Stephen Charters has arguably the best job in academia. He is the professor of Champagne management at Reims Management School in the heart of France’s Champagne region.
But as his name suggests, he is not a Frenchman. He is an Oxford-educated Brit, and his expertise in teaching the business of wine was not accrued in France, but in Australia.
All of which, you might think, would be anathema to a traditional French business school on the one hand and the French wine industry on the other.
Not so, says Prof Charters, at least not in the Champagne region, which has built its global reputation by being outward-looking: “It’s the only French wine region that would be happy to have an Anglo-Australian.”
It is because of this international outlook, he says, that Champagne is one of the few, if not only, wine-growing regions of France that is not in a “crise viticole”. While many of the famous French wine regions are plagued by over-production, there is just not enough Champagne to go round.
“There is a perspective that all Champagne is luxury,” says Prof Charters. “In one sense you are buying into a dream, of success, celebration, seduction.”
Prof Charters believes that because he is an outsider he can be of particular help to France’s Champagne industry, not in the day-to-day nitty-gritty of viticulture but in looking to the future.
“I can focus on where the industry will be in five, 15 or 50 years. I can think about long-term developments and help support the industry.”
The industry agrees: his chair is sponsored by five of the most prestigious names in Champagne – Laurent Perrier, Möet-Hennessy, Nicolas Feuillatte, Pernod Ricard and Vranken-Pommery – as well as the local growers co-operative, the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), and the city of Reims.
The focus of Prof Charters’ research, and the structure and the content of the courses he teaches, are openly discussed with these practitioners, and their specialist knowledge is fed into the whole process.
All of which is necessary because, as Prof Charters points out, the structure of the Champagne industry is unlike any other.
Some 90 per cent of the grapes that go into Champagne are grown by 15,000 local vineyards. These vineyards sells to the 40 major Champagne houses, but each vineyard will make its own Champagne for sale locally.
Then there are 140 co-operatives, who both make their own Champagne and sell the grape juice to the Champagne houses.
It is a strange combination of co-operation and competition, says Prof Charters. “Everyone has to work together but they are all fighting for market share.”
So Prof Charters’ research concentrates on four main areas, the first being wine tourism. While this is a big industry in the US, Australia and New Zealand, there has been little research conducted in France, says Prof Charters.
The second area is the managerial expertise of small wine growers in the region. But it is the third and fourth areas that really tap into Prof Charters’ expertise in consumer marketing.
The third research area is how to add value to Champagne for the consumer and the producer. This can be improving quality or increasing the aesthetic value – not just increasing the price.
And the fourth area is how to appeal to consumers under the age of 30.
“The question is, how do they engage with wine generally and Champagne specifically,” says the Champagne professor. “How can we position Champagne now so that it will still be drunk in 20 to 30 years’ time?”
In particular, he says, young people are interested in the authenticity and quality of the product. They want to know they are not just paying for expensive marketing, he says.
He is quick to defend Champage from charges of the latter.
It can take a bottle of Champagne up to seven years from the point at which it is bottled until it appears on the shelf of an off-licence or wine store.
“Each bottle is individually hand-crafted, but brand loyalty requires that every bottle tastes the same,” says Prof Charters.
This calls on the expertise of the tasters who mix together some 140 different samples of wine to produce the predicted taste each and every year.
Prof Charters’ research has already fed through into a number of programmes.
The first is a 15-month course taught in French for people who work in the region – the growers, co-operatives and Champagne houses. This Future Leaders of Champagne programme deals with issues such as succession planning and opening up new retail markets.
Second, two elective courses for masters degree students – wine industry management and wine marketing – have been developed and will be taught for the first time in 2008.
And from next July the school will run a summer school designed for those involved in the Champagne industry more generally – such as distributors in London or New York.
The package will combine traditional teaching with more hands-on – and arguably more enjoyable – activities, such as visits to vineyards and wine-tastings.
As Prof Charters wryly puts it: “The champenois hospitality is great.”