On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe respond to recent data highlighting that grower Champagne has lost market share in the last two decades. The relatively small category is often discussed in somm circles and by wine writers, but why haven’t consumers caught on?
For this Friday’s tasting, your hosts try some grower Champagnes for themselves: Vincent Charlot La Dune and Jean Vesselle Oeil de Perdrix. Tune in to learn more.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the Friday “VinePair Podcast.” Yeah, I like that. That was good.
J: Do you guys ever listen to other podcasts and you’re like, “Oh, this is so annoying that they do this on this podcast. I hope we don’t do it on our podcast?”
A: No. Do you know what I’ll do? I’ll comment on the podcast page and say, “Hmm, that’s really annoying that someone does that.” You know what? Get a life.
J: We’re trying. We’re doing our best.
A: I’ve never been a complainer like that. Also with the people who Tweet complaints.
J: I think you reserve your complaints for the podcast.
A: Good customer service, bro.
J: On air.
A: Do you know the meme that I love? The way that people actually talk to a customer service representative is their real personality.
J: I think that’s accurate.
A: It’s pretty accurate.
J: You should hear my Canadian husband talk to customer service.
A: He’s probably so nice.
J: He’s like, “I’m going to be so mad.” And then he gets on the line and he’s the most polite person you have ever heard.
A: He’s like, “Hi, how are you doing?”
J: He’s just so polite in dealing with people.
A: It’s worthwhile. You don’t want it to go to your permanent record.
Z: I have a story to tell because this is one of the great moments of my life.
A: Let’s hear it.
Z: It started out terribly, but it worked out OK. So I was flying down to Colombia for my best friend’s wedding. His wife is from Colombia, and so the wedding was there. I had a wedding to go to next weekend in Des Moines, Iowa. So to make all of this work, I had booked possibly the single most preposterous itinerary that anyone has ever flown. It involved me flying from Seattle to Fort Lauderdale to Medellín to Cartagena, where we were going after the wedding, back to Medellín, to Fort Lauderdale, to Dallas, to Des Moines, to Chicago, then to Seattle. Yes. To do this, I had to fly several different airlines because there was no way to do it all in one airline. And the problem was right away when leaving Seattle. Despite having a ticket, I was the person who was de-prioritized, I’m not really sure what happened. I was basically never given a seat assignment. And then I’m sitting there waiting as the plane fills up. They’re like, “Oh, we’ll let you know, blah, blah, blah.” Suddenly there’s no one left waiting except me. And then they’re closing the doors and I’m like, “Excuse me? That’s my plane. You sold me a ticket for that plane. I’m unclear what’s going on here.” This is when I learned that they’ll just oversell flights and then if too many people show up, then someone gets f*cked, which was me. I was really, really angry, in part because I’m trying to fly to another country for a wedding. I’m not just flying to Fort Lauderdale for fun. Nothing against Fort Lauderdale. Then I got really, really angry and I was trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do. And then I was like, “OK, wait, let’s step back here.” At this point, I’m working as a server and sommelier in restaurants. I’m like, “You understand how customer service works.” Let’s go ask these people how they can help me instead of yelling at them, which is probably what 95 percent of people do in this situation. I went up to the counter and I was like, “Look, my best friend’s wedding is in Colombia in two days. I need to get there. How can you guys help me?” And then all of a sudden, the supervisor came in, we went back to their office and we talked about it. They’re like, “OK, well, here’s what we can do. We can get you on another flight to Miami, and then we get you on a flight to Medellín. We’ll do this. We’ll give you some vouchers and also write you a check. Your flight’s going to leave Seattle in 12 hours. You’re going to get there later. I’m sorry. I can’t help that.” And I was like, “Look, this is fine. You solved the problem for me. You can’t make the plane come back and kick someone else off and get me on there. I got it, that’s fine. But it was this reminder to me that, in the end, yelling and screaming can be cathartic in a way.” But it is very ineffective at getting you the thing you might want in the end. Which for me, was getting to Colombia in as timely a fashion as was possible. So I take that lesson to heart.
