Raise a Flute

Celebrating Formula 1, One Bottle at a Time

May 29, 2015 Drinks By Photo by Matthew Ankeny

encountered Mumm Champagne in four ways, and I have not reconciled them, nor do I know if they are reconcilable. There is a highly calculated, marketing-driven point to each interaction and, I suppose, there is one unifying factor — though that doesn’t mean they coordinate or should be held together in one thought (or at least it is difficult for me to do so). The four are this: First, at the Mumm properties — vineyard, caves and labeling production facility — where the jeroboam bottles are given preferred, hand-riddled, hand-labeled treatment and generally regarded as a premium product. Second, at a picnic at l’Assiette Champenoise, where I meet the Mumm Champagne as paired with a 10-course meal presented by a three-star Michelin kitchen. Third, with the connected bottle — the first of its kind and a large part of why I am at this launch at the Monaco Grand Prix — which I watch Mark Ronson open on a yacht in the Monaco harbor. Fourth, as I watch on a screen the podium celebration, where the winner of this Formula 1 race, Nico Rosberg, sprays Champagne on himself and his team.

In this story of Champagne there is traditional craftsmanship and highly controlled refinement and brash egocentrism and excessive pomp, all lumped together under the visage of one house. It’s confusing. Is this the Champagne brand of the Sunset Club who bring your bottles out with sparklers flaring? Or is it the brand of Arnaud Lallement, the chef who prepared a langoustine bretonne (lobster) that’s on par with anything good I’ve eaten in the last five years? Or can it be both?

Perhaps this is what massive beverage companies can do — Mumm being the world’s fourth largest Champagne distributor (and the best selling in France, the largest consumer of Champagne). They fill roles, they exist under many different appearances, and they can do whatever they want.

The Property

The caves in Reims are 40 meters below the ground, maintain a near-constant temperature year round, and have the wonderful smell of moss. We are hurried down the dark alleys to one small corner of the production, the jeroboam bottles. These bottles are larger than magnums, and they get special treatment: they’re hand riddled and hand labeled, and they have their own small alleyway in the caves. Instead of the stacked and caged bottles of Champagne outside, the jeroboam bottles that we see sit in the riddling racks, freestanding and alone. The bottles are aged three years, then the yeast cap is dispelled, and then more Champagne is added (to make up for the loss during freeing the yeast), and aging continues for another six months before the bottles are ready for labeling. These are the bottles of the Formula 1 podium, a Champagne celebration tradition that dates back to 1966, and has been under the purview of Mumm sponsorship for the past 15 years.

In the labeling and distribution plant, a workstation has been set up for our arrival to demonstrate how the podium-specific Formula 1 jeroboam bottles are hand labeled. At the volume of production and with the size of the bottle, hand labeling is the preferable method, and it adds a quaint touch to the story of the Champagne. It also allows for more stickers, including the distinctive winner’s “1” and laurels of victory on the neck of the bottle. Workers use sponges to clean bottles, hold small rulers to measure where the labels should be applied, and press out any small bubbles. Then the bottle is ready to be passed on to the podium (or to the many who will celebrate the winner’s victory).

The Picnic

Langoustine bretonne (lobster), gnocchis vin jaune (gnocchi) and chocolat praliné (chocolate praline) are paired with Blanc de Blancs, Cordon Rougue and Le Rosé.

Langoustine bretonne (lobster), gnocchis vin jaune (gnocchi) and chocolat praliné (chocolate praline) are paired with Blanc de Blancs, Cordon Rougue and Le Rosé.

At l’Assiette Champenoise, a three-star Michelin restaurant in the outskirts of Reims, we have a picnic lunch on the back patio. The Champagne is paired with 10 courses from chef Arnaud Lallement. Between the third and fourth courses, I sit and chat with the cellar master, Didier Mariotti, who from first glance seems too clean cut and well heeled and scarfed to be a cellar master. When asked about the wine, he speaks earnestly of his craft. “When I make a Champagne”, he says, “I don’t think of the victory. I’m not thinking of the brand platform or what marketing they’re expecting. What’s important for me is that when you want to drink some Champagne, you want to bring emotions, enjoyment, pleasure. My role is to bring these emotions. And then you can say, ‘Okay, I want to celebrate something and Champagne is the best drink to do it.’ And it will bring this emotion at the same time.” Champagne, to Mariotti, is always a drink of celebration.

