It was a lovely early summer night, on the cool side, and I sat in the garden patio at The Whitney, an old elegant mansion-turned-restaurant in downtown Detroit. Stephanie Mills walked between the ten-or-so tables, explaining the process of several labels of Courvoisier cognac and inviting us to sip each different brew.

My friend Jan sat beside me and to my left were three men I’d only just met that night: the first, whose name I didn’t catch, I’ll call Nimble. A skinny man with long hair that shook as he spoke and an accent I thought to be Italian but which I later learned was Iraqi-Chaldean. “I own a wine store and an alarm company,” he said. Sweet man. Divorced, mid-40s or older, two children he never sees.

To his left sat Claiton, a man from mid-state with a teddy-bear body who threw Yiddish words around like he knew what he was talking about. Three years younger than I, a divorce attorney, lots to say but charming in his own way. And to his left was Eduardo, the half Mexican, half Chinese owner of several elegant restaurants. My age, divorced, with one teenage daughter.

We sipped cognac, and then Nimble ordered a bottle of red wine and we laughed and played at conversation and tried to figure everyone out. When Stephanie joined our table, she spoke about versatility and how people like options and how every city has its unique wonderful qualities. A consummate politician working for a high-end luxury cocktail company.

I’ll tell you first that I didn’t like the VSOP but the Exclusif went down smoothly and I sipped at the XO. I’d never drunk Courvoisier though I’d learned the word in high school French class when a student named Brandy was searching for the French version of her name. The brand rolls off the tongue, a fun word to toss around, and it turns out that I, a lightweight drinker with an affection for smooth, refined tastes, actually liked two of three versions of this cognac.

In any case. Stephanie sat with us in her to-the-floor flowing summer dress (which was beautiful) and a black amorphous wrap (it was a cool night) and her shock of hair like a beautiful bird’s defining characteristic. I asked her how she came to have this position as National Courvoisier Ambassador. “Destiny met opportunity,” she said.

And she told me how a friend mentioned the job posting and she pursued it, really not aware of what it entailed. “They flew me to their headquarters in Chicago and asked me to present something I was passionate about,” she said. Stephanie led a tasting of Chimay, a Belgian beer that elicited¬†passion in this New York girl, and because she was speaking of something she knew intimately and loved, she got the job, 1 of 300 applicants.

Stephanie travels throughout North America hosting cognac tastings and marketing Courvoisier.

At our table, she said things like this:

“I think we have to evolve to take into consideration anybody’s taste.”

“You have to be creative in growing your business.”

“It’s about being in the right place at the right time and being open to opportunity.”

As Jan and I waited on the cobblestones for her blue two-door BMW, I asked her what her impression had been. I’d learned in the night that she liked her beef tenderloin well-done while I prefer mine bloody. The twice-baked potato was smooth, the green beans buttery. The layer cake and coffee were delightful afterthoughts.

Jan, who was laid-off recently from her executive automotive engineering position and has been interviewing relentlessly for a new post, took this away from the night: “I think Stephanie is a great example of a woman who beat the odds and landed a fabulous job that she loves.”

Interesting, I said. Colored by Jan’s current employment situation, she gleaned a different meaning from the same conversation.

And me, a former journalist and current marketing and public relations maven, I saw an earnest, high-end, unnecessary luxury brand vying for its very survival in an economic¬†downturn. I saw a massive marketing campaign to attract new customers, a zealous and sincere effort to spread the word about a product that probably previously didn’t need such a push.

I took away the notion that as smooth as the cognac went down, it is an unnecessary product in a time when even the necessary comes under scrutiny. And Stephanie’s job has become that of politician and diplomat along with marketing director.

However, I now know a lot more about Courvoisier and cognac than I did before the night began. So perhaps I have become a potential customer.

I will say also that on its website, Courvoisier’s clever tagline is find greatness within. An awfully karmic directive for a luxury drink company.

Maybe what I took away in the end supports my whole business model. That face-to-face conversation, that relationship-building, can sell and promote and further a brand better than just about any other strategy.


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