A: But you know where I’ve heard that yelling and screaming does work? My friends who are surgeons claim that it works in surgery. There’s this myth in medicine that the people that have accidents on the operating table are always the nicest people. Like, “Thank you so much.” Well, great, something’s going to go wrong today. But the people that are really hard to deal with, it almost puts everyone in the operating room on edge.
J: So no one f*cks up.
A: Yes, no one f*cks up. That’s something I’ve always thought about. Anyways…
J: Good job, though, Zach.
A: Good job, Zach. OK, Zach, you got today’s Friday topic. What’s going on, buddy?
Z: I found a really fascinating trend. I was blown away by this statistic when I saw it. Basically, the statistic is connected to Champagne. We’ve talked a lot about Champagne recently because it’s having such a great stretch in ’21 and now into ’22. But one of the really fascinating things is that this data shows that, despite what you might think and despite what’s talked about in the Champagne category in a lot of places, the actual percentage of market share that’s held by vignerons — by people who grow and vilify their own wine, so growers, as we would describe them in the Champagne world — actually shrunk dramatically since 2000. So in 2000, they represented 26 percent of the market share. Now, they represent 18 percent. And co-ops, which also are a part of production, have stayed essentially constant in that period of time at around 9 percent. Which means that now, the maisons, the big producers, control something like 73 percent of the market as opposed to 66 percent in 2000. This stunned me because so much of the conversation around Champagne, certainly in the press and sommelier circles, is all about or almost entirely about grower Champagne. That’s what’s trendy, that’s what’s popular, that’s what’s exciting. And yet as a category, it’s diminishing in importance, or at least in market share. That fascinates me. I have some thoughts about this, but I wanted to get your guys’ thoughts first. Were you surprised when I shared the stat with you? And what do you think we can attribute it to?
A: Please, Joanna.
J: I was just going to say, I don’t think a lot of people know about grower Champagne and that’s probably a big part of this. Most of the wine consuming public probably knows Champagne houses. They’re most familiar with them, the bigger ones especially. We see this all the time in food and drinks media and publishing. But what feels trendy and big to us often doesn’t really translate or work its way to the larger public.
J: So it feels like it’s totally encompassed our worlds and the industry. But I think outside of that, probably very few people know about this trend.
A: I think you’re spot on here. One thing I learned this summer — or spring — when I was in Champagne that I didn’t know, actually, was that to be actually even considered a grower Champagne, you have to own 100 percent of the land that the grapes come from. Literally, you own the land, you farm the grapes, you make the wine. It’s not enough to have farmed someone else’s land. You have to own it. First of all, that’s really hard because land in Champagne is very expensive. I have nothing to back this up, but I think that it could be very lucrative to sell that land right now to other people, especially as houses are growing. I think also, save for a few of the really baller grower brands, the branding behind grower Champagne does not go in line with the branding behind Champagne. Champagne is a luxury product. You look baller when you’re popping Dom and Krug and Billecart, all these. You don’t look too baller popping Domain X that no one’s ever heard of before and posting it on Instagram and it says “Champagne” in really small letters, but it was just as expensive as the other ones. For the most part, when people are popping Champagne, they want to look baller, they want to look luxurious. They’re trying to connect to luxury in some way and fashion. That’s just what Champagne is.
J: But is that idea kind of contradictory to what grower Champagne is meant to be?
A: Well, grower Champagne is meant to be for the growers. Exactly. But I don’t think people buy it for that reason.
J: It’s pretty expensive.
A: Yeah. I don’t have an issue with grower Champagne, to be fair. I like grower Champagne. My issue with the way that press or wine professionals have always tried to spin it is, “It’s the cheaper Champagne option.” I find that very, very b*llshit. It’s almost as expensive, if not the exact same price. I’m sorry, Selosse is f*cking insane in price. It’s not cheaper, it’s not more affordable. You’re not the smarter consumer.
