M. Richard Geoffroy, the Dom Pérignon Cellar Master. Photo by Derek Hudson.
The very name Dom Pérignon conjures up history. The famous champagne production house is associated with tradition, reliability, and luxury, a reputation it has maintained since its founding in the seventeenth century. I was invited, along with a handful of other bloggers, to meet Richard Geoffroy, cellar master for Dom Pérignon, during his most recent visit to Montreal. I’d already visited Reims, the champagne capital, so I knew that cellar masters are the stars of production houses, and people rarely get the chance to meet them. I was determined to make the most of this opportunity, and I must admit that I sort of monopolized the conversation, which eventually turned into an interview. I must have asked a thousand questions, and I could have asked a thousand others.
It’s late December, when more champagne is drunk than probably any other time of the year, so I thought I’d share the highlights of this conversation with you. Today, Mr. Geoffroy describes his career and talks about the challenges of being a global standard for over 300 years.
A very glamorous tasting room was set up for the Dom Pérignon event in Montreal.
How did you become cellar master at Dom Pérignon?
My background is a little complicated. I’m originally from Champagne, and I was born into a family of seven generations of winemakers. My obvious and natural destiny was to follow in my father’s footsteps, but as a teenager, I rebelled against this too-obvious fate and decided to study medicine. Then, after eight years of study, I matured. I felt the urge to go back to my roots. Instead of moving back home, I studied oenology for three more years. After that, I worked at Moët et Chandon, then Dom Pérignon, finally taking charge of the house in 1990.
Your job must have a lot of pressure.
Necessarily. Sometimes I get the impression that I’m living a life similar to that of a top athlete. In order to excel in terms of high performance, you need to be surrounded by people who are trustworthy, who support and follow you. When you work creatively, you’re always in a position of weakness and vulnerability, and you can’t spend the energy to protect yourself. The idea is to be at 120%, and to get there takes a lot of confidence. This is what I have at Dom Pérignon. This greatly facilitates things.
After 22 years, what do you do to sustain your passion?
Knowing how to keep your passion alive and stay as fresh as the first day is the biggest challenge. The driving force is always striving for an absolute and believing in an ideal. If you work on a recipe, you might feel like saying, “I’m pretty much there, it’s ok. If I’m 99.9% there, who will notice the 0.01%?” In fact, you need to be competitive, not with others, but with yourself, because in the end what really matters is excellence. It’s a very personal matter. As long as you’re sincere and honest and you don’t cheat with yourself, it lasts forever. If one day you wake up and this doesn’t happen anymore, it’s time to stop. When you feel like your battery is empty, you need to stop. But normally, it should be recharged continuously.
What do you do to recharge your battery?
I’m curious and full of life. Being ambitious is wonderful, but the worst thing is your ego. When you become too concerned with yourself, when you cut yourself off from the world, your work suffers. That’s when you become a parody of yourself. The same goes for the world of art and artistic creation; the risk is becoming a caricature of yourself. When you get there, you start to repeat. And repetition is death.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Inspiration comes from within. Not within me, but within Champagne. The French often speak of “terroir,” and that’s what this place means—the climate, the soil, and the culture of the people there. If you give the same grape to a Californian and to a Champenois, they will make completely different wines because of their individual cultures. At Dom Pérignon, there is what nature, “terroir,” heritage, and memory provides. The building is there, but you also need a lot of energy to feed the process, and that comes from the outside. You need to travel. If you stay put at the place of creation, you shrivel up. The danger is closing yourself off. When you’re with Dom Pérignon, you’re constantly flattered, and you can easily become comfortable there. There are people who compliment you for things that don’t even deserve it, and that’s the worst. You need to always stand guard and never take things for grated.
Dom Pérignon’s famous shield-shaped label. Photo by Christina B. Castro, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Dom Pérignon remains the most influential player in the world of champagne. This position must come with great responsibility.
Yes, this is true. It’s a great privilege and a great responsibility. What I like is that Dom Pérignon is also respected locally, and that moves me particularly since I’m from Champagne. What is most important is to have respect from your peers. Because there is only one champagne appellation, the Champenois understand that any prestige gained by Dom Pérignon will benefit everyone collectively, and that creates a very strong bond.
What gives champagne the uniqueness that makes it a wine for special occasions?
For me, there is value added to wine from Champagne. It must have something to do with the bubbles. There is life, movement, adventure, and in fact, this also describes the Champagne region. Dom Pérignon started this adventure in the seventeenth century. It’s no surprise that champagne was born during this era. It was the Century of Illumination, of Versailles, Louis XIV, the birth of French luxury, the most inspired period in France. France has never since experienced such an extraordinary time, and it’s as if the French are now living with this nostalgia, as if they touched the stars and they now know that they will probably never do it again. Dom Pérignon said “I’m drinking stars,” and that’s exactly what champagne is.
A statue of Dom Pérignon in Épernay, France. Photo by fmpgoh, via Flickr Creative Commons.
How does Dom Pérignon live up to that standard 300 years after its founding?
Dom Pérignon is recognized as being uncompromising and reliable throughout time. The house knows how to deliver. It’s involved and its sincerity is obvious. There is incredible respect for Dom Pérignon, I see it in people that I meet on a daily basis, but you can’t take advantage of that. Instead, it needs to be a plus. That’s what credit is. Either you keep it, or you consume it. When there’s no more left, it’s over. This is what all my predecessors knew how to keep, and this is what I’ll leave behind when I go. In order to last, you need to have the confidence of knowing that you can contribute to things, but at the same time the humility of knowing that one day you’ll pass on this responsibility. For me, it’s touching to know that I’m contributing to a project that is timeless, because frankly, I’m totally and absolutely convinced that Dom Pérignon will last forever.
Read the second part of this interview here: Meeting the Dom Pérignon Cellar Master, Part 2 of 2: The Art of Tasting Champagne