Forbes recently revealed that the richest man and woman on earth – Bernard Arnault and Françoise Bettencourt Meyers – are French. And that both came from the world of luxury. As we have recently published a deep dive analysis of the French fine wine market for ARENI, my mind started to wonder: what is it about French luxury that is so unique that it can make two French individuals so fantastically wealthy?
And how does this history, vision and understanding of luxury impact the French relationship to fine wine?
A glass of wine in hand, I started to analyse two of the major milestones in French luxury, starting in Versailles.
The construction of French Luxury
Although French luxury is so successful today, it certainly wasn’t before the reign of Louis XIV. At the beginning of the 17th century, France couldn’t match the lace of Flanders, the glassware of Italy, or the porcelain and silk of China. The state coffers were empty, and the court chose to show its status through imported products. Enter Colbert, the Minister of Finance for the Sun King, in 1665.
Colbert’s vision was clear: to establish France’s political power, he first needed to make the nation an economic power. And luxury was key. Colbert set up the Manufactures Royales, privileged factories that were not only supported by the state financially, but also through a network of spies sent through Europe to steal industrial secrets and capture human talents. They also benefited from special rules and exemptions. The Manufacture des Gobelins for tapestry and the Manufacture Royale des Glaces for glass manufacture (the ancestor of today’s Saint Gobain), among many others, were born.
Colbert then established the Bureau du Commerce and created a network of factory inspectors to control quality and excellence. The flamboyant Louis XIV turned Versailles into a gigantic showroom, aiming to impress the world and create a new benchmark for luxury, with a new status attached to it, as Louis became the most powerful monarch in Europe.
French luxury was thus created by political will, and structured and supported by an absolute monarchy with the power to influence the world.
Three hundred and fifty years later, how does this system affect the French and their fine wines?
If French quality and French excellence has been recognised, defined and refined for centuries through a series of state interventions, it’s also true that France’s fine wines have been, and still are, shaped by this national, strategic approach to quality.
When ARENI asked French fine wine consumers to spontaneously quote a fine wine name, they were the only ones across all the markets we studied — the USA, UK, China and Hong Kong were the others — to give regions or AOC names, while their international counterparts gave the names of brands or estates. Here too, we can see an impact of the deep involvement of the state in an industry’s structure, the French government having started to define wine quality through the AOC systems in 1936.
It also shows us that right from the start, excellence was created to be a political and economic tool, a vision that the French government still shares today.
The rise of the bourgeoisie and its impact on French Luxury
The 19th century can be seen as the second golden age for French luxury. In 1852, Aristide Boucicault opened Le Bon Marché, Paris’ first department store — now part of LVMH — to attract the expanding bourgeois class, enriched by the industrial revolution.
Not only did the bourgeoisie bring a new economic power to luxury goods, they also brought a new set of values.
Marie-Claude Sicard, author of Luxe, Mensonges & Marketing, explains that while the aristocracy saw luxury as the manifestation of grandeur, of nobility expressed by a set of immaterial, moral values, the bourgeoisie brought with them the idea of material wealth. “For the bourgeois,”, says Sicard, “what is immaterial must be made visible and valued appropriately. Otherwise, it is useless, and was seen as a cardinal sin in the eyes of the business bourgeoisie.”
In the aristocratic vision of the world, luxury was very closely linked to greatness. The product was designed to be worthy of higher beings, ruling by divine right, confirmed in their elevated position by the possession of the product.
For the bourgeois, however, elevation came through financial power.
For Sicard, the underlying dichotomy between aristocrats and the bourgeoisie is still very much alive in French luxury today, illustrated by the contemporary concepts of brand heritage and brand equity, two elements of language equally used by French luxury brand marketing.
At the heart of brand heritage lies the concept of transmission, of the transfer of power between generations, following the aristocratic ideology that grandeur and status are passed down through bloodlines and that the sacred hierarchy must be protected.
Conversely, the notion of brand equity — the commercial value that derives from consumer perception of the brand name — implies that equity must grow and with it, the financial return of a brand.
Sicard explains: “This doubletalk reveals the fundamental ambiguity of European luxury brands and most notably French luxury brands who look to the model of the royal court on the one hand, and on the other to modern industry as it has existed since the 19th century.”
Bourgeois and aristocratic values in French fine wine today
I can’t help but think that this ambiguity, these tensions created by the cohabitation of two sets of values, still impact the French relationship to fine wine.
The French vision of excellence is still very much imbued by aristocratic values. The French equivalent of fine wine is Grand Vin. It’s a very revealing choice of words. The adjective Grand (great, tall), when placed before cuisine, transforms food from the everyday into something exceptional. Placed before “art”, it transforms “commercial art” into something worthy of being collected.
The notion of Grand Vin is imbued with the noble ambition of creating something larger than yourself, of dedicating your life towards something exceptional. Just as aristocrats despised trade merchants, profit making and commerce, so you still find French winemakers who see more value in giving their best nectar away to people that are “really worth it” — because they have the cultural code to understand — than in selling it to people “with only a lot of money”.
The dislike for the “selling” part of fine wine is such in France that earlier this year, when we presented ARENI’s latest white paper Rethinking Fine Wine in Paris, one of the most famous wine critics of the country came to me and said: “The work that you are doing is great, and valuable, but never forget that what you stand for is wine and not the trading of it”. As if we could safeguard the future of fine wine without talking routes to market, communication and marketing, as if the inherent grandeur and beauty of fine wine was enough, as if wine could only be created, but not sold.
A change in generation at the helm of top estates is slowly changing this attitude. Younger owners, who went to study trade and economics in some of the best schools in the country or abroad, go back to the family estate with the desire to make money, and not only accept the fact that trading is a part of life, but are actively working on their brand equity, a term that they are now equipped to understand, for better or for worse, depending on who you ask in France.
How to harness heritage
Looking at the success of French luxury, it would seem that French brands are successful at managing tensions and ambiguities, national strategies and individual successes. Dior, Chanel and Hermès are all brands that cultivate a strong cultural heritage and sacred cultural codes, while also generating a sizeable financial return.
In our world of wine, the best estates today are animated by an inherent love and passion for their craft and this noble understanding that fine wine should be “something more”. They want to create something of beauty that will transcend time and place, while actively seeking financial sustainability.
And this to me, give them a tremendous comparative advantage.
Photo by Les Corpographes on Unsplash