Article By: Fred Bouchard
Taittinger, 54, an ex-Marine captain in French forces in
Martinique, is well known as a forthright, opinionated
speaker with resonant voice and take-charge personality;
though he may rail against what he regards as absurdities in
the business, he tempers his assertiveness with a courtly,
occasionally confiding, genteel manner, and is ever the
amusing, logical, urbane, and cordial conversationalist. He
was accompanied that day by his 29-year-old son, Clovis,
soft-spoken and still a tad shy, who was recently lured by
his father from the lucrative world of finance and real
estate to the family's lately reacquired generations-old and
world-famous wine business; the blond youngster listens,
observes, eventually finds his voice, and quietly shared his
FRED BOUCHARD Please catch our readers up with the recent divesting by the Taittinger Corporation of its holdings, and your family's subsequent repurchasing of the wineries and vineyards.
PIERRE-EMMANUEL TAITTINGER It's very clear. My family is a large one, with seven branches. The family wanted to sell the entire Corporation for tax purposes and simply to get their money. (Seagrams did likewise some years ago.) We put it up for auction and an American group, Starwood, bought it all - Champagne Taittinger, Domaine Carneros, the Loire valley winery, Baccarat Crystal, Hotel du Crillon, Societe du Louvre - everything. That was the will of 9O% of my family. Me, I was in the 1O% who wanted to keep the business. But - I am a democrat - and I had to accept the majority decision. And we do all get along well. My son and I were a little sad, but we had no choice. But then, Starwood stated, "We are a real estate group, we are not specialized in wines." So they decided to sell off Taittinger and Carneros to specialists. Then our branch of the family - my father, brother and children - decided to become candidates to repurchase at least our winery. So they put it on sale, and here were at least ten candidates, from India, America, Britain. So we banded with Credit Agricole, a powerful bank in Champagne, and fought a hard fight for a year with bigger giants. We finally won, partly because we proposed a large check - after debt absorption, about 59OM Euro - but also because we were a family-run affair, like Starwood itself. In the package was the Loire winery and Carneros. We sold the Loire for technical reasons; we liked the very well run winery and the chairman, a very nice man. It was done in a genial manner. But we're keeping Carneros. And we're still on good terms with our family, who can always get the preferred discount on Champagne!
FB That's good, because the press likes to turn these things into "Dynasty" struggles.
PT It was not at all so dramatic!
FB So the French government had no hand or say in the proceedings?
PT No, it was never a question of nationality. If that were the case, they'd not have decided to let Americans and Indians into the bidding. I read about such things in the newspaper, but it was not the case at all. If we had not been the best candidates, we would have lost it.
FB Are most other major French maisons still French owned?
PT At the present time they are, but that was not always so. Mumm and Perrier-Jouet were for a long time owned by Seagrams. Now they are back in the Pernod-Ricard portfolio. Bollinger, Pommery, Pol Roger, and Roederer are still privately owned. But the point is this: all of us - Moet, Veuve Clicquot, Taittinger, everyone - must maintain excellent relationships with the growers. I'll explain myself. We own 5O% of our grapes, with among the largest holdings in Champagne [at about 6OO hectares]. It gives us a lot of security and consistency. But lots of firms in Champagne own no vineyards. Since 8O% of the vineyards belong to the growers, it's better if the houses are owned by local families, not some consortium in Bombay.
FB That makes sense.
PT In fact, my son Clovis has left his lucrative career in real estate to return to Champagne to help me as I head towards retirement. He is with us for two main purposes: the first is to take over my position to travel the world and speak about Taittinger, as I have done it for thirty years, especially in your beautiful part of the world, the United States. The other 5O% is to build, or rather maintain, relationships with the growers. That is, have lunch and chat; it's day to day work in Champagne that must be done at the highest level, because we must maintain optimum grapes, and Clovis must make decisions minute to minute without having to consult with bosses overseas. If you want to succeed in Champagne, you must make decisions on the spot, with a handshake. It's the same way with Domaine Carneros; when we set it up in 1988, we hired a full American staff, headed by winemaker Madame Eileen Crane. No French person works at the Domaine. You remember what happened to Euro-Disney? In France they put American management at the top, and after three years - kaputt! Then they changed to French management, and things went much better.
FB Carneros has enjoyed an exceptionally stable staff?
PT Madame Crane does a fine job because we leave her in peace, we respect her creativity and judgment. We respect her philosophy, and share the same fundamentals - quality, delicacy, elegance. She will never quit us, because she does not report to us every day. She is an artist, as we are. When I'm not traveling, I'm at home with my family and checking on the wines every day with the cellar master and the enologist. We look at the blends, visit the vineyards, touch the grapes, touch the land.
