UMC - Grandes Marques et Maisons de Champagne

The grand history of the Champagne Houses


Le nouveau siège du Syndicat du commerce acquis en 1919 avec les dommages de guerre. World War I drained the lifeblood out of the Champagne region. In just four years, 40% of its vineyards were destroyed and phylloxera did more damage than in the three preceding decades put together. Outside France, the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 spelled the end of the Russian market; the Prohibition movement in America won a ban on alcohol; and temperance movements in Scandinavia celebrated the introduction of alcohol monopolies. It was not much consolation that the Treaty of Versailles included a clause restricting the name “Champagne” to wines exclusively produced in that region and certainly not in German-speaking countries…

To make matters worse, there was the civil unrest. The late 19th century had marked the official founding of the Société de Secours Mutuel des Tonneliers et Ouvriers des Caves: a welfare system ahead of its time established for the benefit of coopers and cellars workers by their employers (the Champagne Houses) with the backing of the Syndicat du Commerce. By the early 20th century however the Champagne Houses were less prosperous and cellar workers and coopers were feeling the pinch. For the first time in their history therefore, they voted overwhelmingly in favour of forming a union.

The Champagne Houses responded to their demands by forming two new unions of their own, one based in Epernay the other in Reims, extending the existing membership to include “la petite bouteille” (small Champagne Houses). They also agreed to an eight-hour day before it was enacted by the French Government, even signing a collective labour agreement to that effect. But as perhaps expected in a city torn apart by war and degradation, a strike erupted in Reims – an event that hit the Champagne Houses hard, not least because they had never experienced anything like it before.

Things looked equally bleak on the grower side until the newly formed Association Viticole Champenoise (AVC) stepped in to restore the Union Sacrée (class compromise in the national interest). The AVC (Champagne viticultural association) was key to the eventual reconciliation between Champagne Growers and Houses, not least because AVC president Bertrand de Mun had the foresight to appoint Georges Chappaz to the board, a man popular with Growers.

As an incentive to Growers to remain in the vineyards rather than find more lucrative jobs, the AVC encouraged the Syndicat de Commerce to review the price of grapes – as has happened every year since then at the negotiations held between the two trade associations. The AVC also organized the first trade banquets – lavish gala dinners where Growers and Merchants get to know each other better as they feast and make merry. Also at the initiative of the AVC, Growers are invited to serve on a committee promoting the Champagne Houses.

This is partly to help them understand the business challenges facing their merchant counterparts, starting with grape price fluctuations, but also for the sake of tourism: attracting tourists from all over the world to visit the Champagne cellars as part of their pilgrimage to the battlefields of the Marne.

For Bertrand de Mun who took over as head of the Syndicat du Commerce in 1919, the Union Sacrée concerned France’s entire wine industry not just Champagne. With that in mind, he spearheaded the creation of the Commission d’Exportation des Vins representing all of the leading wine exporting regions including Burgundy, Champagne and Bordeaux. The objective was to convince the Government to abandon its protectionist policy, and so prevent the retaliatory trade actions taken by the top importers of French wine. The enemy was the Midi Viticole (southern wine producers) where Growers wholly focused on the internal market feared competition from mass-produced Greek and Spanish wines. Bertrand de Mun was also behind the Ligue Internationale Contre les Prohibitions (international league against prohibition). The same period saw the establishment of a secret committee chaired by Marcel Heidsieck in charge of shipping bottles of Champagne destined for American speak-easies to bootleggers in St Pierre and Miquelon. The move towards a Champagne trade association was now underway.