On a late summer Sunday in the Champagne capital of Reims, you might find Claude Taittinger at home with his family in their magical jardin à la française. That's where three generations of Taittingers gathered recently for a long luncheon of chilled pea soup, rosemary-scented lamb and caramelized peaches with berries, prepared by guest chef Philippe Renard, who directs the kitchens of Le Paris at the Hôtel Lutétia. The meal was matched with Taittinger wines, beginning with an aperitif of lightly chilled Taittinger rosé Champagne, and took place against a spectacular backdrop of roses. These roses have special meaning for Claude--especially the rustic Rose de Provins, a descendant of the first modern rose, Damascena, which was brought back from the Crusades by Thibaud, count of Champagne. Thibaud is Claude's hero: "He promoted the Champagne region, he was a poet and a composer and he loved beautiful women."
Claude, 72, may seem the archetypal old-world Frenchman, but he is also a black belt in judo and a master at marketing. Under his guidance, the Taittinger group has become one of France's top 200 companies, growing beyond wine to include a range of luxury goods and properties, such as Baccarat crystal; soaps and scents by Annick Goutal; and in Paris, the hotels Crillon, Concorde La Fayette and Lutétia and the landmark restaurant Le Grand Véfour. But he could just as well be selling ball bearings or radiators. Luxury, Claude says, is a business like any other; it simply happens to be the one that he is best at.
"We have a certain sensitivity to beauty, to art," he says over tea at the Concorde La Fayette. "I myself don't have any sensitivity for equipping cars or making television sets, none at all, but I do have a feeling for what is nice, what is beautiful." The company's agenda is largely based on maintaining quality: as James Bond says, in Casino Royale, the first of Ian Fleming's 007 novels, "Give me some Taittinger Blanc de Blancs.... It's not very well known, but it's the best Champagne in the world."
"I have a great privilege," Claude says. "People don't ask me to be creative, they just ask me to make our Champagnes as good as they were 50 years ago. It's marvelous because if you make cars you must make every year a faster car, a more economic car, a safer car. With our Champagne, people say, please, keep it as it is." Still, the businessman in Claude cannot help but expand his empire. In 1987 he added a California vineyard, the Domaine Carneros, laid out on an 18th-century French model. He also broadened the Taittinger range with the Collection Series of bottles decorated by leading artists of the 20th century, from Vasarely to Roy Lichtenstein.
Claude's father, Pierre, who was the president of the city council (or mayor) of Paris, founded the house of Taittinger during the Depression by buying up vineyards when they were going cheap. Pierre worked with his friend, the legendary chef Fernand Point, to transform Champagne from a sweet dessert wine into a beverage that could be drunk throughout a meal. In his father's memory, Claude founded the Pierre Taittinger Culinary Prize, a sort of chef's Oscar whose laureates include Joël Robuchon, arguably one of the greatest chefs France has produced in this century.
The family métiers were Champagne and politics and Claude had no intention of going into either, but after the death of one brother and the defection of two others to public office, he found himself at the head of the firm. Today, his three daughters, three nephews, a niece and various spouses are in the business. In ever-changing combinations, they gather at least twice a month in Reims for the traditional Sunday luncheons with Claude and his wife, Catherine.
Claude always drinks a glass of Champagne as an aperitif, followed by red wine, usually a Bordeaux, with the meal: "My wife asks me not to say this, but I drink a bottle of wine a day and have for 50 years. I think it's a beautiful diet." His palate is never jaded, nor does earning a living from luxury decrease his pleasure in it, because the finer things in life demand vigilance. "You have to teach a child to appreciate beauty," Claude explains. "A sensitivity to beauty, to luxury, is not natural." His own education began at age 11 when his parents would give him wine to taste two or three times a week: "I think it is because of this training that I now have the expertise, the memory, to keep in my mind the flavors and aromas of every vintage of the last 50 years when we are making our choice for the assemblage."
At the Sunday luncheons, Claude's grandchildren go through an apprenticeship similar to his own. "I try to develop even among the youngest a certain interest in wines," Claude says. "I ask them to tell me what fragrance a glass reminds them of. I say, does it smell like flowers, like fruits, like clothes, like an animal? They give me funny answers, but it helps them to appreciate the aromas. The ones over 10 get a few drops to drink for practice."
With children racing around between courses, the atmosphere is informal, despite the elegant table settings of Baccarat crystal (of course) and heirloom silver engraved with the arms of Catherine's family. Her father was the Marquis d'Aulan, while Claude describes himself as just a bourgeois. "But a bourgeois with aristocratic manners," he adds with a smile, "which is better than the reverse." The Baccarat glasses, Claude likes to explain, are really an economy despite their cost because crystal breaks less easily than ordinary glass and the maid takes special care when washing up: "So we are really saving money."
In a life where both good sense and the five senses are poised in a very French balance, which of the senses is most important? "Everything starts with the eyes," Claude says. "With the eyes you already have a very clear idea of the age of the Champagne; the size of the bubbles, the foam, the general look of the wine in the glass are very important. With the nose you have to smell the aromas like a perfume maker. I remember one day I was with Annick Goutal walking through our vineyards in the middle of June when the buds were in flower. Champagne blossoms are beautiful and have a beautiful odor. Suddenly she said, 'I am going to make a Champagne perfume,' and I said, 'Annick, forget it; it's going to be the most expensive perfume in the world.' She forgot it."
The luncheons always end with a game of pétanque,the French bowling game, on the lawn. "You should play pétanque with a glass of Champagne in the left hand," Claude advises, "and use the right hand to throw the ball."
Story by Mary Blume, whose collection of articles, A French Affair: The Paris Beat 1965-1998, will be published in November by the Free Press.