"If Harlem had to be characterized by a type of alcohol, champagne, hands down, would be it." Or so says Dard, one of the three Black co-founders of the lifestyle brand Harlem American, who were all born and still reside in the eponymous neighborhood in uptown Manhattan.
"Champagne is synonymous with Harlem. It was and continues to be the ultimate status symbol for the people who live here," says Dard (who goes by a single name). "Growing up, you were only a somebody if you had a case of champagne in your trunk."
How fitting is it then that the trio, which also includes Felix James and Ray Bangs, have collaborated with their friend Matthieu Yamoum, the Champagne, France-born wine director of New York's Baccarat Hotel, on their own interpretation of the bubbly?
Called HRLM Champagne, their venture debuts this week—during a time when a handful of Black champagne makers are slowly starting to establish a presence in a historically homogenous industry. Stuyvesant Champagne, which founder M. Robinson named after her hometown of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn is one example, and former NBA player Isiah Thomas's partnership with Cheurlin Champagne is another.
"The lineage of champagne is white, and it's a field dominated by white males," says Larissa Dubose, a certified sommelier, the founder of the wine education company Lotus & The Vines and the director of education for the networking group Black Wine Professionals. "There's nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that there's a lot of room for growth with brands like HRLM Champagne."
This latest iteration to join the lineup of champagnes with Black people behind them has a backstory that's as compelling as the outsized personalities of the four founders.
In 2012, the then 21-year-old Yamoum visited New York from the French West Indies, where he was working as a waiter, to see his childhood friend Jonathan Sacy. They came from neighboring villages in Champagne, and Sacy's family had grown grapes for producers in the area since the 17th century.
While he was in town, Sacy took Yamoum to the opening party of the now shuttered Harlem French bistro Cedric's, where they met Dard, the restaurant's managing director. "We started talking, and he mentioned that he was looking for a manager," says Yamoum. "By the end of the night, I was hired."
Yamoum left the Caribbean for a new life in the city that centered around Harlem. "I worked in Harlem and lived in four different apartments in the neighborhood. I loved everything about it—the colors, the sounds, the energy," he says. "I also made incredible friends, with Dard being at the top of the list."
Yamoum eventually moved on from Cedric's to other jobs and ended up at Baccarat. Coaxum, meanwhile, launched Harlem American with James and Bangs, which quickly amassed a following among the Black community including celebrities such as Morgan Freeman and Samuel L. Jackson. The two stayed in touch, however, and saw each other regularly.
The idea for HRLM Champagne was hatched on one of their nights out—this time in the crystal gilded Petit Salon at the Baccarat. "All four of us were there," recalls Dard. "We were drinking—appropriately—a bottle of champagne and somewhere along the way got to talking about how we should really make our own."
Yamoum, excited by the prospect of partnering with his "Harlem boys," as he calls them, on their drink of choice, jumped at the opportunity. Their timing was fortuitous: Sacy had recently moved back to Champagne to work on his family's estate and would make the ideal winemaker.
"We had the passion. And, we had the connections to get great grapes and a winemaker ready to go, both of which are the hardest part of getting started," says Yamoum. "Everything was lined up for us to go forward."
Yamoum's access in the world of Champagne undoubtedly gives the nascent company a leg up, according to Dubose. "When you're trying to start any wine brand, you need to have an in to get quality grapes and the right winemaker," she says. "That has nothing to do with race."
Before thinking about the wine itself, HRLM's founders had to apply with the Comite Champagne to get approval for their name and to officially designate it as a champagne. They initially proposed the winery name Harlem American and were rejected because the word Harlem connotes a geographical location. "It could imply that the champagne was produced in Harlem when it can only come from the region in France," says Yamoum. "Our twist was HRLM."
Yamoum spent a week in Champagne in late 2019 working with Sacy on the blend. As Baccarat's wine director, he had tasted at least a few hundred champagnes and knew exactly what he wanted in his. "Our champagne is for the people and had to have a universal taste appeal," he says. "It had to be affordable and pair with any food from sushi to salads and also drink well on its own."
The wine that came to fruition was fermented in stainless steel vats and aged in bottles for over 18 months. Taste-wise, HRML is fresh and elegant, exactly as the foursome envisioned. With a bright yellow hue, the wine is made from a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier grapes and delivers fresh lemon peel in the nose, along with hints of toasted almonds and grapefruit. A food-friendly effervescence is distinct in every sip.
Yamoum and Sacy may be behind the wine, but Dard, James and Bangs can take credit for the black label with yellow gold letters. They also put much thought into the foil around the cork, which has a red interior evoking Christian Louboutin heels and is emblazoned with the words Courage Heritage Lifestyle. "It takes courage to turn your heritage, which in this case is champagne, into a lifestyle—our new brand," says Dard.
With a retail price of $45, HRLM is approachable pricewise and will be poured at several Harlem restaurants including Marcus Samuelson's Red Rooster, legendary soul food spot Sylvia's and the French boite Barawine, along with retailers like Bottle Bronx and Harlem's Freeland Liquor.
The pandemic delayed its release by nearly a year, making the launch that much more worthy of celebrating. "When the cases finally came from France, we all got together and uncorked the first one," says Yamoum. "It was about time for our long-awaited toast."