UMC - Grandes Marques et Maisons de Champagne

The grand history of the Champagne Houses


Palais du champagne élevé par les Maisons de champagne pour l'Exposition Universelle de 1937. The Champagne region was not spared the economic impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s. As the price of grapes dropped tenfold to less than one franc per kilo, the vineyards once again stood at risk of being abandoned by growers. Worse still, this situation played into the hands of “la petite bouteille”: lesser Champagne Houses that undermined Champagne’s reputation as a luxury product by reducing it to the rank of a vin mousseux for popular consumption.

Growers and Houses tried to get organized through their respective unions but with no coercive measures at their disposal they were largely toothless, particularly when it came to ensuring compliance with the grape price mutually agreed upon by both parties. The Marne prefect therefore took the initiative of summoning all of the stakeholders concerned (union reps but also mayors, deputies etc) to a plenary meeting of the so-called “committee for the protection and promotion of Champagne”. Though powerless to enforce its decisions, the committee was no less valuable as a source of new ideas and a vehicle for turning its proposals into laws.

An agreement was eventually reached whereby the Champagne Houses, on the one hand, agreed to the setting of a compulsory minimum price for grapes destined for Champagne production; and the Growers, on the other hand, agreed to comply with pruning regulations restricting yields for the sake of quality, and the setting of a marketable yield for the year aimed at regulating the industry. The grape price was to be renegotiated every year within the framework of the Commission de Châlons: an authority created in 1935 to manage the Champagne appellation, composed of representatives of the négoce (the Champagne Houses) and the vignoble (the Growers). Once set, the price would be enforced by prefectoral decree; any grapes purchased below that price would not be approved for Champagne production.

The Syndicat Général des Vignerons (SGV) also wanted to mount a joint publicity campaign – an idea largely rejected by the Syndicat du Commerce on the grounds that the kind of direct advertising the Growers had in mind was altogether too vulgar. The Champagne Houses meanwhile tended more towards a PR campaign based on the staging of events that would attract media coverage. The most famous of these was French architect Ernest Kalas’ Palais du Champagne: a pavilion spearheaded by the Syndicat du Commerce for the Exposition Universelle of 1900 (two million visitors in seven months). Eventually the two sides reached a compromise, setting up a publicity committee within the Syndicat du Commerce, which in turn agreed to collaborate with the SGV on different projects. The year 1932 for example marked the staging of the Fêtes de Dom Pérignon : a festival celebrating the 250th anniversary of the “invention” of sparkling Champagne.

Beyond national borders, the impending end of Prohibition in the United States threatened to cost Champagne dear as a luxury product subject to punitive duties. To make matters worse the Champagne Houses were being blackmailed by a former bootlegger who said he would spill the beans about their former dealings unless they appointed him their exclusive agent. In response to the customs issue, the Syndicat du Commerce set up a special committee for the United States headed by French diplomat Jacques de Sieyès. Given the responsibility of convincing the US Government to reduce the tariffs on Champagne, Sieyès enlisted the help of American newsman George Putnam who agreed to run a press campaign in favour of Champagne. Funding for the committee and campaign alike would come from a tax levied on bottles of Champagne. In the end however, this sort of US-style lobbying felt distinctly un-French to UMC President Bertrand de Mun and the idea was dropped. Cue a smear campaign orchestrated by Putnam denouncing a wine that continued to ferment in the stomach…