Roederer's Jean-Claude Rouzaud has taken his pursuit of excellence beyond Champagne to the New World. He talks to JOHN STIMPFIG about his achievements

Roederer’s Jean-Claude Rouzaud has taken his pursuit of excellence beyond Champagne to the New World. He talks to JOHN STIMPFIG about his achievements

  • The man known as ‘Le Sage de Reims’ was a terrible student.

  • The trail to the peak of the champagne mountain was arduous.

  • The truth behind the rumours of Rouzaud’s Roederer heritage.

  • Whilst other champagne houses concentrated on sales for the millennium, Rouzaud concentrated on his brand’s reputation.

  • Rouzaud intends to retire to a quiet life of hunting, diving and heli-skiing.

    A good nickname goes a long way, not least because it instantly reveals a person’s very core and character. It’s also much more useful than a formal business title which merely recognises rank rather than reputation. Take this year’s worthy winner of the coveted Decanter Man of the Year Award, Jean-Claude Rouzaud. The job description on his business card says ‘President of Louis Roederer Champagne’, but in his adopted city he is more aptly revered as ‘le Sage de Reims’.

    Of course, these days Rouzaud’s ‘wise man’ reputation extends well beyond the boundaries of Champagne. For, having transformed Roederer into one the most highly regarded Grandes Marques, he has since diversified around the wine world.

    Now his top-class stable of properties and interests includes Roederer Estate in California, Champagne Deutz, Port producer Ramos Pinto, Delas Frères in the Rhône and, in Bordeaux, two chateaux and a famous négociant business. On top of that, he owns a number of distribution companies in key markets which also contribute healthy profits.

    But if all this makes Rouzaud sound a bit like a megalomaniac, then nothing could be further from the truth. His first loves are wine and winemaking, but helives in the real world and, because of his conspicuous success, his métier has moved on. Now his management role is to extract the finest quality wine from each of his estates and sell it as profitably as possible, within its category.

    To do this well takes zeal, talent, experience, understanding, integrity and intuition. Fortunately, Rouzaud is blessed with all these attributes – in spades.He’s also a humorous, likeable man who enjoys the simpler things in life as wellas the finer ones. Despite being immaculately turned out, Rouzaud isn’t the haughty Champagne aristocrat. Instead, he’s much more down-to-earth, with a reputation for doing what he says and saying what he does. It’s one reason why everyone trusts him, not just at Roederer, but also throughout the region which he has represented in all manner of organisations, from the Union des Grandes Marques to the INAO. It’s safe to say that no one has done more for Champagne than he has.

    Yet in spite of his fame and repute, Rouzaud is no self-publicist and actively avoids the limelight, preferring to operate behind the scenes, talking to people, running the negotiations and getting the right result. He hates making speeches so much that he turned down the job of president of the Maisons de Champagne in favour of his close friend, Yves Bernard.

    On this occasion, however, he doesn’t mind the spotlight. ‘I’m thrilled to have been chosen as Decanter Man of the Year. It’s a huge personal honour,’ he says. ‘And it should be good for sales of Roederer in the UK too,’ he adds with a beaming smile. ‘It’s our most important market, by the way.’

    You’ve probably heard that it was Rouzaud’s destiny to inherit and run the family firm as a fifth-generation descendant of Louis Roederer, but it belies the truth. ‘Firstly, it was entirely an accident that I got involved in wine and, secondly, I am not a direct descendant. In fact, I am Camille Olry- Roederer’s grandson from her first, rather than her second, marriage. In other words, I’m not really a Roederer,’ he points out.

    As a result Rouzaud had virtually no early contact with the family firm. He was brought up in Toulouse, went to school in Paris and was photographed with his grandmother when she was awarded the Legion of Honour, but this is one of his few early memories from Reims. However, it never bothered him much because a career in wine (or indeed anything) seemed so unlikely. ‘Really, I was such a terrible student my parents didn’t know what to do with me.’

    His Damascene conversion to wine and work came at 21, soon after he was married,when he was effectively coerced into enrolling at the Montpellier School of Viticulture. ‘Basically, my parents knew the director and it was considered a softer option than other diplomas,’ he says. Yet Rouzaud quickly discovered a passion and aptitude for his subject, especially oenology, and to everyone’s amazement he finished first in his class. ‘My father insisted on seeing the diploma before he believed it, but I was pretty surprised myself,’ he recalls.

