He has little in common with Dom Pérignon, the 17th century French Benedictine monk widely acknowledged as the spiritual father of champagne. But Daniel Lalonde could be a born-again Pérignon, evangelizing the world over for the pale-gold sparkling wine like he does.
Pérignon was perfecting winemaking for the church; Lalonde is on a mission to perfect the brand’s luxury positioning as the president and CEO of Moët & Chandon, the world’s leading champagne house owned by luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
In India a few days ahead of a globally synchronized event for the brand—charity auctions in 11 cities across the world to celebrate a 100-year-old champagne from the brand’s Grand Vintage Collection on 11/11/11 (11 November)—Lalonde can talk for hours on the history and heritage of champagne, how it should be paired (through a meal) and served (in a large glass, and not a flute).
During our meeting he watches intently, and with undisguised admiration, as the server at Le Cirque at The Leela Palace New Delhi pours out two glasses of Moët & Chandon— like one would regard their four-year-old on a playground slide—but doesn’t go beyond a few sips over the next hour. A night earlier, he had hosted a dinner to celebrate the 25th anniversary of designers Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla in Mumbai; he has a dinner to attend in Delhi right after this. He is well served by a bottle of sparkling water.
Lalonde, a Francophone Canadian who declares he’s most comfortable in “the middle of the Atlantic ocean”, joined Moët & Chandon in July 2010 with a mission to develop the brand’s international success.
He has held several CEO positions within LVMH before this. First as CEO of LVMH Watch and Jewelry North America, which includes brands such as TAG Heuer, Christian Dior and De Beers LV. And then as president and CEO of Louis Vuitton North America, establishing it as the top luxury brand in North America. He has also lectured at prominent institutions, including the Harvard Business School and Columbia University.
“I’ve been building my experience in the luxury sector along the way,” says Lalonde, making a note of his special interest in wine and oenology. An avid wine collector himself, he has over 200 vintage bottles tucked away in his private cellars in Paris and Champagne.
Lalonde is a native of Cornwall in Ontario, Canada, and he has straddled both sides of the Atlantic. Being bilingual in English and French has helped. After college in Ontario, where he studied math at the University of Waterloo, he did his MBA from Insead in France. His first foray in the luxury sector was with the start-up espresso brand Nespresso in Lausanne, Switzerland (here, one must add that 48-year-old Lalonde bears a striking resemblance to George Clooney, Nespresso’s ambassador). He moved back to North America for his stints with LVMH’s fashion sectors in New York and now lives in Paris in the high-nosed 16th arrondissement, or district, home to old money and corporate moguls, with his Italian wife and three children.
Storyteller: Lalonde believes in the power of anecdotes, and so, he says, his work begins with the story of Dom Pérignon.(Jayachandran/Mint)
Lalonde believes that to sell luxury one has to be intrinsically obsessed with one’s product. It’s evident that he is caught up in the long history of his brand, and that the retelling of Pérignon’s story is the part he loves best. “Champagne is an artisanal product. My work starts with the story of Dom Pérignon, and I make sure it’s that way for my staff too. I tell them to pull out the anecdotes...people fall in love.”
Lalonde knows how to make people fall in love. He’s the guru of romance-laced anecdotes, explaining that while champagne existed before Pérignon, he was the one who mastered the concept of assemblage, or pressing grapes from different vineyards separately, to give champagne its distinct character.
But most importantly, he gave champagne the effervescence we identify it with today.“He gave champagne its sparkle,” says Lalonde. “It wasn’t always a bubbly.”
Moët & Chandon’s estates include the Abbey of Hauteville, where Pérignon spent 47 years as a winemaker and where he is buried. Their most premium champagne, the cuvée de prestige, is named Dom Pérignon in deference.
Lalonde sits easily, with none of the stuffy body language one would expect of a 16th arrondissement resident. I ask him about the watch he’s wearing: a TAG Heuer Grand Carrera.
“This is one I helped design. It’s one of my favourites. Easy to travel with: dress up, dress down,” he says.
While aware of the understated but persistent marketing that luxury brands warrant, Lalonde is a strong believer in product details. “It can’t only be about how you communicate your product. Luxury is fundamentally about the product itself. There’s an incredible amount of detail that goes into luxury goods...so yes, I try to get into the creative end every once in a while.”
With a predilection for oenology, Lalonde has his nose in the House’swines too. He spends about a week every month in Champagne, a couple of weeks at the head office in Paris and the rest of the time meeting consumers around the world.
Lalonde took over as CEO at a difficult time, just after the global recession. He has been responsible for several brand strategies, including creating new ways to drink champagne. The House just launched the first champagne designed to be served with ice cubes: The Ice Imperial is meant to be served at beach resorts and hot spots such as St Tropez and Miami, garnished with berries and cucumber.
Founded in 1743 by vintner Claude Moët, the company has history on its side. Napoleon was one of its earliest patrons. Over the years, the brand has practically created the celebratory gestures we associate with champagne today: the sabering of the bottle (this harks back to Napoleon), the christening of ships, its ubiquitousness in film award ceremonies and the triumphant spray of champagne after a sports victory are among the many.
This year marks 10 years of Moët Hennessy India, which started distributing Moët & Chandon and Dom Pérignon in retail spots and restaurants in metros this year. Together, the two champagne brands of the House control 80% of the champagne market in India in terms of volume. Lalonde’s trip also coincides with the imminent launch of Chandon, an indigenous sparkling wine that will be produced locally in Nashik, Maharashtra. The first bottles will be out in early 2013.
The brief that Lalonde has given himself is to leave the brand in better condition than when he took over. “I’m only playing a small role in the history of a brand that goes back more than 250 years and one that will stay around for longer than I will...it’s a small chapter but I want it to be a significant one.”
Apart from the stories, what’s kept Moët & Chandon’s heritage alive are the vintage bottles that the Chef de Cave of the House tucks away every year. These are living champagnes, still developing in bottle in underground cellars that run up to 20km at the estate. These are what are banked upon for special occasions such as the 11/11/11 charity auction.
Lalonde intends to start putting away more bottles from now on. “For my chapter in champagne history,” he says.