By Laura Chesters
Daily Mail, London.
Divorcing the father of two of your children and marrying again is not usually used as an analogy to describe a family-run business but Vitalie Taittinger, heiress of the champagne house Taittinger, is not a traditional woman.
As the face of the French brand’s ads, some could be forgiven for thinking she is just a stunningly beautiful and rich woman enjoying parties at the expense of the company.
But over lunch on a quick break from the hectic Salon de la Revue du vin de France — the winemakers’ trade show — in Paris’s old stock exchange, Taittinger is fielding business calls while explaining how she balances life as a working mother of three children. Her youngest daughter, from her second marriage, is 18 months old.
As artistic and marketing director she is in charge of growing the Taittinger brand and ensuring it can compete with all the other big names in the business.
The Taittinger family previously owned an empire that covered everything from glass-making to hotels. It has been involved with champagne since 1931 when Vitalie’s great-grandfather bought an estate which had been making champagne since 1734 and gave it his family name. With a focus on art and design, Vitalie had no thought while growing up that she would work in the family firm which had been run by her uncle.
But, shockingly, nine years ago the sprawling family empire was sold off to US investor Starwood Capital and broken up after the extended family could not agree on its future.
The sale gave observers the impression that the family was a squabbling nest of money grabbers. But her father, Pierre-Emmanuel, had never wanted to lose the treasured champagne company. The hotels and other parts of the larger business were separated and bought by different owners but he raised cash from family members and investors and eventually bid to buy back the champagne house — at a lot more than it was sold for. After securing the champagne brand and business for a reported pounds sterling 460m he set about relaunching it.
It was at this point that Vitalie decided to come to work with him and her younger brother Clovis, who is now export manager.
She compares the relaunch of the pounds sterling 550m champagne brand to how she decided to marry again and ‘create a second family’ — breaking with tradition.
She explains that having to buy back the brand helped their determination to succeed. She says: ‘Having to fight for it — it was good. It was even better than just automatically inheriting the brand. My father felt it was important for the family. He wanted to keep the business in the family and continue what his grandfather had started. It is now our story, it didn’t come easy.’
Taittinger emphasises that she is not just a rich heiress. She says: ‘I am not Paris Hilton. But I do respect her because she has built something for herself. I really respect that actually. She actually works hard to make us believe in her own brand.’
She also has a catholic taste in champagne — refusing to follow the route of run-of-the-mill, bland executives who confine themselves to their brand in the mistaken belief that it makes them appear loyal. Over lunch she orders a bottle from a small producer near where she lives in Troyes, in Champagne. ‘I love to try different champagnes,’ she says. ‘I like small producers. I love to try everything.’
She is one of a number of women who have made a mark in the world of champagne. Madame Clicquot — ‘Veuve’, or ‘Widow’, Clicquot — is the grande dame of champagne having taken over her husband’s champagne business in the 1800s and Madame Louise Pommery also made quite a name for herself in the 19th century. More recently another female Taittinger has created a brand: Virginie Taittinger has her own brand Virginie T. Dubbed the Princess of Champagne she is Pierre-Emmanuel’s cousin.
Vitalie and her children live between two homes — both in Champagne — in Reims and Troyes and she travels regularly for work. But she always makes sure she’s home enough for her family. ‘No one can replace the mother,’ she says, ‘but at work everybody can replace you a little bit. You have to have a balance. Being with the children is important.’
Although Taittinger ditched her career in art for the family firm, it’s come in handy as the brand teams up with artists to design special edition bottles with artists — including Roy Lichtenstein. Her training has also helped her deal with the events which the brand sponsors — including The Old Vic, Rada and the Baftas.
Britain is a big market for champagne — of the 144m bottles exported from France last year, 32.7m — worth more than pounds sterling 341m — came to Britain, making us the biggest exporter of the tipple. The rise of prosecco, UK sales of which have just overtaken champagne for the first time, according to Information Resources, has led some to worry about champagne’s prospects. But Taittinger is unconcerned: ‘The UK loves champagne. English people know a lot about champagne. More than other nations. Brits are the connoisseurs of all our markets and have no complex about champagne. You drink it every day, not only for special occasions.’
Some even believe that prosecco could boost champagne sales, as drinkers who start off with the cheaper option progress to more sophisticated brands.
With Britain such an important market, Taittinger’s thoughts turn to Europe and she says: ‘We have a way to go in Europe. Nobody is satisfied. Everyone has to find their identity.’
However, she hopes Britain will stay in the EU and says France and Germany need Britain to provide the balance between them. But adds: ‘Maybe this is not realistic. Maybe this is just the champagne vision — preferring to stay all together.’
Closer to home the future leadership of her family firm is up for discussion: as the eldest daughter of Pierre-Emmanuel, she says the family hopes to keep control of the brand for many years to come but her father, 62, wants to quit by 65 and was reported to have said: ‘I honestly don’t know [who will take over]. God will decide.’
As one of the few houses not owned by big corporate giants such as LVMH, Taittinger hopes her firm will stay in the family.
‘Everything is built to keep the company in the family for my generation,’ she says. And with that she returns to her mobile, and is back to business.