FB You have quite a broad portfolio! How do you characterize the Taittinger style vis a vis other grande marque Champagnes?
PT We are first and foremost a Chardonnay house. That is not so throughout Champagne. The best Chardonnay comes from the renowned Cote de Blancs. We're the first company to introduce the high percentage of Chardonnay in all our wines. Brut La Francaise is 4O%. Comtes de Champagne is 1OO%, a blanc de blanc. Our wines are extremely fine, delicate, masculine but also feminine, wines of seduction. They are not too full-bodied or powerful; not to say we don't like that, but it's not our style. Bollinger, Roederer are fabulous Champagnes, they're different. We cultivate our differences. Beaudelaire is not Rimbaud. Picasso is not Van Gogh. Beethoven is not Mozart. That's why I am against numerical scores and have been fighting them for years. Can you say Greta Garbo is a 19 and Brigitte Bardot is 15? In America you have too much the religion of the numbers, which is the opposite of the wine world, which means to create harmony and friendship, without competition. We must not kill our personality to please the palate of one man. (In fact, I think Mr Parker, an estimable gentleman, has tempered his judgments a bit more now.) We have competition worldwide for the sports, cars, politics. At least with food and wine, please let us enjoy them as pure artistry. The same goes also with the preoccupation for sales and production numbers. What are a few hundred cases here or there?
FB We are all slaves to the abacus . . .
PT My uncle Claude taught me one thing: Champagne is magic that we must think about every day. Let's celebrate the magic. When I'm in Tokyo in front of a score of very serious sommeliers, one may ask, "How many bubbles are there in this glass?" Does a mother count the hairs on her baby's head? It's an absurdity. Nor do I believe in nationality. When I travel the world, I am not French, I am Taittinger. When I met Robert Mondavi, he was to me not an American, he was Mondavi. If I did not regard myself as an artist, I should choose another business. My son, Clovis, has made more money in real estate and finance in six years than I could ever make in a lifetime in Champagne. I asked him to join me and take a deep salary cut, because it's a mission. Likewise, we are not going to beat the world, we're not going to double production. I bought it back because I didn't want Taittinger to change. I wanted to keep my friends at Kobrand, and maintain our distribution network worldwide.
FB What's your advertising policy?
PT We can either put money into ad spaces or put it into the grapes. We prefer the latter. But I'm confident that my wines will speak for themselves. When we have a bit of money left over, yes, we take an ad in the newspaper. But it is always an afterthought. Champagne is the affordable luxury. We can't all afford a Maserati, a Rolex, or a private castle, but we can afford a fine Champagne. We Taittingers have a bit of Austrian blood in us; the family was Austrian 5OO years ago. So we are maniacal on creativity. And we also have a great sense of organization. To compare us to a car, I would not say we're like Rolls-Royce or Ferrari, because they are fabulous, but sometimes they do not work. Rather we are more like the BMW - extremely reliable, solid, comfortable to work with (or drive), no noise and always works. In fact, in France today I drive a Saab, because it will take ethanol, and I am very conscious of the environment.
FB How does your stand on global warming affect how you run the company and vineyards?
PT Let me answer that with another glass of Champagne . . . Global warming is the major issue for the planet. It's the Third World War, and we are in it right now. For the last ten years, the wine world has been positively affected by global warming - good harvest, regular harvest - but it's not going to continue. In the long term, it's going to change our way of life dramatically, and for the worst. I am very pessimistic about this. We're recycling, using vehicles less, driving cars with ethanol, and planning our business activities to conserve. We're avoiding unnecessary business travel, shipping wines by train instead of truck. We're extremely conscientious. At home, we don't take baths anymore, only brief showers; I think of water now as more precious that Champagne.
FB I don't own a car, I take my bike or public transport.
PT You are right! You are a pioneer! Because of America dragging its feet on Kyoto Accords and elsewhere, we all have lost eight crucial years in the battle. America is like Moet-Chandon: it's so big and powerful, it affects everything. If Moet does something good for Champagne, we all benefit. The good thing about this war is that we are all affected, rich and poor alike. Why do we want to spend billions to go on Mars, already a dead planet, when we might be soon on a dead Earth?
FB Are you taking a stand on the matter publicly, in your business?
PT Absolutely. Last year I spoke to 4OO billionaires in Singapore about my concerns. We are not General Motors, but we make our voice heard. We do it by our voice, company policy and personal actions.
