Features 4 March 2020

Taittinger: The Champagne method

Champagne Taittinger is built on solid Roman foundations, but the family's real stability lies in the fact that it almost lost everything just a dozen years ago. 'Now we're stronger than ever,' says new boss Vitalie Taittinger

Words by Adam Lechmere

Photography by Martin Morrell

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Some 10 or 12 years ago, Vitalie Taittinger, then in charge of marketing and communications at the family house, lost her temper in a meeting. ‘We were discussing a new range of packaging, and for some reason I took exception to something, and I swept everything off the table and on to the floor.’ Her father took her aside and told her she must never behave with such petulance again.

It’s difficult to imagine Vitalie – sitting deep in an armchair in the office she has occupied as president of Champagne Taittinger for precisely five days (she took over on New Year’s Day) – having any sort of temper tantrum. Her elder brother Clovis is sitting opposite her in the fine square room on the first floor of Taittinger HQ in Reims. It’s all very cordial, very relaxed.

Clovis does a good deal of the talking. Vitalie interjects or chuckles occasionally in the background, often finishing her brother’s sentences. She’s recounting the story of her loss of cool to illustrate their relationship with their father, the ebullient Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, who has stepped down as president at the age of 66. ‘He didn’t try to protect me. He told me I may be part of the family, but that sort of behaviour was unacceptable. It was very helpful.’

The Taittinger family by Luc Valigny
Photography by Luc Valigny

Last year, Pierre-Emmanuel announced that he was handing over the presidency of the house to Vitalie; Clovis was named general manager. Was this a difficult decision, given that Clovis is the male heir and that Champagne houses tend to be somewhat conservative?

It was a year-long process, Vitalie says, involving Pierre-Emmanuel, as well as chef de cave Damien le Sueur and other directors. ‘It’s been interesting. We have traditions in France, and as a father you project yourself more into your son. But at the same time, you’re thinking about him and feeling maybe this won’t be the best gift. It has to be a decision for the right reasons, and this is the moment when, more than ever, personal feelings have to be subdued.’

For Pierre-Emmanuel (he tells me later on the phone), the decision to cede control was easy. He had always intended to step down at 65 or 66, ‘and I did it. It can be a disaster for a company when the boss wants to stay too long.’ As he tells it, sharing out the senior positions was no more difficult. The company structure is democratic. ‘No single role is more important than another; every decision is taken by six or seven people. Clovis is running the global business, Damien is in charge of production and finance – he is a tower of control – and Vitalie carries the general spirit of Taittinger.’

Clovis Taittinger
Vitalie and Clovis Taittinger
Vitalie and Clovis Taittinger

The psychology of family firms is the subject of dozens of academic studies; there are many theories about what makes a family operation different from any other kind. But when it comes to the Taittingers, the phrase ‘strength in adversity’ seems to sum up their modus operandi. The story of the sale of the group to investment firm Starwood, in 2005, and Pierre-Emmanuel’s triumph in buying back the Champagne and wine parts of the business, is well known. Vitalie and Clovis were in their mid-20s then; how did it seem from their perspective?

‘We saw our father totally dispirited for a year,’ Vitalie says. (It’s important to note that Taittinger Sr is a man who radiates positive energy. It’s hard to imagine him downcast for months.) ‘His generation sold the group – just like that.’ She snaps her fingers expressively. ‘It was a shame, and it was painful in terms of history. Our father is idealistic: he considers history more important than money. He knew at once he had to try to get it back.’

The most important effect of the sale was to concentrate the minds of the younger generation. Both Vitalie and Clovis, and their sister Clémence, had grown up in Champagne but were not necessarily a part of it. Their father ‘of course worked in Champagne’, and their grandfather was the boss, but it didn’t occur to them that they would one day join the company. Vitalie studied art at the Emile Cohl school of art and design in Lyon and intended to pursue a career as a professional illustrator. (There’s a strong creative strain in the family: Pierre-Emmanuel is a poet manqué, and his mother, the artist Corinne Deville, came from a long line of artists.)

But you never know what you have until it’s gone. ‘When the group was sold, we realised that we had this heritage,’ Vitalie says. ‘The company was part of our identity. That was when we understood the meaning of a family company.’ When their father’s bid to buy back the company was successful in 2007, she and Clovis asked him if they could come and work with him; she started as a marketing consultant.

