You were born in Épernay, worked your way up the ranks at Roederer, and are now président directeur général at Champagne Deutz. How has the Champagne region changed since your childhood?
Well, obviously, the industry has expanded. This has brought more and more wealth, expertise and professionalism to our neighborhood. The younger generation has shown more interest, which has helped in terms of getting more skilled viticulturists and winemakers. This has also been good for tourism. Champagne attracts millions of visitors a year.
What are the top markets for Deutz?
Deutz was founded in 1838 and the initial major markets were Germany, where our company’s founders originated, and France. Quite rapidly it became an international company, but there have been vicissitudes. Although our production is still 55 to 60 percent for the French market, we are gaining strength almost every day on the international scene. Last year was an all-time record for Deutz: we passed the 2 million bottle mark. And I still have plans for more development, bringing the brand to 2.3 or 2.4 million over the next three to four years, entirely on the export side.
What has been your most memorable wine moment?
Almost 30 years ago, my wife and I bought a nice old house in downtown Reims. It had a nice garden and big trees but needed a lot of refurbishment. There was also a two-storey cellar, reaching about seven meters under street level with no electricity, but we were paying more attention to the condition of the roof. Just before moving in, the seller, an old man, said to me in an apologetic manner, 'Oh, by the way, there are still about 600 bottles of still wines from Champagne dating from the 1920s in the cellar.' He added that they were probably not good anymore and asked whether we wanted him to remove the bottles. I answered, 'NO!' and ran down and tasted some of the still wines.
The wines from the bottles whose corks had resisted the decades were amazing. The lab of the CIVC [Champagne Bureau] declared the wine to be pure chardonnay, probably with a good 50 years of age. Several months later I had the wines undergo a second fermentation – just a light mousse, for fear of breakage, considering the age of the bottles. Today I still have a few left from the more or less 350 bottles I got back after that operation.
When the winery’s workers came to the house, tasked with delicately removing the bottles from this narrow cave, I said they were welcome to open a few bottles during lunch break. Well, they did: they drank three bottles of 1916 Nuit-Saint-Georges which I hadn't seen! At any rate, this story had an impact on me. In all the wineries I've been involved with, I have made a point of putting aside a quantity of each and every vintage which was produced. And, as far as Champagne is concerned, people just don’t realize how well such a wine travels through the years.
You were the founder and CEO of Maisons Marques & Domaines (MMD), the U.S. and U.K. importer of Louis Roederer. Deutz is part of the Louis Roederer Group, so why is it no longer imported by MMD?
This was an emotional decision to make. I always have to explain, Deutz does not belong to Louis Roederer, it belongs to the same people who also own Roederer. It is hard to visualize someone preaching the values of Louis Roederer and Deutz at the same time. How can the same salesperson promote both wines? We would be rivals, in competition with one another.
At the end of the day, we have found medium-sized distributors that better understand the Deutz brand and promote its values.
You were at Roederer for 22 years, finally achieving the title of vice president. In 1996, you took over operations at Deutz, how did you approach this?
We realized there was a lot of competition out there and Deutz had to have a fresh start. So we started out with a no-compromise policy. I tasted everything at Deutz in 1996 and found half a million bottles that did not meet our exact profile in terms of style. I sold these bottles to a number of other wineries whose names I will not mention. [This is a perfectly legal practice in Champagne.]
The company was in a bad situation financially speaking, despite the capital infusion from the shareholders of the Louis Roederer Group. At Roederer, the obsession was Cristal, the most expensive Champagne. At Deutz, I started on a program that was at odds with what I had been doing for the past 22 years: being humble and modest and offering good value for the money.
Deutz introduced distinctive wide-bottomed bottles for its top wines in the 1990's. Today, all of the cuvées are packaged in this bottle. Why?
