The secret to a seriously good bottle of Champagne? Not taking it too seriously

A glass of the good stuff.
A glass of the good stuff.
Image: Ethan Fixell
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Château de la Marquetterie is a gorgeous 18th-century castle built on 16 hectares of lush vineyards just south of Epernay, France. According to its current owner, Champagne Taittinger president Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, no one has stayed there overnight since its purchase in 1934 for fear it would disrupt the magic of the fairytale-like grounds. Just moments after disclosing this romantic nugget, he explains the importance of proper plumbing: “The best sign of welcome is to have nice toilets,” he assures in his thick French accent.

Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger is just as passionate about Champagne as he is about the condition of the grounds that facilitate its production (including its lavatories). It may seem ironic that a producer of the classiest beverage on earth is obsessed with bathroom accommodations, but to this, Pierre-Emmanuel just shrugs and offers up his life motto: “Be serious. But don’t take it seriously.”

Among a field of producers obsessed with critical ratings, arbitrary scores, celebrity endorsements, and buzzwords, the $5 billion-a-year Champagne industry has at least one outlier: Taittinger, which distinguishes itself from competing top producers not only with its chardonnay-dominant products (a rarity in a region known best for growing pinot noir), but also with the relatable nature of the low-key, down-to-earth, unpretentious family that owns the brand. And yet, despite their unconventional approach, the Taittingers have still managed to increase sales of their luxury product since 2008’s economic recession. They have now earned their place as the sixth-largest Champagne producer in the world—all by specifically not taking things so seriously.

At the heart of the brand’s philosophy is the Taittinger family itself. They entered the Champagne business in 1932 when Pierre-Emmanuel’s grandfather, Pierre Taittinger bought the winery from Forest-Fourneaux, which was the third-oldest Champagne house in existence at the time. As with any family, there have been setbacks that have challenged clan unity along the way. Pierre’s son—Pierre-Emmanuel’s father, François—ran the business for 15 years until he tragically died in a car accident in 1960. And when François’s successor—his brother, Claude—sold the brand to Starwood Capital Group in 2005, it was a move protested by some family members, not to mention poorly received by the Champagne community as a whole. But less than a year later, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger—Claude’s nephew, and an obsessive, determined dreamer—managed to buy back the brand his grandfather had built, preserving a heritage that began nearly 75 years earlier.

Pierre-Emmanuel doesn’t necessarily look or sound like the typical businessperson who’d single-handedly take on the Herculean task of raising 660 million euros to purchase an enormous Champagne brand. But despite the nonchalant demeanor of this sweet-faced, long-haired man who claims he doesn’t want to “bother” with the barber, he is a man of conviction—one who, given the chance, will earnestly rail against drinking Champagne with ice, in a cocktail, or (mon dieu!) in a common wine glass. “But to enjoy it with a partner before making love” is a whole other story, he says, trailing off in starry-eyed thought, swooning over the prospect.

Pierre-Emmanuel perceives his job as “maintaining the symbol of Champagne” by upholding certain standards and preserving the magic associated with beverage. He doesn’t just view Champagne as a mere commodity—it’s something ethereal, almost religious. “80% of life is about mystery,” he says. “The mystere is in the center of everything… When I see people trying to figure out all the answers, I think they’re crazy.”

Perhaps this explains his disapproval of critics who meticulously test and assign numerical ratings to Champagne. “We can talk about the wines, but wine is art,” he insists, comparing the stuff to a Picasso or Monet painting. His idea of “talk,” though, has less to do with flavor profile or winemaking technique, and everything to do with poetry. Echoing this is the framed poem he loves to show guests of the Château: Champagne, by Alan Seeger, the American poet who fought and died in World War I. “Mention him in your article,” he implores. (Interestingly, the only request he made of this entire piece.)

And so, I will acquiesce with the final two stanzas:

Rather when music on bright gatherings lays
Its tender spell, and joy is uppermost,
Be mindful of the men they were, and raise
Your glasses to them in one silent toast.