J: But is the idea that you’re supporting the growers?
A: But you’re supporting landowners. Let’s actually have that real conversation. You have to be rich enough to own the land, to grow the grapes, to make the Champagne. I think the American idea of what grower Champagne is f*cking idiotic because we’re stupid, because we don’t actually think, we don’t study. The way that grower Champagne has been promoted to the majority of Americans is this way that you’re saying Joanna’s, “Oh, you’re supporting the farmer.” No, you’re supporting a landowner.
Z: Well, I think it’s also that there is this idea that’s often put out there by people who are advocates for grower Champagne and other wines in this general category. It’s more authentic, right?
A: Oh, yeah.
Z: The grapes aren’t being purchased and vinified by some massive Champagne house. It’s some guy in his backyard. That’s where his vines are, and he and his family make this wine. It has an authenticity and a purity to it that no big Champagne house can match. Miss me with that kind of bullsh*t, for the most part. Again, I think it’s fine if a grower wants to make Champagne and bottle it and sell it and try to do all that, fine. But I think one of the things that’s happened in the category is it’s also become incredibly oversaturated. When grower Champagne first hit my radar in the mid-2000s, there were a dozen or so brands you could find in Seattle. There were not hundreds of different growers all producing wine, all exporting into the U.S., all hoping to capitalize on this. But as it turns out, it’s maybe even a nonexistent trend. There’s the exception of a few that have emerged to be well-known grower Champagnes, but even they are not as well known obviously as the big Champagne brands. But they have a brand identity to some extent and they do fine for themselves. But all the others, they’re an undifferentiated mass. As a consumer, you not only don’t know what they’re going to taste like, you don’t know what they’re going to be like. Even as a professional, I don’t know that when I try ones that are new. But you’re also subjected to a very real fact about Champagne, which is one of the main reasons why the architecture of Champagne production has always been centered around the big houses. It’s because making Champagne is time consuming, difficult, and expensive. And again, landowners in Europe are a little different than landowners in the U.S., because in some of these cases, that land was acquired hundreds of years ago. It’s not someone who bought it two weeks ago. But still, there’s some generational wealth that comes with owning land anywhere. But the point is, a lot of those people are just not positioned to have the experience, the equipment, the time, and the money to put into producing high-quality sparkling wine. Just because they happen to grow great grapes does not mean that they are great winemakers. Those things are not inherently connected, especially with something that’s so process-intensive, like sparkling wine and Champagne. I would be curious if we do have listeners who know more about this and are directly connected, or perhaps are even in France, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would wonder if there aren’t any number of grower-producers who have been, in a way, kind of sold a bill of goods. They’ve decided that, “Hey, look, we grow great grapes. We’re a grand cru vineyard. We have a long history of selling to big houses. They pay pretty good money for our grapes, but we recognize that if we’re able to build a brand for ourselves and sell and make our own wine, we can make more money than just by selling the grapes.” And they feel like we’ve gone down this road and it turns out that we’re not able to make wine at the quality that we want. It’s very hard to enter the American market or the global Champagne market, whatever. It’s not working, but because grower Champagne has an ethos to it, an ideology behind it, not just a purely commercial interest behind it, are those people feeling trapped by that? I’m very curious to know. I don’t have any specific examples, so this is just conjecture at this point.
A: I put this in Slack when we are talking about this topic, I feel that grower Champagne exists for somms and wine nerds. Even if you look at, like, the grower Champagne we have here, because we’re both about to drink one, it says how many hectares the grapes come from; this one says when the vineyard was planted, how much dosage, when it was disgorged. And I think that’s what geeks want. Whereas Krug is like, “This is f*cking Krug.” I’m sorry.
Z: They actually do provide some of that information, but yes.
