Talking Cognac Smack 

Courvoisier promotes the status of its lineup.

Who knows what the face-down, handcuffed guy in the vestibule of the Hotel Menlo had been drinking, but it's safe to guess it wasn't Courvoisier. Across the street at Maxwell's Lounge, behind tinted glass doors that shaded patrons from the flashing lights of the scene unfolding outside, a handful of newspaper types and hangers-on were attending the media portion of the Oakland stop of Courvoisier's eleven-city cognac appreciation tour. The tour's motto was "You've Earned It," and the intriguing description on Allied Domecq's Web site described the cognac as both "unashamedly expensive" and "irresistibly arrogant."

We sat in leather armchairs, sipping our Courvoisier Strawberry Lemonades. After all, this was the signature drink of model, actress, and fashion journalist Nina Shay, the label's ambassadrice -- the French term for female ambassador, we were informed, not without a soupçon of pretension. Shay herself stood before us, a vision in a white pantsuit. Guests outnumbered PR folks by a grand total of one. When it seemed clear nobody else was coming, we were escorted to the corner of the restaurant, where the tasting area had been set up.

Shay had been sent to Courvoisier HQ in Jarnac, France, for a two-week intensive cognac training, where she met the master blender, Jean-Marc Olivier. After an introduction to the history of cognac and the brand in particular -- "Courvoisier is truly the most stylish, sophisticated, and superior cognac available" -- we were examining the first of four successive marques, or blends. We lifted our snifters to the light to note the color. We swirled them to see the legs, or lines, of liquor that run down the side of the glass (the stronger and longer-lasting the legs, the better the quality). We sniffed them, mouths slightly open, to appreciate the aromas of cinnamon and prune that Shay said we would detect if our palates were sophisticated enough. Jean-Marc, she told us, can differentiate between thousands of smells.

After the tasting, we sat down to dinner. It was interesting watching the promoters flip back and forth between business and reality; as long as we weren't talking about liquor, it felt like a real conversation. But it seemed strange to not be dishing about cognac, so I asked Shay what kind of Courvoisier she had at home. XO Imperial, she said, in her bedroom's wet bar. "You know," she said, "it's a status symbol." Of course she drinks XO, which is aged 25 to 30 years and costs around $150 a bottle. They pay her to, and it tastes damned good. But wasn't it très gauche to admit possessing something simply for its status? After all, Shay had been saying that one was supposed to like Courvoisier because one has discerning tastes -- not because it suggests one is rich.

The L'Esprit de Courvoisier came with dessert. It's the 200-year-old stuff that costs up to $5,000 and comes in a limited edition Lalique crystal decanter and is perhaps the most expensive cognac commercially available. It was very, very good: smooth, chocolaty, like nothing I'd ever had before. I made my snifter last as long as possible, because at $450 a glass, I will never taste it again. After all, I had not earned it. I was drinking on the company's dime, all four thousand five hundred of them. Based on what the Express pays me, I'd have to work a full week for just one unashamedly expensive shot.

What, exactly, was Courvoisier trying to do here? Its tour spanned the eleven top cognac-consuming cities with significant African-American populations. According to company spokesman David Karraker, the Bay Area has the third-highest per capita consumption of cognac; Detroit comes in first by a mile. It's been a long time since cognac was reserved for rich old honkies sitting in front of their fireplaces: for decades, African Americans have accounted for a majority of US cognac sales (in the realm of 70 percent). But the explicit name-brand identification is a relatively new phenomenon. Busta Rhymes' 2002 song with P. Diddy, "Pass the Courvoisier," was a surprise break for the brand. Such a surprise, in fact, that the first reaction of company bigwigs back in France was "What's a Busta Rhymes?" according to Karraker. But after sales went up 20 percent, they stopped asking questions.

The hip-hop elite has long since moved on from Courvoisier, however, which, as the world's third-best-selling cognac, continues to trail Hennessy and Rémy Martin. Maybe it's because "Henny" is easier to rhyme with, but Eminem's most recent tour rider specified two bottles of Hennessy, and Hennessy's VS label is currently holding an on-air radio contest in which winners spend time at Chateau Hennessy in France learning about cognac appreciation with the hip-hop star Common. Mainstream hip-hop fans really do buy what their idols suggest, but these days, it isn't Courvoisier.

But this campaign seems to suggest a new twist in the struggle for market share. Affluence is the name of the game; cognac marketers talk a lot about aspiration, and Courvoisier's ruthlessly hierarchical marque system fits right in with that. Hip-hop sells, but it's not for everyone. Shay is an attractive, articulate woman who is comfortable with opulence. Plus, she isn't likely to shoot up a nightclub or get hauled in on statutory rape charges anytime soon.


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