And in a setting of refinement and with this heavily nuanced food, it seems a subtle, quiet celebration. So, I am curious to see how he sees his Champagne pairs with the brash and emotive celebration at the podium of the Grand Prix. “I don’t want to be restrictive in the way that you enjoy Champagne”, he says. “For me, the most important thing is to give you the key to open different doors. And it’s your personal choice to select the door you want to open to enjoy this moment. I would not spray Champagne. That’s not the way I want to enjoy it. But I don’t want to have very strict rules. It has to be a very personal choice.” Our personal choice, at the time, is to have another glass and enjoy another course.

The Yacht


On a yacht in the harbor of Monaco, Mark Ronson pops the cork on the first connected bottle — meaning that the bottle has a special collar, a slightly thick red rubber ribbon that connects, via radio frequency, to the A/V system of a location. This happens after the day of qualifying, Saturday, in front of a crowd of people that includes both celebrities recognized the world over (Cara and Poppy Delevingne) and those that are not (our group of journalists). When the cork is popped, a sensor in the cork notifies the electronic collar, which notifies, via RFID, the A/V system, and something — based on how the club or organization has the system set up — happens. In this case, Ronson pops the bottle and the large screen overlooking the race course changes to a live broadcast of Ronson on the yacht’s stage, holding the Champagne, a bit befuddled but proud. This is what the bottle does — to the tune of 10,000 Euros (so initial reports say). It is all very pompous and narcissistic and unsubtle and loud, a far cry from the grassy lawns of l’Assiette Champenoise or the mossy and quiet caves of Reims.

The Race

In lap 63 of the Grand Prix of Monaco, Max Verstappen brakes too late, hits the right rear wheel of Romain Grosjean, and goes head on into a barrier. The yellow caution flag goes up, the safety car drives out, and drivers assemble in line. Lewis Hamilton, who before the caution had increased his lead to more than 20 seconds, decides to head into the pits to change tires. It is an ill-advised move. He exits the pit stop a second too late, and the second- and third-place drivers, Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel, surpass him, leaving Hamilton in third. At Monaco, passing is nearly impossible, and almost always, the pole position wins. Though Hamilton held pole and the lead for the majority of the race, he does not recover. Rosberg goes on to win the race. At the podium, the triumph of Rosberg is foiled by the sulking of Hamilton, a known poor loser and, on this day, a particularly bad one. He hits the third place sign with the nose of his car on entering the alley in front of the stage, feigns interest in congratulating his teammate and the victor, and sulks during the German national anthem.

Mark Ronson hands Rosberg a jeroboam bottle of Mumm, and Rosberg sprays himself and the onlookers, and runs out to pour Champagne, mother bird-like, into his teammates’ open mouths. The Formula 1 Champagne tradition, it should be noted, has roots farther north. In the ’60s, the race was held outside of Reims, and the Champagne houses gifted a bottle to the victor, who would go home and enjoy the bottle on his own time. Then, in ’66, the victor, Jo Siffert, was given a bottle of Champagne that had sat in the sun all day, which, under the increased pressure from the warmth, exploded unexpectedly and showered Siffert and the crowd. The next year, winner Dan Gurney decided it was good fun to do the same, and thus, the connection between Champagne, Formula 1 and splashing was born.

Mumm happens to be a very powerful brand of celebratory Champagne. And when you are powerful, you can do many things, be in many places, exist in many different facets. You can have craft traditions, refinement and nuance, alongside brash vulgarity and flash and, of course, excess — the splashing of Champagne in the form of a bath. But, not all will celebrate with you. As Rosberg sprays the liquid gold around the pavement, Hamilton walks off, bottle in hand, no celebration to be had. Celebration is always, as Mariotti says, a personal choice.