A: I mean, they do. If you scan their barcode, they’re very into that. But it’s not as much just right there on the label. I think there’s a lot more label space for that. Grower Champagne is for the people in wine who are the Jack Blacks of the music world. We’ve all seen “High Fidelity.” We know when Jack Black goes, “Have you heard of this band? Of course you haven’t, but some people have.” It’s the flex of, “I know this Champagne. I know it’s baller, because I know so much about this one very small area of Champagne. And the only people who also know about it are the people that I want to associate with.” That is a lot of what happens in grower Champagne. And that’s also very intimidating to a normal consumer. So the normal consumer is like, “Screw it man.” I like Charles Heidsieck and that’s what I’m going to drink. Or I like Pol Roger, Taittinger, or any of these great brands that also exist and that are big houses that they can find everywhere. They can become their house Champagne, or whatever you want to call it, for people who like to drink Champagne. I think that’s why.
J: It’s the exclusivity of it, and it’s hard to find.
A: It’s hard to find. When I was in France in the spring, I went to this one wine shop that specializes in only growers, and it’s owned by a bunch of growers. Have you been there, Zach?
Z: I have not, no.
A: It’s owned by 40 or 50 growers. They only sell their wines there and every day, one grower’s being featured and all this stuff. But even then, it’s really intimidating because I only recognize two or three of them. They don’t have the big growers because they think they’re even better than the big growers. It’s funny, you’re in Champagne and people are sh*t talking Selosse. Because they’re jealous, right? Haters come when you’re at the top.
Z: I believe they are going to hate.
A: Yeah, bring the hate. Anyways, what happens with these smaller producers is a lot of what you’re saying, Zach. What you’re saying is really interesting because I do think that they feel this pressure to market the wines, but they don’t really know how. It costs a lot of money, but they were told that this was the way to go. They buy into all this stuff. Ugh…
Z: And I want to make one thing clear here, too. I think we all would agree that it’s totally great that these wines exist. For anyone who is a grower who wants to produce their own Champagne, fantastic. Do it. But I think that the important note here is, as Adam said, even well-meaning people — maybe people who aren’t so obsessed with inflating their own ego through exclusivity — but even just well-meaning somms, wine, pros, journalists, etc., need to take these statistics to heart and recognize that grower Champagne is a niche category and it will probably always remain there. If your only point of connection to people through Champagne is small growers that the vast majority of consumers and many wine professionals will be unfamiliar with, you’re doing it wrong. I’m not saying you shouldn’t know about them. You should enjoy them. Fine, great. But when you are trying to come to the average wine drinker and say, “Oh, all that Champagne that you drink, that you love, is actually crap. The really good stuff is this weird sh*t that I know about that you’ve never heard of that only I can find.” You sound like an asshole, even if you’re not one.
A: Yeah, very true. We both have some grower Champagnes here, so we have one and you have one. What do you have, Zach?
Z: I have one of my favorite bottles. It is a grower Champagne. And it’s actually, I think, a great example for why I do think there’s a place for this category. A very unusual style of Champagne is Jean Vesselle’s Oeil de Perdrix, which I actually mentioned on the podcast once before. It’s a rosé Champagne, but it’s made differently from how most rosé Champagnes are made, through blending still white and red wine. Instead, it’s through direct press, like a lot of rosé you would find in places that are famous for rosé like Provence, and then made into a sparkling wine. It’s a very unusual style, but I really, really love it. It’s got a beautiful color to it. The name is “The Eye of the Partridge,” and I guess partridges have orange-colored eyes. I have never stared into the eyes of a partridge, I’ll be honest.
A: Only in a pear tree.
Z: Yeah, only one day a year — or actually 12. I guess you get that one all 12 times. Anyhow, that’s what I have. What do you guys have?
A: I never had this Champagne before. Neither has Joanna. We didn’t buy it. Tim McKirdy did.
J: He did us a favor and bought this for us.
A: Thanks, Tim. We have Champagne Vincent Charlot La Dune. It’s vineyard planted in 1955, imported by Jenny & Francois Selections.
Z: Oh, boy. OK. So that’s some natural Champagne here?
