In many professions, a senior executive moving into the top job regards it as an article of faith that they should stamp their personality on the organisation. Julie Cavil – who, a year ago, took over from Eric Lebel as chef de cave at Champagne Krug – sees her role somewhat differently.
Coming in and making her own rules would be easy, she says. “Anyone can do that.” The true challenge, she says, is not to make sweeping changes, but still achieve greatness. “What really motivates me is to be able to re-create the same level of excellence, year after year, circumstance after circumstance.”
In Champagne, consistency is all. It’s not a matter of having a style (Cavil says there is no such thing at Krug) but instead achieving something both simple and intangible. On one level, it’s straightforward: the winemaker’s job is to follow the founder Joseph Krug’s ambition to make “the very best Champagne … every year, regardless of annual climate variations”. This expression of excellence must take account of so many variables, however, that it can become as complicated as a game of 4D chess. Not only are you blending wines from dozens of different vineyard sites – “paying close attention to the vineyard’s character, respecting the individuality of each plot” – but you are also tapping into an extensive library of reserve wines from many different years.
This is not something you can learn at business school. Cavil worked with Lebel for 13 years before being anointed cellar master. (The word “anointed”, with its implications of conferring divine or holy office, is appropriate.) The first thing he taught her, she says, was patience: “A journey with Krug is a lifelong milestone. Just as I cannot tell you at what precise moment a reserve wine will be ready until the day I taste it and the decision becomes obvious, passing the torch is something you feel but cannot always explain.” For Cavil, it came relatively soon after joining Krug in 2006. “After two years, Eric and I had chosen each other,” she says. “We both knew I would be his successor.”
After two years, Eric and I had chosen each other. We both knew I would be his successor
At this level, all of Krug’s six winemakers have the necessary skills to make Champagne. But there are also what Cavil calls the “intangible aspects of craftsmanship: intuition, passion and an intimate knowledge of each plot”. These elements can’t easily be taught but, rather, seem innate. So should a chef de cave share character traits with their predecessor? “I would say so, for one very important reason: when you become Krug cellar master, you become one with the house, the guardian of its legacy. At Krug, each cellar master naturally arrives in this role because he or she shares the values of excellence, attention to detail, curiosity, quality without compromise, and respect for heritage – all with a maverick spirit. I am no different whether I am at Krug or at home; it is part of who I am, just as it was for my predecessors.”
Making Champagne is, of course, a business as well as a craft – and like all businesses, it must be safeguarded for the future. The mentoring process is continuous. “My role at Krug is threefold,” Cavil says. “It relates to the present, the past and the future.” The vineyards must be husbanded, the reserve wines selected, and a successor must be groomed. “Carrying on the legacy of a Champagne house that has existed for six generations means you make it your mission to protect and perpetuate this heritage, just as you would pass on a legacy to your own child. When mentor and mentee share this vision, the future of the house is secured, which is what matters most.”
This article forms part of a series from Issue 6 of Club Oenologique magazine, in which three leading cellar masters explain how maintaining a house style is more important than expressing personality. Read the other features here: