’t know.”

 ***

All of this makes for a great story: a family-owned champagne brand dreamed up by a little old French lady in the 1950s, dormant until resurrected half a century later, promptly discovered by the world’s most famous rapper, by sheer coincidence. But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office confirms that the first bottles of Armand de Brignac weren’t shipped to the U.S. until the fall of 2006—months after Jay-Z’s video was filmed. Obviously, it would have been impossible for Jay-Z to stum­ble upon a bottle of champagne in a New York wine shop. When I later emailed one of Cattier’s publicists about this inconsistency, she backtracked. “There’s a misunder­standing regarding how Jay saw the bottle. It was in New York … but not in a store.”

In the weeks following my return from France, I realized that the answers had been here in the U.S. all along. I spoke with a number of sources close to the matter—including a prominent executive at a major record label, a wine distributor with ties to the entertain­ment industry, and the chief executive of a notable liquor company, to name a few. None of them would let me quote them by name for fear of damaging business relation­ships, and when I related everything I’d learned, all of them confirmed that Jay-Z receives millions of dollars per year for his association with Armand de Brignac. The connection wasn’t through the Cattier family, but through Sovereign Brands.

Jay-Z publicly denies any connection to Armand de Brignac because he wants to be seen as a connoisseur, a trendsetter with the sophistication to anoint a successor to Cristal. Or, as Bienvenu off­handedly explained to me: “He doesn’t want to be considered a brand ambassador or something like this.” More importantly, Jay-Z realizes that the revelation of a financial connection could endanger the authenticity of his endorsement—and jeopardize a lucrative arrangement.

The math looks extremely favorable for Jay-Z. The production cost per bottle of Armand de Brignac is about $13; the wholesale price is $225. The maximum output is 60,000 bottles per year. If Jay-Z splits the $212-per-bottle profit evenly with Cattier and Sovereign, a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests his annual take would be a little over $4 million. One of my sources confirmed that number, and added that Jay-Z may have received equity in Sov­ereign Brands worth about $50 million. All for dropping a few lyrical references and featuring Armand de Brignac in a couple of videos.

For now, it looks like Jay-Z gets to have his champagne—and drink it, too.

Images: Alex Hoyt

Excerpted from EMPIRE STATE OF MIND: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office by Zack O’Malley Greenburg by arrangement with Portfolio/Penguin, Copyright © Zack O’Malley Greenburg, 2011.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archive/2011/03/jay-zs-great-champagne-robbery/72844/