“Did you know Ruinart is the oldest champagne house?” Champagne Jayne leans over and asks me as we’re about to place our order.
Independent champagne advocate, speaker, educator, entertainer and now published author, I had met the bon vivant woman at a champagne tasting event last year, and have since had the pleasure of the Champagne Jayne experience at various events.
She is often described as effervescent, gregarious and a wealth of champagne knowledge. But today, sitting across the table from me at the French-inspired Felix restaurant, is Jayne Powell… the woman behind the bubbles.
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Corinne: Tell me a little about yourself, where you were born and where you grew up.
Champagne Jayne: I’m a London-Welsh-Australian who grew up almost French! I was born in Cardiff, Wales. Mum was Headmistress at a local state school and determined to give me the best head start in life, a great education and good diction. My parents worked hard to send me to the best private school and by age 12, I was a star pupil and awarded a full academic scholarship. Aged 18, I left Wales to study French and International Relations at the University of Reading then moved to central London as an undergraduate student.
C: Where did your passion for France come from?
CJ: At school languages came easily to me. As a teenager, I participated in a cultural exchange for six weeks. My French pen pal came to Wales and then I visited La Rochelle, a historic seaside town in Charente-Maritime. I jumped at the chance to immerse myself in a foreign culture. My pen pal’s father happened to be a hotelier. He immediately started teaching me about food and wine. I was like a blank canvas. Within 24 hours of arriving in France, [snaps fingers] I was totally immersed in the whole cultural experience as if I had found my spiritual home.
C: So you started learning French at school in Wales?
CJ: After an initial crush on Abba and everything Swedish at age seven, I became fascinated by everything French. My French teacher in Wales was actually French. I think it’s only natural that you love what you become really good at and what you’re good at becomes what you love.
C: You first discovered champagne on that exchange trip to France?
CJ: Yes, it was also the first time I tried Bordeaux and Chablis. Within three weeks, I was lucky enough to be introduced to lots of fabulous French wines!
C: And you were 15…
CJ: Yes. In those early days, I fell in love with everything French. I practically had orgasms going into the supermarkets with all the beautiful cakes, biscuits and unusual yoghurts on display. In France, the whole concept of eating and drinking took on new meaning and was just so much more sophisticated and satisfying to my soul − the conviviality of wine and having a glass with friends before or after dinner was such a natural social ritual, which I embraced immediately. I came back from that first visit totally mesmerised by everything, really, but I began to focus on sparkling wine and champagne a few years later while a student at the University of Bordeaux and then Montpellier.
C: How did you come to be known as Champagne Jayne?
CJ: Friends at university called me “Champers” or “Champagne Jayne” because I was always one for the bubbles. A few years after graduation, while managing a niche international business magazine for EMAP Business Communications, a key client who attended the same international conference circuit as me, also called me “Champagne Jayne”. When I officially launched “The Pooh Club”, a champagne supper club for media and colleagues in the international risk management industry, the moniker “Champagne Jayne” stuck.
C: You entered the world of publishing in the UK as a cadet…
CJ: I attended a big recruitment fair just after graduation and was immediately attracted by a Wine Magazine stand by Haymarket Publications. I met the advertising manager of Campaign Magazine and ended up working on this advertising industry bible instead of the wine magazine. I was then headhunted to launch a niche marketing and business magazine for the tech industry (Dennis Publishing) and then segued into PR to become the Head of Advertising for the French Chamber of Commerce in London. Later, I returned to the business magazine world in a global business development role for an international insurance title. Wherever I went, I left a trail of bubbles behind me!
C: How did you develop your knowledge of champagne?
CJ: After my initial wine experiences as an exchange student, I bought Sainsbury’s first book on champagne to prepare my bronze medal public speaking competition entry. It was called “Discover The Wines Of France”. I scored top marks in it on my eighteenth birthday and immediately joined the Sunday Times Wine Club [laughs]. During my twenties, I was lucky enough to work for several French organisations, Club Med, The European Commission and The French Chamber of Commerce, so champagne was definitely imprinted on me as de rigueur at the table for any gathering for work or pleasure before I reached 25. In my 30s I began studying wine on a more formal basis in the UK, in Australia and in Champagne.
C: Were you influenced by any brands in those early days?
