“I’m addicted to Champagne, bien sûr.” Behind the velvet curtains which separates a private corner from the refined atmosphere of the Fizz bar, owner and Chief Champagne Officer Raymond Irwin takes a look back at the moment when he manifested his addiction as the Champagne & Bubbles Bar in Sacramento. One hundred and forty kilometres northeast of San Francisco, the city is the Farm-to-Fork Capital of America, according to the Michelin Guide.
The 27-year-old Californian of French descent was initially a classical singer, before turning his life around completely a few years ago. “One day I was visiting Chicago and I saw this place called Pops. I was intrigued so I went in, and once inside I was mesmerized. I fell in love with the hundreds of bottles of Champagne. I was dazzled by Champagne. I realized it’s the happiest drink on earth.”
After spending three nights in a row at Pops, he realised the absolute necessity of opening up a similar place in Sacramento, his hometown. “I knew a little bit about wine already back then, but Champagne is a different story,” he says. “Here Champagne is somehow forbidden. You can start or finish the night with bubbles, but that’s it. You can’t make an entire evening of it. We are starved of Champagne in this country. We are choking in Napa Cab’.”
Next thing he knew, he was booking a flight for France to knock on every door in the Champagne wine region, because “you can’t learn anything until you go there”. Four trips later, he had his entire business plan ready before his 25th birthday. He says he surrounded himself with “smarter people” with whom he managed to raise money from investors. In August 2018, he found a location in the heart of Sacramento, right next to the city stadium, and opened the doors of Fizz two months later, which “is slow by American standards”. The hype over the concept had time to grow, he says, adding that people were very excited: “Fizz was the most anticipated bar of 2018.”
Irwin’s timing couldn’t be better. Sparkling wines have been in growth for at least a quarter of a century, but sales have exploded in the past few years, in part thanks to the popularity of Prosecco.
Eighty percent of the offer at Fizz is Champagne, with the balance made up by sparkling, Crémant, vin mousseux and some bottles of Sekt, Cava, Prosecco, and Franciacorta. There is a smattering of other beverages on the menu for guests who don’t drink bubbly. Irwin explains that sensibility and pricing are the two major factors he took into account as he feels that Sacramento is the “midwest of the west”. So he decided to serve only the best quality, but for the best price, offering $12.00 glasses (four options), as well as $1,800 bottles.
The formula worked, Fizz was profitable immediately, with a 30% return on investment two and a half months after opening. And the general feedback was excellent, with an average of 4.5 stars across the 107 reviews left on Yelp, which Raymond Irving considers “pretty phenomenal. As we opened as quickly as possible, we had some feedback on Facebook asking for more decor and for flights to be added to our offer. So we listened and acted accordingly.”
Raymond Irwin has based the names of the said flights on songs: Champagne in the membrane, Rosé all day and The Bowler of flight which includes some Krug vintage, some Dom Perignon and Vintage Veuve Clicquot.
And since the customers are happy, Fizz should multiply soon. “My goal is to open Fizz 2 by the time I’m 30, just because we have to. Californians need Champagne, life, joy, une fête. It should happen sometime in the next two years, somewhere in the Bay in California. And hopefully, there will be 10 Fizz in the next 10 years.”
By then he might have won his biggest battle: figuring out how to offer all the Champagnes he’d like to see on his menu.
“I’d love to serve Bérèche, but I can’t because of the monopoly of importers and distributors.” And that’s in addition to the US regulations, which differ between states. But that’s no real obstacle for Irwin, whose motto is “Come and see us, we’ll pop a bottle for you.”