    After four years at Montpellier it wasn’t a difficult decision to pack him and his young family off into the Champagne business. ‘After all, I was the only onewho was interested and qualified,’ he says. He duly arrived at Roederer in 1967, aged 25, and was put in joint charge of the vineyards. In 1970 he moved into the cellar and five years later took over production, before taking total control ofthe business in 1979.

    It may sound like an easy progression up the promotion ladder but in fact, it was unremittingly tough, as the old guard mistrusted this crazy young moderniser and resisted him at every turn.

    ‘I loved the viticulture and winemaking but the politics at that time were terrible,’ says Rouzaud. ‘There were so many things that needed changing.’ The company he ‘inherited’ from his famous grandmother was, in truth, barely making money and had almost no image beyond Reims, but it also offered an unbelievable opportunity.

    Rouzaud grasped this with both hands, setting about the life’s work, which he modestly describes as ‘taking and uncovering this hidden treasure, polishing it up and presenting it to the world’. In truth, he has single-handedly transformed Roederer into one of Champagne’s foremost houses in terms of image, respect and quality – in just a few short years.

    For instance, one of the many major changes he has made is that Roederer’s reputation is no longer based exclusively on Cristal, its exquisite deluxe cuvée. ‘When I started, people had to take two cases of our non-vintage to get a case of Cristal. It made me mad that we were making one of the best NVs and yet it had such a negative image.’ He relaunched the NV as Brut Premier and regards its subsequent ascendant sales curve as one of his best achievements.

    Smart marketing certainly, but that’s only part of the story.

    He has the eye fordetail and a focus on quality. When everyone else in Champagne was scrambling to build stock ready for the Millennium, Roederer took the opposite course, cutting its available sales for the big night. Why? ‘It was part of our continual strategy to improve the quality and image of Brut Premier,’ says Rouzaud. As a result, he decided to extend Brut Premier’s ageing period on the lees from two to three years which, in turn, meant tying up stock. ‘I could have sold so many more bottles, but I’m not bothered by that. I’ve always been in this for the long term.’

    Such decisions are not unusual. Fifteen years ago, he capped Roederer’s production at 2.5 million bottles and bravely cut the percentage of Cristal in the sales mix from 33% to 20%. ‘Unlike many of my colleagues in Champagne, I’ve never chased after volume and market share. Instead, I want a luxury product like Roederer to be on allocation,’ which, of course, it is. The strategy has paid off and Roederer is the most profitable house in Champagne and has been for 25 years.

    It’s these rich pickings which have enabled Rouzaud to invest in his bold and brilliantly entrepreneurial ‘châteaux’ policy around the world. Globalisation began in the early 1980s with Roederer Estate in California’s Anderson Valley upin Mendocino. In true Roederer style, it was soon making healthy profits, but for Rouzaud it’s the quest for quality that counts. And many would concur with Serena Sutcliffe’s assertion that Quartet is the best New World Sparkler on the shelves.

    Since then, he’s hit the acquisition trail with similar success. First, his beloved Ramos Pinto, followed by others, including Deutz, Delas Frères, Châteaux Haut-Beauséjour, de Pez in Saint-Estèphe and, most recently, the famous DescavesNégociant house. Not surprisingly, many of his recent purchases remain work in progress, particularly Château de Pez, where the claret-fanatic Rouzaud is instigating extraordinary measures to restore it to its former glories. ‘One day, I think it could rank alongside Cos,’ he says.

    Underpinning all this effort is Rouzaud’s belief that: ‘You need to own your vineyards to make the finest wines’. But he also knows there’s more to it than vineyards and terroir. You need the right people, the proper investment, and you can’t rush things.

    ‘I am very prudent,’ he says, describing himself as ‘an active pessimist – in a positive way’. He also works phenomenally hard, which leaves him little time or energy to enjoy the daredevil pursuits which constitute his hobbies – hunting, diving and heli-skiing are just some of them. I make the obvious point that these interests compensate for his ‘safe’ business nature and Rouzaud doesn’t demur. ‘I don’t know why I like danger so much. You may well be right.’

    As for the future, he’s looking forward to retirement and having fun ‘before my joints stiffen up completely’, but is vague about when he will step down, although he does insist he won’t go on forever. At 59, he’s actively planning tohand the business on to his son, Frédéric, but only on condition that he can complete his life’s work by passing it on with significantly fewer family shareholders.

    ‘If I don’t, there will be a bull-fight and I would rather sell the company than allow feuding to destroy the business,’ he warns. He hopes it won’t come to that, but both know he’ll do it if he has to. However, if ‘le Sage de Reims’ can’t pull this off, then who can?

    Written by JOHN STIMPFIG