CJ: Like most bon vivants, I tended to follow the brand inclinations of my favourite movie and TV stars. Think James Bond, Ab Fab… I would buy cartons of whatever was on special at airport duty free as regular rations. But in 1999, everything changed when I visited the Champagne region for the first time. I started taking these wines more seriously. I’ve been back to Champagne nearly every year since, to discover more about what’s really behind the bubbles…
C: You moved from the UK to Australia in 2000. What was the impetus to relocate to the other side of the world?
CJ: I’d been visiting Australia every year for business since 1995. I already loved the Australian climate and the relaxed local food and wine scene, and I wanted to take the time to explore this beautiful continent. I took Y2K as a sabbatical, gave up my job as a strategic planner for Express Newspapers and arrived into Sydney on the last flight at about 8:30pm on 31 December 1999 as a backpacker. I was determined to welcome in the new century in a new place and a new emotional space.
My original plan to walk off my wanderlust around Australasia and then return to London to another serious job was scuppered when I fell madly in love with a Kiwi I met in Sydney. I worked in magazines at first before selling my central London pad and launching my first ‘edutainment’ consulting business in 2003, WineWorks International. I became an Australian citizen in 2005 and these days I travel between Australia and Europe on a regular basis.
C: Was there a defining moment when you decided you wanted to be a champagne advocate?
CJ: Champagne is like a favourite t-shirt that I want to wear every day, but the light really went on in terms of champagne being my vocation back in 2004. I participated in a prestige champagne masterclass hosted in London to discover the secrets of the 1990 vintage. I was totally mesmerised by the tasting experience and incredibly inspired by the fascinating stories told by the marvellous speaker, Serena Sutcliffe MW. I knew then that I really wanted to help spread the good news about champagne!
C: Tell a little about the Champagne Jayne brand, your website and philosophy.
CJ: Since 2003, it’s been my honour and my passion to help connect and engage all sorts of audiences through priceless champagne experiences that enrich, educate and entertain at all levels. For me, champagne connects to everything, but the experience should be both accessible and inspirational at the same time. SBS Food described my blog as a “cornucopia of educational and entertaining videos, articles, reviews and useful tips” which sums it up nicely.
C: You’re known as a Champagne Storyteller: author, speaker, educator and entertainer. How do you describe the Champagne Jayne experience?
CJ: It’s about conviviality and the joy of connecting with people in an environment that is stimulating and fun, with no pressure. I’ve always thought of champagne as the ultimate icebreaker. I personally know from many years of international business experience that champagne is just brilliant for relationship building. Whoever you are and wherever you go, if I came to visit and brought you a bottle of champagne, already you’d be in a good mood before we even start a conversation!
C: You’re also active in social media. Do you think it raises awareness of champagne in general?
CJ: While it’s never been a source of revenue for me, around the world, consumers, members of the wine trade and lifestyle media connect with me and ask me questions using Facebook and Twitter. So social media definitely helps me stay connected and informed at a global level. I aim to share good news, respond to queries and point people in the right direction when I don’t have the answer.
C: Tell me about your most recent media exposure.
CJ: I’m also the media’s “go to expert”, writing for Readers Digest, the Wentworth Courier and I’ve been on national TV with Kerrie Ann and The Circle.
C: How would you describe yourself?
CJ: I think I’m perky and quirky. Friendly, fun, irreverent and impatient all at the same time. But always looking to discover new things and expand my horizons. Once I have a goal in mind, I’m doggedly determined and have a tendency to set things in motion around me. I definitely challenge the status quo, which people either love or hate! However, I also recognise that if I wasn’t so committed and passionate about what I do, I would never have been able to create the opportunity to live my dream!
C: How much of Champagne Jayne is Jayne Powell?
CJ: [Pause] The Champagne Jayne you see on stage, that effervescently entertaining, gregarious storyteller… that is to some degree the shiny best side of me. I thrive on creating connections and facilitating relationships, so the addition of champagne naturally amplifies my stage presence. You could say Champagne Jayne is an amplification of Jayne.
C: What are your other passions outside of food and champagne?
CJ: I love to travel and I’m very stimulated by foreign cultures, especially ancient civilisations. Being surrounded by nature makes me very happy and I particularly enjoy camping in Australia… as long as I have my “Taj Mahal” six-person tent and the five-day esky for my champagne! My partner calls it “glamping”. At home, I’m quite content to hang out with my fur kids watching science fiction or comedy movies while indulging my other ‘c’-word passions − chocolate and cake!
C: You’ve often described your palate as a ‘free agent’ unrestricted by any brand sponsorship. What are some of the advantages of staying independent?
