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An interview with globetrotting Champagne salesmen

An interview with globetrotting Champagne salesmen

Interview dated November 1992.

The worldwide fame that Champagne wines enjoy today is the legacy of those tireless champions whose names have gone down in Champagne history: Heidsieck, Clicquot, Pommery, Bollinger etc... How fortunate it is that they have their successors today.

Pierre Lanson is not in love with his name, but he does love to make the Lanson brand known around the world. Several million bottles every year – and just knowing how to make them is not enough. You have to know how to sell them too. You could say that doing business is in the blood of the Champenois, going back to the time of the great Champagne trade fairs. As if our position at the crossroads of Europe was an irresistible temptation to go travelling.

Direct relationships with customers:

"My father said we should learn to follow every stage in our winemaking process. Me, I would take that principle even further, all the way to the customer’s table ... I even tried my hand as barman at the Grosvenor House in London."
For thirty years our man was living one day in every three far from home, working to "present the House in its best light" He had a taste for business based on personal contact. "Public relations" may be the thing of the moment "but it’s only useful if it has a direct impact on sales!"

Pierre Lanson is one of those figures who have opened new markets for Champagne wines. It started during the Algerian War, when he struck a deal to deliver Lanson wine in army trucks on condition that he paid for the petrol ... “and the GMC cargo trucks of the time were very thirsty!" The details come flooding back. His finest memory? "A thousand cases sold in a single shot in 1956 to a nightclub in Oran called "The Champs-Elysees!" His proudest achievement? The Caribbean market, and most especially French overseas territories. In Guadeloupe in 1958, Lanson sold no more than two hundred cases and the total Champagne market was barely one thousand. "Several years later we were exporting as many as 180,000!"

He has other reasons to be satisfied. "Twelve years of hard work in black Africa took us from twenty thousand bottles a year to two hundred and eighty thousand at the start of the ’seventies!" All of that took a lot of energy, lost sleep and considerable effort, for results that were sometimes discouraging but never without value: the positioning and reputation of a brand depends on an insatiable appetite for hard work.

Adventures and misadventures

But he’s not complaining! With time, the misadventures turned into adventures – as Pierre Lanson recalls with a twinkle in his eye. We see him everywhere, humorous but determined, suitcase and Champagne flute in hand, a likable soldier battling for the good of Champagne.

We join him as he lands amid bursts of automatic gunfire at Lorné in Togo, where the plane picks up a cargo of fleeing ministers. We picture him throwing his shoe at a rat that wakes him with a start in his hotel room. We follow him around the Venezuelan mining city of Ciudad Bolivar, on the banks of the Orinoco where many of his customers are former escaped convicts from the French penal colony in Cayenne. The busts of Napoleon that preside over the trading houses here are reminders of the Corsican origins of these distant French cousins.

We smile at his description of a hotel on fire, all the guests in their nightclothes (flowery no doubt) wailing in a multitude of languages.

"What a wonderful thing it is to be a Champagne ambassador! But might the "unbelievable" prosperity of it all make us rather forget the difficulties of doing business internationally?" For Pierre Lanson, the ups and downs of the Champagne market were a pressing incentive to undertake ever more world trips. “Because customer development, now and in the future, depends on singing the praises of the King of Wines as only a true native can – carrying the message out into Champagne markets far and wide.”

Bernard de La Giraudière is a gentleman: in another age, he might have been a soldier of fortune or a buccaneer. But in our times, he has chosen to devote his energies to the export of the crowning glory of French winemaking.

A choice born of passion

After several years with the CIVC, he was picked by Bernard de Nonancourt to join the joyful adventure that was Laurent-Perrier. "There’s champagne and there’s champagne. It was my choice to work for the legend, not opt for the easy life, and I did it as much to have fun as for the sake of the "challenge".

Bernard de Nonancourt had chosen well: being an effortless English speaker, our man was perfectly equipped to establish Laurent-Perrier far beyond the French-speaking world. "In the course of 25 or 26 years, I have barely ever paused to take stock! Laurent-Perrier was producing a million bottles in 1966, and now produces several million every year, of which more than half are exported ..."

Fabulous memories

Stories? Plenty. They make up the stuff of life on the road. The travelling salesman’s lot is a series of minor misadventures, some funny, some not!

Bernard de La Giraudière recalls the flight to Venezuela when the plane was forced to make an emergency landing at Maracaibo. The pilot had forgotten to refuel before take off ...

Or the time when he returned late to his agreable hotel in Fort-de-France, where he had to struggle to recover his bed from another traveller who had been given the room in his absence ...

Or when an American burst into his room in Mexico City because the gunshots coming from a riot in the street below had made his own room unsafe ...