A: Yeah, natural Champagne.
J: Apparently. It’s not too funky, though.
Z: I can’t believe that secondary fermentation — not just pét-nat — is allowable under natural wine law.
A: Here we go. Woah, it’s exploding. It’s exploding everywhere. It exploded all over the studio.
J: At least it wasn’t me…
A: Wow. No, keep it rolling, Keith. He’s like, “Should I stop it?” Nah, man, I’m soaking wet in Champagne and I’m going to pour some, and we’ll clean it up later.
J: Of course, when you spill something.
A: Oh, like when you spilled something, Joanna?
J: I only spill bright red things in the studio.
A: Yeah, well.
J: Dirty Shirleys.
A: As everyone knows, my closet’s now bright red, so. Wow. it smells of spilled Champagne. OK.
J: It has some color to it.
Z: Interesting. What color are we talking about?
J: What color?
A: It’s like amber.
J: It’s amber, yeah.
A: Yeah, it’s amber. It’s like tart apples. It’s not for me.
J: Yeah, it’s got some apple notes. It’s pretty grape juice-y.
A: Very grape juice-y.
J: It has a little bit of a funk to it. There’s something in Champagne that reminds me of Tootsie Pops. It’s got a little bit of that going on.
A: Tootsie Roll.
J: Tootsie Roll. But, you know.
A: It’s interesting. I don’t hate it. I guess when I said not for me, I wouldn’t seek this out again. I would never remember this bottle. But I guess that’s what we’re talking about with grower Champagne. It’s hard to remember anyways. So some of these producers are really hard to remember. Talking about Pierre Péters, it is a good Champagne, but Pierre Péters is very easy to remember.
Z: It’s the simplest French name you are going to come across.
A: They’re easy to remember. Consumers need that; they need things that are easy to remember. I’m just never going to remember Vincent Charlot La Dune. Maybe I’ll remember it again, maybe I won’t.
Z: The last thing I want to say here is, there’s also a real risk for some of these producers in another way. As we discussed before, the price point for these wines is high. And if someone is underwhelmed, the feeling that you get when you open a $40 bottle of Champagne and it’s not very good or you don’t like it that much, is a way bigger bummer than opening a $15 bottle of Cava or Prosecco or Crémant or whatever. And if those are, “Eh,” you might be like, “OK, well, maybe I’ll buy it again. It was OK.”
A: Add some orange juice to it.
Z: Yeah, exactly. But when you spend $40, $50, or $60 retail at a wine bar or at a restaurant on an expensive bottle of any Champagne, but especially with grower Champagne where there is more room for variation for bottle to bottle, producer to producer, vintage to vintage, etc., that is such an off-putting experience for people. And I think it turns people off from the category entirely.
J: Yeah, I agree.
A: Yeah, I think you’re totally right here. What the big houses have going for them is that the marketing allows consumers to convince themselves of anything. Even if you may not like a bottle like Dom Pérignon or Krug — I love Krug.
A: Loser. Get in loser, we’re going to drink Krug. I think you convince yourself it’s awesome because the brand is just so famous that you’re like, “It must be me. This has to be awesome.” Until you get to a level in your wine journey where, actually, the cool thing to do is reject those brands. It’s funny how that happens, right? You think you have to love them, you then love them, then you become such a nerd or a somm that you then reject and hate them. I don’t mean it that way. Because I think there are a lot of somms who actually do really love Cristal and Dom and are really great.
Z: They sure love selling them.
A: They love selling them. But I think that’s the thing. And for most consumers, it’s a lot easier to say, “Oh yeah, it’s Veuve. I love Veuve, it’s great,” Then this wine that we’re drinking where you might be like, “I don’t even like it. Why did I spend all that money?” It’s harder. If you have any favorite grower Champagnes that we should check out that you think we can find, hit us up at email@example.com. We would love to check them out. Joanna and Zach, we’ll chat Monday.
J: Have a great weekend.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.