Pop culture

Wednesday, October 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Teresa Gubbins / The Dallas Morning News

It is drunk like soda pop – straw and all.

But the package is cool, in colors designed to match your lipstick or your favorite blue shirt.

And what's the best way to describe its petite size? How about "Small enough to fit in your Fendi bag."

Welcome to Champagne 2000: bubbly as fashion statement, hipster accessory and cocktail on the go. This is what it takes to top the Champagne frenzy of New Year's Eve 1999, when gloomy fortunetellers predicted a shortage of bubbly.

It turns out there was plenty. The clock ticked to 12, toasts were raised and we all went to bed. But Millennium Fever has passed, and it's up to two very small bottles to put Champagne back on everyone's lips: Pop can do it. And if Pop can't do it, Baby Piper will.

Single-serving bottles of Champagne aren't new. You've heard of "splits." But the new baby bottles come in jewel-tone colors and are sold with matching straw. Packaging is everything. Marketing, supreme.

Pop is the cobalt-blue one, with a silver foil top, a bold white label and metallic-blue letters. The straw is blue with the word "pop" printed in white. Introduced at the tail end of '99, Pop is the brainchild of Pommery, a French Champagne maker working to increase its profile in this country.

Baby Piper – red bottle, gold foil and lettering, black straw – is the spawn of Piper-Heidsieck, another respected maker of Champagne. It hit the U.S. market in September.

"I guess it's a woman's drink – it's almost like cosmetics packaging," says Martin Smith, who heads the product design department at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.

With their beautiful colors and gilt trim, the bottles do resemble nothing more than perfume bottles. This emphasis on what's outside over what's inside represents a major shift in the marketing of Champagne. The fact that both Pommery and Piper-Heidsieck make very fine bubbly seems almost secondary.

"Pommery wanted to do something unconventional with Champagne, to address the fashionable element," says Janet Mick, spokeswoman for the company. "They wanted to make it attractive, easy to enjoy and easy to transport.

"It's made to come with you on the dance floor."

Surprise: Piper-Heidsieck also cites the dance floor as a destination for Baby Piper.

"We've always had a baby bottle, but Piper just wanted to dress it up," says spokesman Todd Wasserman. "Everything we do is about fashion and sexiness and romance. The whole thing is about having fun. The best part about it is you can dance and go to a nightclub and go crazy without having to worry about spilling your drink."

It reminds Mr. Smith of the '80s wine-cooler campaign.

"It feels like the same sort of marketing strategy, particularly since Champagne is thought of for special occasions – it's not a normal drink you would think of ordering when you go into a bar," he says.

And the vivid packaging indicates that the target customer is younger, more affluent and more design-aware, Mr. Smith says.

"Younger people are more packaging-conscious, particularly if it's new," he says. "Older people tend to favor more traditional aspects. For them, it needs to be a tall green bottle with a foil topping."

Also a lure for younger consumers is the way the straw is framed as a thumbing-of-the-nose at convention.

"With Piper, there are no rules," Mr. Wasserman says, "whether it's drinking out of a straw or right out of the bottle, or even adding a little Remy red [Piper is owned by Remy] or Chambord [liqueur] for a homemade Champagne cocktail."

But straws do not please aficionados – such as Serena Sutcliffe, international wine expert and author of numerous books on wine and Champagne – who appreciate the sights and smells, as well as the taste, of Champagne.

"I would never drink Champagne with a straw!" she says. "It would have a bizarre effect on the bubbles. I love really big tulip glasses, into which one's nose fits. Champagne really needs space to move in the glass."

She says she's surprised that the "Champenois" find it necessary to "dumb down" Champagne. She's under the impression that many people already view Champagne as an accessible drink.

But Mr. Wasserman has data that proves otherwise.

"We did some focus groups with consumers," he says. "First of all, a lot of women are hesitant to open a bottle of Champagne. They're worrying about the cork. Plus, everyone's scared of opening a $30 bottle of Champagne. If they don't finish it, they feel guilty."

A regular bottle of Champagne is 750 milliliters, or approximately 41/2 glasses. Both of the baby bottles are 187 milliliters – basically, a single glass. But they're not identical: Pop has the traditional cork and wire cage. Piper is a twist-off. And it should be pointed out that Baby Piper's bottle isn't actually red but is a deep green with a snug-fitting red plastic cover. Pop's bottle, however, is true blue.

Price will run somewhere between $12 and $15, depending on where you buy.

The two companies have also been running neck-and-neck in their campaigns to win over the hearts of the high-fashion crowd. For four years, Pommery has worked with designers such as Thierry Mugler to create special-occasion packaging for its Champagnes, while Piper most recently commissioned a corsetlike package from Jean-Paul Gaultier. And getting photographs in magazines of the product being consumed by famous fashion figures has been a driving campaign by both sides.

But no need to get competitive; what's good for one is good for all.

"We're expanding the usage of Champagne with this," Mr. Wasserman says. "American consumers think of Champagne very traditionally: birthday, wedding, new year and so on. This makes it an everyday beverage, which is great for the industry as a whole."

Mr. Smith, the packaging guru, sees his own perverse sunny side to the straw.

"In my college days, they used to say that if you drank beer through a straw, you would get drunk faster," he says. "I don't know if there's anything to that – we always believed it was true."