The woes of the English National Opera have been well publicised, with delays in restoration putting back the reopening until last Friday. But when Wagner-lovers crowded in a few days ago for the new production of The Rhinegold, they will have noticed a new place to whet their whistle. It's called the Bollinger Bar, devoted to selling the great champagnes from that venerable house, and one of the latest in a series of branded rooms opened up by champagne producers in upmarket venues. Bollinger already has bars in the Urbis centre, Manchester; the Grosvenor House hotel, London; and the highly rated Oloroso restaurant in Edinburgh. This is its first venture, however, in the world of high art.
Bollinger is not the only champagne house to seek out this type of overt branding. The Dorchester hotel opened a Krug Room in May last year; not a bar but a private chef's dining-room. The room has been there for over 40 years, but with the Krug connection came an expensive refurbishment aiming for ultimate luxury. It's bookable only for parties of 12, with menus starting at £75 for lunch and £85 for dinner, and according to the hotel it is very popular. Expect to book two weeks in advance if you feel the urge. They offer all the wines from this most princely of champagne houses, though you can also drink any other champagne that takes your fancy if Krug is not to your liking.
But that's the point of these branded bars: they plonk themselves down in places where the clientele can afford to pay top prices. If you can muster £65 for a stalls seat at the ENO, you can probably afford £10 for a glass of Laurent-Perrier - or any other stalls-seat champagne, for that matter. And that's why champagne houses are eager to get their names into places like this. Jonathan Stevens of Mentzendorff, Bollinger's UK importer, says that the project is "not a sales opportunity specifically, but an opportunity for people to try and buy our champagne. And, more than that, to associate our name with high-quality in other fields." They don't own the bars, he points out. It's just "overt branding" of the space in "the right kind of outlet for Bollinger". Of course, the sales opportunity can't be a million miles from his thoughts.
Daniel Brennan, Laurent-Perrier's marketing manager, points out that its champagne has been the house champagne for five years and that putting the bar at its strategic location in the front hall, on the way into the Savoy Grill, takes advantage of the "good foot-fall" to "raise awareness" of the brand at such a prestigious venue. The bar came in at the same time as wünder-chef Marcus Wareing took over at the Grill, and it too is under his control. "The Grill brought new customers in," according to Pam Carter of the Savoy, "and they use the bar as a result."
The branding at these places is discreet: we're not talking about McDonald's, Starbucks or Gap. Nonetheless, I confess to unease at this trend. If it catches on too well, every hotel, theatre and cinema will resemble Terminal 3 at Heathrow, where there's no place to sit but a hundred places to spend money. It's happening already in food, with big stores such as Selfridges granting franchises to companies such as Häagen-Dazs and Yo! Sushi. Wyborowa, maker of one of my personal favourite vodkas, is attaching a branded bar to the Warsaw shop of the fashion designer Arkadius.
And who knows how the idea might spread. If someone gets the idea in my neighbourhood, it will probably be a Tennants Extra bar in a betting shop. But that's just the kind of area I live in. *
Top Corks: Reds to enjoy with steaks
Oyster Bay Merlot 2002 Hawkes Bay Selected Waitrose, 93 branches, £7.99 From supplier of low-cost Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Fresh fruit flavours, soft tannins, sweet oak.
Chileno Shiraz Cabernet 2002 Somerfield, £10 for three, until 9 March Blend better known in Australia, achieving satisfying results in this ripe Chilean version. A bargain.
Zonte's Footstep Shiraz Viognier 2003 Sainsbury's £5.99 until 2 March, then £7.99 Fat, spicy Australian rendition of a great Rhône blend. The white Viognier gives a nice aromatic lift.Reuse content