Vitalie and Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger
Vitalie and Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger
Vitalie and Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger walking by Luc Valigny
Photography by Luc Valigny

The language the pair use in describing the Starwood year – ‘traumatic’, ‘a shock’ – is instructive. I have heard other wine families, who have seen their parents’ and grandparents’ lives’ work disappear into the corporate maw, talk in a similar strain. ‘Every day we consider how lucky we are,’ Vitalie murmurs. ‘We’ve never been as strong as we are today.’

 

Family businesses: Read our stories on how Familia Torres is tackling climate change in the wine industry and the Oregon brothers who pioneered medical cannabis.

In my list of questions, I’ve scribbled ‘sibling rivalry?’ as a (fairly obvious) prompt, but it seems irrelevant now. This is a family that almost lost everything, and the memory is still raw; they are ‘still digesting’ the re-purchase, as Clovis puts it. The idea of squabbling (or sweeping everything off the table and on to the floor) is unthinkable.

Clovis: ‘Neither of us wants to be right for the sake of being right. We’re not looking for personal victories, we’re not in competition. We’re working for the—’

Vitalie: ‘The general interest.’

‘But we can still disagree,’ Clovis says. ‘What we try to do is find a consensus.’

‘A compromise,’ Vitalie adds.

Among the great Champagne houses, Taittinger stands somewhat apart. Undeniably one of the grandes marques, it doesn’t have the slightly flashy allure of Louis Roederer’s Cristal, say, or Bollinger. Even though it is the official World Cup Champagne (in a deal brokered by Clovis, who has charm enough to coax the birds from the trees), sponsors the BAFTAs, and was the favoured Champagne of James Bond long before Bollinger got in on the act, there’s nothing garish about Taittinger.

The cellars at Champagne Taittinger
The cellars at Champagne Taittinger
The cellars at Champagne Taittinger by Louis Teran
Photography by Louis Teran

The house sits on solid foundations – literally: it is one of the handful in Champagne to be built on the famous crayères cellars of Reims. Under our feet are 2.5 miles of tunnels hewn out of chalk by the Romans. With nearly 300ha of vineyard in every grand cru, it has some of the biggest holdings in the region and makes some 6m bottles, spearheaded by the great blanc de blancs, Comtes de Champagne. Jancis Robinson MW labelled it ‘one of the finest Champagne houses of them all’.

There’s an outpost in California, the splendid Domaine Carneros; and the family won a particular place in the hearts of British Champagne lovers with the 2015 announcement by the ardently anglophile Pierre- Emmanuel that he had bought land in southern England for the making of a new English cuvée to be called Domaine Evremond.

That Taittinger is the first Champagne house to venture across the Channel is quite in keeping with a marque that has always seemed willing to ‘fly against the wind’, as Clovis puts it. The fact that both he and Vitalie describe their father as conservative fits the psychology of family firms, which (those who have studied these things say) can be slow to make decisions but, once settled on a course of action, can move very fast.

‘Actually,’ Clovis begins, ‘most of our decisions—’
‘Are very quickly made,’ Vitalie finishes.

While we drive to lunch, I understand better the complicated dynamic

between the two siblings. We’re late, and Clovis puts his Audi Quattro through its paces, accelerating with panache, weaving in and out of the busy midday traffic. Vitalie sits in the back, and I hear her quietly telling him to watch his speed. ‘Non, Clovis, pas si vite.’

Champagne Taittinger vineyards
Champagne Taittinger vineyards

The Starwood sale

In 2005, several branches of the family (there were 38 heirs) voted to sell the 60-year-old Taittinger group – a diverse collection including Baccarat crystal and 14 luxury hotels, among them the Crillon in Paris and the Martinez in Cannes – to US investment firm Starwood Capital for €2.1bn. Pierre-Emmanuel’s side of the family was unhappy about the sale, and by the end of 2007 he had managed to put together the $850m necessary to buy back the Champagne side of the business and the Domaine Carneros winery in California, beating 50 other bidders understood to include Pernod Ricard, LVMH, Freixenet and Louis Roederer. It was a traumatic time, Vitalie Taittinger says. ‘He was quite alone. We thought it was very courageous, and he had our full support.’ Pierre-Emmanuel agrees: ‘It was heavy for the spirit; it was very tense. But it’s part of life. I stayed calm. I am a man of faith, and I thought that if I succeeded it would be fine. If not, I would accept it.’ His relations with the wider family remain cordial.

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