Drink to them—amorous of dear Earth as well,
They asked no tribute lovelier than this—
And in the wine that ripened where they fell,
Oh, frame your lips as though it were a kiss.

Pierre-Emmanuel’s daughter, Vitalie, was inspired to join her father in his quest to revive the Taittinger brand as soon as it was repurchased. Though he initially didn’t want her to abandon her art career as an animator and designer, she insisted, and Vitalie was eventually brought on to the Taittinger team in the beginning of 2007 to overhaul the brand’s marketing platform.

“We started to remake every label, box, press kit, and website… because we had to [give the brand] a stronger identity at each stage.” In this way, she worked toward giving Taittinger a new face—quite literally, actually, as Vitalie appears in sentimental Taittinger advertisements that pay homage to Grace Kelly’s “L’Instant Taittinger” ads from the late 1980s. Vitalie eventually worked her way up from artistic director to marketing and communications director, a position that she holds today.

No family business is immune to conflict, but internal strife seems to be a nominal issue for the Taittingers now. “My father is very easy to talk with,” Vitalie says. “Sometimes I disagree with him, but I can tell him; we discuss.” Vitalie also shares Pierre-Emmanuel’s laid-back demeanor and sense of independent thinking. “My father doesn’t care if he is better or worse than somebody. He is what he is.”

Vitalie’s brother Clovis joined the company six months after she first came on board. As global export director, Clovis travels often to sell the brand all over the world—a taxing gig. “Clovis is meeting a lot of people, fighting a lot to make place for Taittinger,” Vitalie says of her brother. “He can be stressed… And when you are anxious, you want to be reassured.” Fortunately, she and her father are the ideal, easy-going counterparts.

Like the wine they produce, all of the Taittingers seem to sparkle with an authenticity and purity that makes their commanding personalities entirely approachable. And they’re all shameless romantics, too. “Some [Champagne] houses are more intellectual,” Vitalie says. “Some love to talk for hours about vineyards, about soil, about terroir… It’s part of the job, but we are not like that. We love to talk about books, music, art, love, life, family!”

The family bond isn’t just some cute marketing ploy, either: It’s good for business. With all three Taittingers working together on the same team toward a unified goal, they are able to simply enjoy one another’s presence. “We are never too serious,” Vitalie says, inadvertently invoking her father’s favorite motto. “We laugh—it’s a lot of jokes. Sometimes you’re wrong, so you recognize you’re wrong. Sometimes you’re right, and you’re very proud you’re right.”

Likening the team to a soccer squad, Pierre-Emmanuel says he used to be “the striker” but is now the goalkeeper, and plans to retire in two years. “I like the idea of being the boss and, another day, a simple servant,” he says. With Vitalie and Clovis poised to take lead, they must decide what kind of legacy they plan to add to—and how they plan to achieve it.

“Most important is to grow the value of what you have,” Vitalie says. She rejects the idea of focusing solely on increasing the volume of the Champagne they produce, which would only dilute its quality. “Because we have a margin, we don’t want to grow enormously… We will develop in another place, we will do another wine, or buy another house. You have other ways to develop.” The company has expanded to other regions before: In 1987 Claude Taittinger founded Domaine Carneros in Napa, California, which still produces American sparkling wine and pinot noir on a property complete with a castle specifically modeled after Château de la Marquetterie.

In the meantime, the Taittingers are primarily focused on building a warm, lively brand that can be trusted to deliver good times—and sales to follow. “For me, the definition of happiness is a good meal with people you like, nothing else,” Pierre-Emmanuel says.

Once again, Vitalie echoes her father. “For us, it’s most important that people can trust when you have a [glass of] Taittinger, you will have a very good moment,” she says. “I would be happy if everybody could feel that we are behind it. We are working for them every day, just to produce that: a good moment with their friends, with their family.”

When it rings true, sometimes a brand’s message can be that simple.