CJ: Integrity is really important to me. When people ask my advice, I love being able to give an honest opinion without the restrictions of trying to sell a particular brand or a certain volume of champagne. After all, the champagne category is such a broach church which is in part what makes it so fascinating. I feel much more comfortable being able to write and speak about champagne and sparkling with integrity and true passion, than if I was tied to a particular brand message.
C: What do you see as recent exciting developments in the consumption of champagne in Australia?
CJ: Back in 2005, I began showcasing grower champagne on the menus for prestige champagne dinners. At the time, these styles of champagne weren’t so popular or acceptable Down Under. What’s really exciting today is that people are now looking to move beyond the mainstream champagne brands. Here in Sydney, we have places like Ultimo Wine Centre, the Oak Barrel and Vine Shop. But even national chains like Vintage Cellars are now providing great value grower champagnes. If you want to stick with the major brands, then Dan Murphy provides exceptional bargains for everybody to enjoy champagne.
C: Champagne is commonly perceived as an apéritif or a celebratory drink. How would you educate someone’s perception that champagne is to be enjoyed throughout a meal?
CJ: Most champagnes are blended wines, often from across several vintages, which means champagne creates an orchestra of different flavours in your mouth and makes the perfect foil for a range of cuisines. Mixing it up and getting hands on with food and champagne. That’s what I do in my classes.
C: What is your favourite style of champagne?
CJ: All champagnes are my children, but I do have a particular penchant for Blanc de Blancs and Rosé styles. They can often be more quirky. If money was no object, I’d drink prestige cuvée all the time. Although it would be a different house every day so that they all receive my affection and attention!
C: Your first book, Champagnes… Behind the Bubbles (which I reviewed in September) has just been published. What was the inspiration behind it?
CJ: I was approached by a small publisher in 2009 to write a book on champagne as part of their life enrichment series. I accepted the gig for the opportunity to share the secret history of champagne from my own uniquely passionate point of view. The 60,000 words I wrote about champagne in this book were distilled from more than 25 years of love and practice!
C: What do you think makes it so different?
CJ: It’s the freedom of speech, lack of bias and depth of insider knowledge. The book has just won a Gourmand Wine Books Awards 2011 – Wine Book (Australia) and is a finalist for Global Wine Book of the Year Awards in Paris on March 6th 2012.
C: What stories did you enjoy writing the most?
CJ: The aspect of champagne’s development that I find most fascinating is the evolution of champagne from a sacramental wine to a mass market cultural icon. So I really enjoyed explaining the unexpected linkages we encounter throughout champagne’s tumultuous history and writing the cultural icons section about James Bond and Absolutely Fabulous.
C: What projects are you currently working on?
CJ: Next February, I’ve been invited by Harpers Magazine to speak at the 3rd Champagne Summit in London and next March, I’m hosting a special “First Ladies of Champagne” five-course Dégustation Lunch at Vue de Monde in Melbourne for the 20th anniversary of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. Hosting bespoke tours to Champagne to help people get a real understanding of what’s behind the bubbles is another project that’s very close to my heart. And writing more books.
C: CJ… Why champagne?
CJ: To me, champagne is literally happiness in a bottle. Every time I hear the pop of a champagne cork and that little fzz fzz fzz when you pour champagne into the glass, and you get those little bubbles that jump out and tickle your nostrils, and those wonderful aromas… it makes me fall in love with life again.
Sharing champagne is such a wonderful sensual ritual. First, you’ve got the pop, then the magnificent bottle, which is always incredibly well designed. Then the joy of the bubbles sparkling in your glass and the ping ping ping sensation if you put your eyes and your nose really close to the rim so you can even see the bubbles jumping out. And that always makes me smile. I love everything about champagne except the snobbism. This is exactly why I started my champagne edutainment classes − to put the fizz fun back into champers and help others uncork more business and pleasure!
C: If you were to sum up Champagne Jayne in one champagne which would it be?
CJ: I remember Christian Pol Roger telling me I was definitely a Blanc de Blancs champagne – lively and racy yet delicate with finesse and structure. If this is the case, I think I identify most with Bruno Paillard – individual and did the impossible, that is, to create a new champagne house from scratch.
Jayne Powell – Champagne Jayne at Felix Restaurant
With much thanks to CJ for her time and for the in-depth interview. Second photo credit: Champagne Jayne – used with permission.
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