Was it a marketing decision? Yes and no. The success of Deutz has been phenomenal: we went from a production of 600,000 bottles [in 1996] to more than 2 million [in 2011]. Because the growth has been so rapid, a number of people were saying I was buying up bottles from other producers. No. I buy grapes and I buy still wines from very good cooperatives. But I don’t buy sur lattes, or other producers’ bottles, still in second fermentation, before disgorgement. So I decided to use the bottle shape specific to [our flagship wine] Cuvée William Deutz [for all of our wines]. The bottle shape shows that I cannot buy that bottle from anyone else.
Selling sur lattes is perfectly legal, but in my opinion it should be prohibited. There is more and more consensus that we should get rid of that system. When it is practical, companies can just disgorge any wine and slap their label on the bottle six months before selling it. It’s not fair. It is not your brand. The only impact you can have on such a wine is with the liqueur de dosage.
You also run Delas Frères in the Côtes du Rhône, which is primarily a négociant but manages and owns vineyards in Hermitage, St.-Joseph and now Crozes-Hermitage. What is the brand positioning for Delas?
I don’t want to blush when people say that we are négociants for Côtes du Rhône. We make all of our blends in the winery and have a very specific quality. But I am looking for a château for the headquarters of Delas Frères so that we can produce image wines. It will send out the message that, yes, Delas Frères has moved up the ladder. It was founded in 1835; it is three years older than Deutz. There are three musketeers in the Rhône: Guigal, Chapoutier and Jaboulet. I want Delas to become the fourth musketeer.
I cannot tell you details, but we are 99.9 percent sure that a château (without additional vineyards) will become ours very soon. So I hope to have wonderful news to announce for Delas in the weeks to come.
You were also involved in Pressoir Deutz Winery in Arroyo Grande, now known as Laetitia Vineyard & Winery. It was founded in 1988 but was subsequently sold – why?
I was president of the California winery from 1993 until '97, when we pulled out, very much to my regret. Wine World Estates, which became Beringer Blass, was one of our partners. Champagne Deutz only controlled 27 percent of that company. I wanted to buy it out and run it the Deutz way. The American partners accepted my offer but the landlord did not want to sell. So we pulled out. I very much regret that.
Moving from your professional to your private life, you have four children. Are your older children working in the wine industry? Do you hope to see them follow in your footsteps?
My son and one of my daughters are involved in wine sales and marketing but not the winemaking side. They do enjoy what they are doing, however, I don't think they will follow in my footsteps.
What do you do in your free time?
Honestly, I have very little free time. Otherwise, I like skiing, a tour on my bike, being with the ones I love. Simple things – and being happy with them – can make a great life.
I did hear that you are an avid skier. What is your favorite ski resort?
Les 3 Vallées in the French Alps is a place which can hardly be matched. However, I love a small resort called Le Grand-Bornand, be it winter or summer. It has a family atmosphere and the peaceful, beautiful scenery of the Aravis Range. I like to climb to the top of the Pointe Percée during the summer.
What do you eat and drink when you are in the mountains?
I'm very eclectic and I like to taste wines. It’s amazing to see the progress in Chignin Bergeron [Savoie white] or on Mondeuse [Savoie red], for example. Although, admittedly, I always have a few bottles of Deutz Champagnes to share with friends and family.
What do you see when you look in the mirror?
There is an expression in France: 'Quand je me regarde, je me désole. Quand je me compare, je me console.' When I look at myself, I feel sorry, but if I look at the others, I feel better. I constantly think I should do things better. But to some extent, you have to be realistic and objective. When I see what has been done, I feel better. I constantly feel that what I am doing is not good enough, but if I look around, I say, at the end of the day it is not that bad.
What brings you the greatest happiness?
The reward I get from our efforts, be it the smile I see on the face of wine connoisseurs when they have a sip of our Champagnes and wines, or the enthusiasm and happiness of my collaborators.
Prices worldwide on Wine-Searcher (US$, ex-tax, per 750-ml bottle):
|Wine Name||Avg. Price|
|Amour de Deutz, Blanc de Blancs||$158|
|Cuvée William Deutz||$134|