When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, founders and organizers of wine festivals had to pivot – hard. Some cancelled, hoping for better luck in 2021, while others powered through converting 100% live events to 100% virtual events by fall. One woman pulled off this difficult feat for her weeklong celebration of France’s most famous bubbles in New York.
Blaine Ashley known as “Champagne Blaine,” founded the first New York Champagne Week in November 2013. The week’s ethos had been to promote the champagne category through a variety of creative events, pairing experiences, brand launches, new release reveals, interactive tastings, seminars and more. Last year, Ashley had to transfer the energy of a live experience into nationwide virtual events while navigating a new set of logistics and creative strategies.
As the pandemic eases, Ashley is bringing the festivities back this year through a hybrid model which includes seven virtual events and three ticketed in-person events in Manhattan. Ashley took time to speak with Forbes about the challenges and insights of keeping an event going through a global crisis while highlighting what events to look forward to this year.
This is your 8th year! How has the event evolved from the beginning?
I spent the large part of summer 2013 traveling throughout France. While there, I was writing a monthly column for Destinations Travel aptly dubbed ‘Jet Set Sip’. As part of my extended trip, I was invited to attend VinExpo, one of the world’s largest wine festivals that takes place in Bordeaux every other year and Hong Kong on the off years.
While in the hotel lobby waiting to be transported to the expo, I met a sommelier from an Opera House in Sweden and he asked if I wanted to walk the show with him under one condition: we must only taste champagnes, as he was opening a champagne bar inside of the Opera House. Yes!
While tasting all the Champagne and meeting a ton of incredible producers I’d never heard of, I had an entrepreneurial ‘aha’ moment — I’m going to create a New York Champagne Week. This was in June 2013. I came back in early July and got to work, launching the first-ever New York Champagne Week in November 2013.
The major difference between then and now is that I initially set up a clearing house to showcase new producers that weren’t even available in the US at the time but were hoping to find distribution.
My target audience were distributors, buyers, and press to hopefully find these unknown champagne houses a literal home state-side.
We’re now an event that’s slowly but surely expanded to a champagne-loving consumer and that has the support of many well-known brands which is crucial to the marketing capabilities to successfully promote the champagne category as a whole.
How did you navigate hosting a week-long celebration virtually last year?
Back in March 2020, I kept hearing Zoom, Zoom, Zoom… and I was like “what?!” Soon afterward, I started to attend wine-focused Zoom events and found most of them to be mundane.
Afterwards, I began to dabble with Zoom events through my sister platform The FIZZ is Female, which celebrates female-made, -owned and -heavily led (think CEO) sparkling wines from around the world.
I started bi-weekly Wednesday ‘Women in Bubbly Wine’ spotlight events in late April and from there tried and tested working with ecommerce partners that would deliver wine packs to attendees of these events.
From this, I not only developed and grew a nationwide consumer base, I also had the confidence to develop an amazing virtual event calendar for the 7th Annual VERY Virtual New York Champagne Week that was not only super interactive and champagne packed but also really fun.
We held events such as The Champagne Pol Roger Kick-Off party led by a sommelier from NYC’s famous Per Se restaurant. He’s also a trained opera professional and performed an aria as part of the event.
We also teamed up with Goldbelly to host ‘The Fried Chicken and Champagne Bash’ featuring La Caravelle Champagne and celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s famous Streetbird fried chicken. Our e-commerce partner can ship to 40 states and Goldbelly ships to all 50 states, so all attendees here got the chance to meet this famous chef and taste his incredible food.
Finally, we wrapped the week’s festivities with ‘The Champagne Billecart-Salmon Mask-erade’ Ball, where people traded in their medically safe masks for Victorian era looks and we hosted a costume contest, gifting the winner a magnum of Champagne.
This year you’ve created a hybrid model. What are the challenges and benefits of this approach? And is it here to stay?
If it’s here to stay, I’m going to need a clone. Initially, I felt like “I’ve got this!” as following last year’s New York Champagne Week, I’ve coordinated and hosted at least 70 virtual events. And, the event was in-person before. But it’s a completely different model as I have a nation-wide consumer base now. Thus, this year, we’re offering seven virtual events (compared to 10 last year) to spread the bubbly love across the country and three ticketed in-person events plus a few promotions. It’s essentially as if we’re producing two entirely separate events in one week. And, who really knows what the consumer wants or what they might want a month from now let alone a week from now in this uncertain climate. Things can change on a dime. Last year there was one option: virtual or bust.
You have a modern take on Champagne — no stuffy suited sommeliers in affected eye and neck wear. Your goal is to make it fun, inclusive, and affordable (when possible.) Has that approach worked?
First off, I was raised in Hawaii and live by the Aloha spirit which at its core means spreading joy, positive communication, giving more than you receive and being willing to show others kindness through action.
When I first launched New York Champagne Week I was an ‘outsider’. In many ways, I still am. I love Champagne. It’s incredibly food friendly, lower in alcohol and popping a bottle instantly lifts spirits. I always believed it should be marketed this way versus fully focusing on that Champagne is only for special occasions. If we’ve learned anything from this global pandemic — every day we have on this earth should be celebrated and toasted to!
Additionally, it’s an affordable luxury. Many of the bottles we promote are moderately priced between $40 – $100.
What are some events coming up in November readers should look out for?
I’m pleased to report that our virtual event calendar is strong in concepts and inviting to all champagne lovers be they novice or experts.
We’re bringing back our ultra-popular Champagne Laurent Perrier Ladies Night being hosted by the Maison’s US President, Michelle DeFeo.
We’re also back at it with Goldbelly on Friday night for Grill & Chill: Date Night in with Gramercy Tavern and La Caravelle Champagne. Attendees will meet Chef Mike Anthony while indulging in a backstage pass to the legendary NYC restaurant while noshing on their famed GT Burger and sipping all the champagne. A portion of proceeds for this event benefit God’s We Deliver, a charitable service that cooks and home-delivers nutritious, medically tailored meals for people too sick to shop or cook for themselves.
Finally, our official closing party this year is Robes & Rosé presented by Charles Heidsieck, which will be a blast. Co-hosted by this year’s Wine Enthusiast 40-under-40 Tastemaker cover star Philippe André and Champagne Charles Heidsieck Puerto Rico Ambassador Lola Morales-Aponte, this duo will no doubt bring ALL the party vibes with their undeniable style and swagger.
Best dressed wins a magnum of…you guessed it, Charles Heidsieck Brut Rosé.
Cut off to order all virtual event packages is Monday, October 25th.
New York Champagne Week runs November 8-13, 2021