by Andy Neather

Big Money And The Soul Of Wine

You would need a heart of stone not to laugh at the travails of Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, honorary chairman of the Champagne house and grandson of its founder.

The British press seized with trademark salaciousness on the conviction of his former mistress, one Samira L, for a years-long campaign of harassment and threats following the break-up of their affair. She also harassed members of Taittinger’s family, as well as another of his mistresses. She had plenty to tell the court about his alleged sexual predilections and more.

Indeed Mail Online announced the story with the arresting headline: “Taittinger boss’s ex-mistress makes astonishing allegations about their hedonistic Champagne-fuelled sex lives as she is convicted for chasing him down the street with a knife and threatening to cut off his penis.”

It’s a far cry from Decanter. Except it isn’t, to the extent that this is really a story about money and how it bends people – and wine – out of shape.

Whatever the truth of Samira L’s lurid allegations, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger clearly has far too much money for his own good.

Never mind him attempting to placate his ex by shelling out €2,470 a month for four years on a Paris apartment to keep her in the style to which she was accustomed. As he told the Irish Times in 2016, “I am paid to drink, I am paid to eat and make love sometimes, and drink wonderful Champagne sometimes.”

The Taittinger family’s net worth has been estimated at $3.4 billion. Company accounts show that in 2022 the Champagne business made net profits of over €37 million – a tasty 23.4% profit margin. This is the kind of performance which, back in July 2005, led US private equity group Starwood Capital to buy Taittinger’s holding company for a cool €1.17 billion. Pierre-Emmanuel bought the Champagne business back the following year for €746 million, shorn of the Société du Louvre luxury goods group, owner of Paris’s Hôtel de Crillon and similar mega-rich baubles which Starwood hung on to.

Follow the money. Moët, Krug and other houses are owned by the LVMH behemoth, currently worth around $500 billion – the most valuable company in Europe. And last year French billionaire businessman François Pinault – reportedly Europe’s sixth-richest man – took full ownership of Champagne Jacquesson.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy Taittinger Brut NV as much as the next Champagne socialist. But wines like this – total annual production around six million bottles, with a marketing budget presumably higher than some whole French regions – are really about money, not the wine.

The challenge for Taittinger and its peers is standardising an industrially produced commodity from harvest to harvest, and maintaining its market share. Those things require skill; they’re just not skills that have much to do with terroir or craftsmanship. So their wines can be tasty – but rarely interesting or surprising, with the exception of prestige cuvée Comtes de Champagne.

You wouldn’t know that to judge by the reverence of the wine media, a tendency even clearer in relation to those other great fat cats of the French wine firmament: top Bordeaux growths.

Leading publications and websites frequently seem obsessed with Bordeaux and near unable to criticise the great Crus. This may reflect the tastes of their less adventurous but more affluent readers. It certainly reflects the interests of the fine wine industry.

But like Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger’s empire, we should be clear: this exercise is mainly about the money. And the chunky end of the market is nowadays, at least, the preserve of the very wealthy. Wine Spectator and the rest smooth their path, helping the fine wine trade cater to their whims: think of them as vinous counterparts to high-end personal shoppers, estate agents, private schools and escorts.

The fat of the big Champagne houses and of their top-growth Bordeaux equivalents is all the more jarring in contrast to the straits faced now by the other end of the French wine market. Days before the Taittinger judgment, the French government announced that it will spend €200m destroying surplus wine production in Bordeaux and the Languedoc in an attempt to shore up prices. This follows years of overproduction and ebbing French consumer demand, combined in Bordeaux with this year’s mildew epidemic. Producers of AOC wines will be paid €75 per hectolitre to have their booze distilled into industrial alcohol.

The French government had already in June announced a handout of €57m to pay Bordeaux vignerons to tear up vines producing red and rosé wines. The Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB) confirmed in July that almost 1,100 producers had signed up: CIVB President Allan Sichel noted that, of these, “300 growers want to give up their trade altogether.” Bordeaux producers will tear up more than 9,000 ha of vines, for compensation of €6,000/hectare.

Industries have winners and losers. The woes of bottom-end Bordeaux and the Languedoc co-exist in an international market where Prosecco producers can flog hundreds of millions of bottles of mass-produced fizz to Brits and Americans every year; and where people will happily pay £40-plus for a bottle of Taittinger’s classier but also mass-produced NV Champagne.

I hope that the divide between the winners and losers in the French wine industry doesn’t yawn wider, driven as it is in part by pressures on all small producers such as inflation and high energy costs.

And meanwhile let’s remember how far big money drives Champagne and high-end Bordeaux – and our perceptions of them. Taittinger’s website describes Pierre-Emanuel as “an aesthete, a hedonist and a humanist”. Perhaps, but he’s primarily a hard-headed businessman catering to the international elite. Anyone searching for the soul of wine had better look elsewhere.

Photo by Melanie Pongratz on Unsplash

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