The Taittinger in my glass is delicate and calm while the Taittinger seated next to me is amusing and excitable. It’s definitely a first for me—the names on the bottle of champagne and the business card of my lunchtime companion are the same. But their personalities couldn’t have been more in contrast. While the Taittinger non-vintage we are drinking is pleasant and subtle, Pierre Emmanuel Taittinger, president of Champagne Taittinger, exudes energy and an overwhelming quality of what can only be described as joie de vivre. So much so that I suspect he’s been drinking the stuff all morning.
In truth though, Taittinger, who is on a whirlwind, three-day trip to India, has come straight from Mumbai to our lunch at La Piazza at the Grand Hyatt in Delhi. He has tied up with Prestige Wines and Spirits Pvt. Ltd and is launching the champagne here. But we don’t have much of a culture of champagne drinking here, I point out. “That’s going to change. There are many reasons to think that champagne is going to be successful here. It carries values of happiness and celebration and goes well with your gastronomy. Champagne accompanies Indian dishes well because it does not hide the fragrance of the food,” the 57-year-old says.
The legatee: Though he has been the keeper of the Taittinger legacy for 32 years, he joined the family business by chance.
Though it is his first visit to India, it is not his first brush with Indian businesses. For that, we have to go back five years. Though Taittinger was a family that had owned many businesses for generations, in 2005 they decided to sell out. Starwood Capital, the American company, bought the Taittinger businesses. A year later, they decided to put the champagne business on the block. Pierre Emmanuel Taittinger, who was the sole member of the family opposed to the deal with Starwood, decided to bid to buy back the champagne business. Also in the fray was Vijay Mallya’s United Breweries. When Taittinger’s bid was accepted there were cries that the deal was unfairly given because of French nationalism.
“We offered the best cheque and that’s why we got the deal. It was a fair competition and it had nothing to do with nationalism. The newspapers said that but it was wrong and the first proof of that is the fact that a few weeks after the deal, Lakshmi Mittal bought Arcelor,” he says.
He met Mallya a few months later. “We had a friendly conversation and he understood well that I wanted to buy my name and my company. He said to me your fight was right and I can’t blame you for wanting to keep your heritage. I think he has a good opinion of me even though I am a small man compared to him. We spent 3 or 4 hours together in Paris,” he says.
Unlike most foreign brands that are launching in India now because of the drop in sales volumes in other markets, Taittinger says he is not in India to drive up turnover for his champagne. In fact, his business is not about volumes growth at all. “We depend on nature,” he says. “If we have a good harvest, we produce more. If we don’t, we produce less. I always say that I am not a businessman—if I were a businessman I would do something in real estate, banks or finance. My mission is not to multiply the sales of Taittinger by 10, first of all we don’t have the grapes to make it, but it is to make Taittinger present in all the good places in the world where connoisseurs can enjoy it,” he says.
Also at odds with the industry is Taittinger’s dismissal of scoring systems for wines. “I think we have to leave the wine world out of numbers. The wine world is an art. We don’t give numbers to paintings, we don’t say Picasso is better than van Gogh or van Gogh is better than Rembrandt. It will be nonsense, an insult. It’s the same for wine,” he says, wagging his knife amid mumbling how good our lunch of grilled fish and garlic spinach is.
Taittinger has been travelling the world and selling his eponymous champagne for about 32 years now. Though he fought to bring the champagne brand back into the hands of his family, joining the family business was not an obvious choice when he was 24. “I joined the business a little bit by chance. After my military service, I was in the French Alps and I didn’t know what to do. I was discussing with a friend in a nightclub. He said you have the name of Taittinger, you are charming, enthusiastic and charismatic. Why don’t you work for the champagne company? I asked, are you sure? He said yes. And I just decided,” he says.
Taittinger started as a salesman paid only on commission, not even compensated for expenses for five years. “No car, no telephone. I started without knowing anything really. I got married. Progressively I grew in the company. Now I’ve spent all my life with Taittinger,” he says.
Life has come full circle now for Taittinger and legacy clearly is important to him. He could not sit back and watch the Taittinger name being taken over by another company and now that he has regained it, he has firmly re-established it as a family business. Of his three children, two—his son Clovis and his daughter Vitalie—work with him.
“The sale was a big tragedy for me. We have a great sense of history, we have wine cellars in Taittinger that are more than 1,500 years old—historic Roman cellars. I think the extended family is pleased that I have bought it back. I always tell myself that I am not in front of my wine, I am behind it. I’ll die one day but the champagne will go on,” he says sombrely. But in the next instant he raises his glass, drinks up the champagne and launches into a raunchy conversation about the links between champagne and sex; and death, fittingly, seems distant and improbable.
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