Or when the genial customer he met in Paraguay, with the Castilian first name and the German surname, turned out to have made a discreet getaway from Germany in 1945 ... And so on.

And a fine principle

Bernard de La Giraudière interrupts his agreeable musings and becomes serious. "Setting aside the trivia, our objective as Champagne’s globetrotting salesmen is to get inside different cultures and traditions: we have to understand people from other places". His considerable experience in this respect has taught him that often "the image of Champagne comes before the taste of Champagne". So for the sake of Champagne’s future prosperity, our pale golden wine has to continue to improve, and the legend has to be kept alive. "That is our role and purpose at the heart of the great Champagne brands that are the engines of our business". To pursue a logic based only on profit and loss would be clumsy and eventually self-defeating. "Laurent-Perrier would never have achieved everything it has achieved for Champagne if we had only thought in financial terms". Likewise, he would never have done what he did had there been no pleasure in it for him! So is this man an anachronism? Certainly not. More of an idealist, like anyone who is passionate about what they do. "The finest gift we can bring to the Champagne community is to maintain and spread their values. It is up to us to keep the flame alive!"

Rémi Krug belongs to the fifth generation of a family whose name is synonymous with Champagne’s glittering reputation. He is the globetrotter of the House, committed like his brother Henri to continuing a family tradition of making wine for the "happy few". A wine with a timelessness that eschews the ins and outs of fashion – like the Champagne Appellation itself – and whose success in export markets speaks well of the AOC.

Travels for the purpose of teaching

"Travelling is a Champagne tradition". It is also a necessity for an exceptional luxury product that needs its ambassadors, like any reigning monarch. Johann-Joseph Krug, originally from Mainz, founded the House in 1843 – a great winemaker and a great traveller too. Today we go further and faster, but there remains the same need to support the wine every step of the way, bringing alive that long chain that runs from the vineyard to the tasting experience.

"I don’t sell directly in the sense that I don’t take orders. My mission is mainly one of education: to explain the facts at the root of the taste, the factors that pave the way for that magical moment of Champagne tasting". And Rémi Krug categorises the groups of people he addresses much as an actor distinguishes different audiences. First of all come the "sales teams", who he has to motivate and inform to make them effective, give them the drive to sell together with the key selling arguments. Next come the "professionals", the opinion-formers who have to be convinced – restaurateurs, sommeliers, wine-cellar managers, wholesalers and, of course, journalists, who have to be persuaded while respecting their freedom of expression. Finally there are the "discerning consumers, lovers of fine things, lovers of wine". Rémi Krug takes obvious pleasure in these encounters with friends in distant places. "It’s a great source of enjoyment". He adds by way of explanation: "It’s true that I am the ambassador for a wine that makes people happy. I start with a terrific advantage!"

Detailed preparation

The preparation for his trips takes up pretty much half his time, and it is done in minute detail. The routes he takes, the meetings, the meals and even the menus are all worked out in advance. "I aim to make the best use of my time. My goal is to respond to requests for information much more than to encourage a sale". For Rémi Krug this emphasis on time is a key factor for a Champagne brand positioned "among the leaders in that small niche reserved for prestige cuvees". A bottle of "Krug Grande Cuvée" waits six years in the cellar before it is finally ready to drink, and a vintage Champagne waits even longer. This leisurely pace is all part of what gives Krug Champagne such class, encouraging sales by making our wine particularly attractive to the consumer.

Promoting a worldwide "club" spirit

"Around the world, we have about one hundred thousand consumers, maybe one hundred and fifty thousand..." And Rémi Krug goes on to explain how this "refined elite, whatever its differences, is united by a common taste. The pleasure of wine is the same for everyone and expressed in the same words." He compares this pleasure to art, which “unites different people, transcending logic and reason".

The force of this connection usually makes it possible to forget the awkward issue of price. On the rare occasions when the subject does come up, Rémi Krug politely reminds his audience that "the price is soon forgotten but the emotion aroused by a truly great wine remains!"

The House of Krug is clearly not a fan of hype – which is (whatever the agencies may say) a very impersonal form of communication. The development of the Krug image is achieved by personal contact. Rémi Krug regularly visits the United States, Australia, South East Asia and all the countries of the European Union. What an enviable job he has! Travelling the world building customer contentment, part of a global village of refinement and good taste that extends from the Champagne vineyards to the four corners of the earth.

Champagne’s globetrotting salesmen are determined to prove themselves worthy of their illustrious predecessors. Their efforts today maintain and develop the reputation of their wines and in doing so sustain the reputation of the Champagne appellation around the world.