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Champagne Barons de Rothschild: Inventing a Brand

Even if you’re the Rothschilds, you need a strategy in the wine marketplace.  Especially if you’re dipping your toe into the big Champagne vat where there are much more-experienced and even larger players.

Over the past few months, Philippe Sereys de Rothschild has been personally leading the American introduction of the year-old Barons de Rothschild Champagne venture, the first joint product of all three branches of the Rothschild wine empire.  Philippe’s own branch is the one that owns Château Mouton-Rothschild.  Another branch camps out at Château Lafite Rothschild, while a third is at Château Clarke.  All, of course have additional wine brands in Bordeaux or globally, and the family is even better known for its banking acumen.

Not that the Rothschilds have no Champagne experience.  They have been individually involved in managing or financing Champagne brands – Ruinart, Henriot – and Philippe’s grandfather, the famous Baron Philippe de Rothschild, once had his own Champagne brand.  “He was fond of celebrating whatever he could find to celebrate,” his grandson says.  But that was long ago and involved individuals, not the whole family.

I first met Philippe a few months ago in New York for the “soft introduction” of the brand and was fascinated by why and how the family came together around Champagne.  This week at the Oregon Grille in Hunt Valley, MD, I met Philippe again at a lunch hosted by Pasternak, the American importer chosen by the three branches (who each have their separate agents) as best positioned to handle the brand in this country. 

At the luncheon, I was intrigued by Philippe’s account of the decisions the family made that were crucial to launching such a brand.  They included:

“The first decision was that we would have one brand, not three individual brands,” explained Philippe, a charismatic man with a great command of English and of English dry wit.  Having one label, of course, avoided potential confusion in the marketplace with no questions about brand differentiation.

Second was supply.  “This was our north face” or most-difficult problem, he said.  “The challenge was to get good supplies of grapes, not just from vintage to vintage, but for the long term.”  The Rothschilds decided to become partners with a group of small growers in the Côte de Blancs, the Chardonnay-growing region, which meant that their three introductory labels – brut, blanc de blancs and rosé – would all be Chardonnay heavy.  Even the rosé is 85% white juice.

Third, “We needed a winemaker.  We have great experience in winemaking, but making a wine and making Champagne are two different things.”  So they chose an experienced Champagne maker to lead their production.

Fourth – “What do we call our Champagne?”  Philippe explained that he took the job of heading the brand only after making sure there would be a governing board and that all three branches had to show up for meetings.  Furthermore, any decision had to be unanimous – not two against one.  “It’s the closest the family will get to be Communists,” he joked.  “In the end, we decided to do what every other family Champagne has done – call the brand by the family name.”

Fifth was the packaging, and the decision was to make it look different, though classical.  Mission accomplished.  (If you haven’t seen the bottle and the label, check it out online in the portfolio section of www.pasternakwine.com.)

At present, Rothschild Champagne is producing only the three basic non-vintage brands, which Pasternak is steadily moving into all major markets with Southern being a prime distributor.  “We have seven to eight years of inventory,” Philippe says, which has barely been touched by the 250,000 to 300,000 bottles currently on the market.  They could sell more.  They also know they soon will have to make a tête de cuvée or vintage or both, but he insists that decision hasn’t yet been made.  SRP for the three brands is about $100 each.

Oh yes, all three Champagnes are delicious, but pour me the blanc de blancs as first choice.

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