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Rich and hot, chocolate on the luxury level

Christmas is the peak time for premium chocolate sales, and big candy companies and small chocolatiers alike are rolling out some of their most high-end products to date.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Once, it was enough just to unwrap a bar of chocolate and eat it. Now, you must understand it.

Note the glossy shine that indicates the strong bond between the cocoa butter and the cocoa mass, instruct the makers of Vosges Haut Chocolat on the packaging of their Barcelona Bars. Release its complex aromas by rubbing your thumb across the top, and savor the smell. Only then should you finally taste it, feeling the chocolate melt around your tongue.

Like coffee before it, chocolate is going complex and upscale. This holiday season, look for Tasmanian honey wrapped in dark chocolate from Godiva and custom-made boxes tied with double-faced satin ribbon at exclusive Manhattan specialty store Bergdorf Goodman. Christmas is the peak time for premium chocolate sales, and big candy companies and small chocolatiers alike are rolling out some of their most high-end products to date.

A 'feel' business
"Chocolate is not always about eating," said Laure de Montebello, co-owner and chef of Sans Souci Gourmet Confections, an independent chocolate shop in New York that fills those custom-made boxes at Bergdorf's with peppermint truffles. "Chocolate is a 'feel' business."

That may be why readers of December's Vogue opened the magazine to find a gorgeous model giving a come-hither look -- to a piece of Godiva chocolate. Godiva wants customers to feel like divas, a play on the company's name and the focus of an advertising campaign that began last year targeting women ages 25 to 40. That demographic is the most likely to buy chocolate, consuming roughly eight servings each month, according to a report on premium chocolate by consumer-research firm Mintel.

To help entice them, Godiva has introduced a line of "platinum" chocolate this year to go along with the new ads. The assortments sell for between $8 and $80 and draw their inspiration from fashion -- think mousse fillings as airy as chiffon, spokesmen say. Godiva also brought back its "ultra-premium" G Collection last week. At $120 per pound, it is the company's most expensive line ever.

Even mass marketers such as Hershey Co. are making moves into the premium arena. This summer, the company created a division called Artisan Confection and bought two gourmet chocolatiers, Joseph Schmidt Confections and Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker. And Russell Stover recently launched its own line of premium chocolates. Dubbed the Private Reserve line, advertisements for it trumpet "elegant sculptures" of milk chocolate and dark chocolate made of up to 70 percent cacao.

At the Godiva shop in Tysons Corner Center, employee Maria Forselet said gift boxes of all kinds were flying off the shelves Friday. But customers were especially intrigued by the company's new lines, she said.

Forselet was interrupted by three women loaded with shopping bags and looking exhausted. They were looking for sweet pick-me-ups, preferably with caramel, before calling it a day.

"People who want to take a moment out and truly self-indulge want to do it in a way that's elevated," said Sharon Rothstein, vice president for global marketing and merchandise for Godiva.

The Starbucks effect
Call it the Starbucks effect. The ubiquitous retailer introduced the word "barista" into the national lexicon and raised the bar for what customers would pay for gourmet coffee. Why shouldn't consumers do the same for a Michel Cluizel chocolate bar in which all the beans were picked at a single plantation in Madagascar?

"This is the Starbucks generation," said Suzanne McGrath, owner of the Curious Grape, a wine shop in Arlington that sells Cluizel's bars. "All you have to do is tell them about it, and it piques their interest."

That philosophy is changing the way chocolate is marketed and consumed. It starts with bars of premium chocolate -- such as Vosges' Barcelona Bar made with sea salt and roasted almonds -- that sell for about $6. Then there are the boutique chocolate shops that will sell their wares by the piece when you just need a quick fix. And for special occasions, there is the $200 box of truffles from Godiva encased in Ultrasuede and adorned with Swarovski crystal.

Sales of premium chocolate last year were estimated to total $1.56 billion, according to the Mintel report. But most of those sales did not take place in traditional candy outlets such as drugstores.

Increasingly, consumers are buying chocolate at department stores, gourmet food retailers and chocolate shops -- and not just during the holidays. The Curious Grape sells between 500 and 1,000 premium chocolate bars each month.

'Chocolate consultants'
Mars Inc., best known for candies such as M&M's and Snickers, has developed a "chocolate lounge" to showcase its new line of gourmet confections.

The lounges, known as Ethel's Chocolate Lounges after the Mars company's matriarch, are decorated in pink and brown. Staff members are called "chocolate consultants." The menu features five chocolate collections, including one filled with creme liqueur in flavors such as mojito and "chocolapolitan." There are seven locations in Chicago, and the company is planning to open additional lounges across the country.

"Traditionally, when consumers think about chocolate, they think of special occasions," said John Haugh, president of gourmet chocolate and retail for a division of Mars. The lounges are designed to bring "premium chocolate into an everyday experience."

Maribel Lieberman did not expect to strike gold in 2000 when she opened a chocolate shop in New York after studying fashion at the prestigious Parsons School of Design. She simply wanted to combine the two things she liked best: food and high style.

So she decided to commission her artist husband to create paintings for her first line of chocolates. She printed his colorful, abstract designs onto chocolate squares and threw in a few of her own sketches. She flavored the treats with lemon, saffron and cardamom.

Soon the customers were flocking to her shop, now named MarieBelle New York. This year, her chocolates are also being sold at Neiman Marcus.

"It was not really planned, like 'I'm going to create a luxury item,' " Lieberman said. "It was more like 'What is me?' I like luxury goods. I'm the best customer."

Fashion accessory
Lieberman and other small chocolatiers helped prepare for the big candy companies, tapping into the market for small splurges. Last year, almost 65 percent of those surveyed in the Mintel report said that they would rather have a little bit of premium chocolate than a lot of so-so chocolate. To her customers, Leiberman said, the right chocolate in the proper packaging feels more like a fashion accessory than a threat to their waistlines.

Montebello of Sans Souci said that has been the strategy behind her company since it opened in 2002. Each of her chocolates is hand-dipped and made with fresh ingredients and no preservatives. Shelf life is only about two weeks. Customers will often stop by her shop just for a salted butter caramel or two.

"We want you to indulge," she said. "But we want you to feel good about it because you really don't have to go to excesses to satisfy your indulgence."

Dark chocolate in particular has been touted lately for the potential health benefits from the antioxidants and flavanols in the cocoa bean. Could chocolate become the next red wine?

Industry analysts and chocolate experts certainly hope so, in more ways than one.

The Curious Grape holds chocolate "tastings," allowing customers to taste the difference between the lighter milk chocolates and the most bitter darks. Foodies talk about the percent of cocoa and the origin and varietials of beans. A company called Chocolove even makes bars with vintage dates that are meant to be aged.

"Chocolate's trying to make a move from being a commodity . . . to something a little more like wine," said John Coleman, a buyer for grocer Balducci's. "That way, it's quality-driven."

But he cautioned not to overthink it. After all, chocolate is still first and foremost a comfort food.

"You don't want it to get too mystified by all the terms and everything," Coleman said. "You taste it. Do you like it? Good."