FB Can you comment on the utility of Champagne bottles other than 75Os?
PT Half-bottles today are superbly made, just like full bottles. Personally I recommend the half-bottle for a lunch for two, say, me and my wife, so you don't waste a full bottle. I adore that. Magnums have their role too, I like to say it's just the right size for two gentlemen. When people ask me whether Champagne is better in magnum, I say yes, but mainly for psychological reasons . . . Notice that the bubbles are less in this glass. Restaurants use detergents these days that keep the bubbles from appearing in the glass. We recommend using very hot water and no soap; that will do for practically every mark but lipstick. The important thing is that you feel the bubbles in the mouth, whether you can see them or not.
FB What is your view of the possible future use of Stelvin and other non-cork closures for Champagne?
PT Ah, that needs a comment. At the moment we are using corks made of three layers. It's true that there's a sort of magic behind such a thing, but it's also true that there is a defect that causes us to lose 1 in 1OO or more bottles. It's a small percentage, but for three centuries, we don't like corky bottles. Today the problem is even more important because we need cork all over the world, and the cork producers cannot follow the demand, and sometimes because of it the quality of the cork is affected. If you complain, they shrug, and sell their corks elsewhere. In Champagne, we search, we research, to find if there is a better solution, perhaps a compromise between cork and a product that permits the air exchange. If a man who is not rich goes into a store and buys for once in his life a bottle of Mouton Rothschild, or Dom Perignon, or La Tache, or Comtes de Champagnes, he does not deserve to be disappointed with a bad cork. So, I am not opposed to a new solution. I will not say 'no' to anything, because I think we have to progress, and when you have a corky bottle, that is not progress.
FB Please explain your preference for your style of making rosé.
PT The traditional way (saignee) is when you leave the skins with the juice. It does not cost money to go this way. There is another way that I prefer that is time-consuming and expensive. That is to produce beautiful red wine from Champagne's best villages, Grand Cru Pinot Noir, and after they are matured in vats for a long time, we add them after the first fermentation and just before the tirage, between 1O and 25%. We much prefer this process, because the color is more persistent and the fruitiness of the wine remarkable.
FB What is your program of gentle education for those countries where people drink Champagne only in times of 'celebration'?
PT For 3OO years, Champagne has been known as the wine to drink at grand occasions, such as year-end holidays and weddings and graduations. But more and more, Champagne is becoming known as a wine to enjoy at lunch and dinner. Why? Because Champagne matches well all types of gastronomy: French, Asian, Greek, fusion, Chinese, Japanese, Indian. It's very good with spices because it does refresh your palate. If you are with a nice partner, you are not tired after Champagne; you are active, in good form, perhaps slightly excited. The only problem is that you might want to make love, and that is not a serious problem. That is why there is a new attitude towards Champagne all over the planet.
FB Having said that, do you think it is a good idea for young or new drinkers to acclimatize their palate for bubbly with Cava, Prosecco, Sekt?
PT I will go even further: I will say that a good Champagne drinker has been a Coca Cola lover. As a child, you get used to the soda bubbles. After that, you go to a good beer, or Sprite. When you're 3O, with a little more money, you go to a sparkling wine. At 3O, you don't need anything special; you can charm a lady with beauty. At 35, we need a little help: a nice car, a nice suit, Champagne. It's a pleasure that comes with a certain age. When I see an 18-year-old boy driving a Ferrari and drinking Champagne, I say "too soon".
FB Most tete de cuvees are flashy, but this wine doesn't seek to capture the rock-star imagination. How was the 2OO7 harvest?
PT Ah, we had a miracle. So much rain in July, we thought it might be lost. But then in September we had some fresh, not humid, air and we had a beautiful harvest of both quality and quantity.
FB Any comments on the Massachusetts market?
PT I will just say that I love this place, because the Taittinger spirit is very much Boston. We are not new money, but old money of connoisseurs. And our philosophy is Bostonian: we never show off, we love real quality, solidity, consistency. For me, that is Boston.
One more thing, that you did not mention. More and more we see wine-growers making their own Champagne and selling it. Please remember that at Taittinger we are also wine-growers. But the difference between a great house and wine-growers is the following: when we started (in 1931) we had only one hectare of land. With the money we made, we bought another hectare. And so on. The difference is that wine-growers remained wine-growers because they spent their money on jewelry, houses, cars, boats. At Taittinger, we became a great house because we were exceptional growers, are still growing, and spend all our money on achieving perfection.