The art of cham­pagne

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Hung Tran

Cham­pagne, like phi­los­o­phy, ro­mance, lofti­ness, and in­sou­ciance, is one of the beaux arts of the French peo­ple. Nathalie Vranken, co- owner and head of the mar­ket­ing di­vi­sion of Vranken-pom­mery Monopole, em­bod­ies all of them with daunt­less equipoise. She is self-dep­re­cat­ing and gra­ciously curt; her sen­tences are drenched in in­tro­spec­tive solem­nity and fit­ful dream­ing. She casts her French syl­la­bles with gen­tle stern­ness and strings her English with melodic lilt. Paris-born Vranken earned her de­gree in his­tory at La Sor­bonne and, in Jan­uary 1987, founded the im­age and com­mu­ni­ca­tions agency Nico Agency. But she doesn’t con­sider her cur­rent role in the fam­ily com­pany, where her hus­band Paul-françois Vranken serves as pres­i­dent, with ex­pected bom­bast. “I am the least tal­ented per­son in the com­pany,” she cedes, as if sug­gest­ing that tow­er­ing seats of author­ity may be a trap for free souls. “I don’t have the tal­ent of mak­ing wine nor of mak­ing art.”

Her tal­ents, then, may be in cul­ti­vat­ing ge­nius in those around her. “I am very good at con­vinc­ing peo­ple, and it helps that I have nat­u­ral author­ity,” she laughs, an ef­ful­gence rush­ing to plump the fine hol­lows of her cheeks. “My best fea­ture is that when you look at me, you can sense my author­ity. It’s very dif­fi­cult to go against me. Is it easy to work as a cou­ple when you’re in the same com­pany? No, it is not.” When asked what makes their part­ner­ship so strong, the words— and their grav­ity— can’t be con­veyed quickly enough. “Be­cause I am work­ing for him,” she says, with pre­emp­tive speed. “I am not a woman who en­joys con­flict, but there is no ques­tion about it: there is only one pres­i­dent in the com­pany.”

Af­ter launch­ing her agency, Vranken be­came an in­te­gral mem­ber of the Mon­taigne Com­mit­tee, an as­so­ci­a­tion of all the lux­ury re­tail­ers on the Av­enue Mon­taigne. She rose to direc­tor of the in­sti­tu­tion and spear­headed the launch of The Mon­taigne Grape Har­vest, a bi­en­nial event that in­vites pa­trons to taste the com­pany’s port­fo­lio of cham­pagnes and wines in-store. “Twenty five years ago, if you were young, and fe­male, and you wanted to work in a nice busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment then the Av­enue Mon­taigne was the best,” she says. That fash­ion and busi­ness—fem­i­nine wile and mas­cu­line cun­ning, tra­di­tion­ally— were neatly paired must have only whet­ted Vranken’s ap­petite, es­pe­cially among the de­sign­ers who en­no­bled wom­anly spirit. “All the usual sus­pects were in­volved: Dior, Chanel, Gucci, Prada, Saint Lau­rent, Ar­mani and Ver­sace were all there.”

Her work on the Villa De­moi­selle, an Art Nou­veau man­sion on the foot of Do­maine Pom­mery, was a feat of both lordly money and Nikean valour. The man­sion was built be­tween 1903 and 1908 ac­cord­ing to plans by famed ar­chi­tect Louis Sorel and its first owner, Vranken be­lieves, was Henry Vas­nier, who was sole lega­tee of Pom­mery at the time. Vas­nier had been a zeal­ous col­lec­tor of art by timely masters like Mil­let and Corot, and may have pos­si­bly wanted a pala­tial home to en­throne them. The man­sion had been left aban­doned for over 50 years when Pom­mery was fi­nally ac­quired by Paul-françois Vranken (who is from Bel­gium, one of the first well­springs of Art Nou­veau) in 2002. His first cham­pagne cu­vée, La De­moi­selle, which had ap­pro­pri­ated the vine and dragonfly mo­tifs of Art Nou­veau, made ac­quir­ing the Villa for the newly formed com­pany seem like fate.

“It was logic,” Vranken says. One im­me­di­ately sus­pects that she is more sen­si­tive to cos­mol­ogy than she lets on. “We started with the bouteille (bot­tle) De­moi­selle, which is in­spired by Art Nou­veau. We went on to ac­quire Charles Lafitte, and then Hei­d­sieck & Co Monopole. In 2002, we had the op­por­tu­nity to buy Pom­mery. Are you fol­low­ing me?” She stuns you: when­ever your mind might be toil­ing, her gaze suc­ceeds in over­rid­ing its in­ter­nal cir­cuits. “In the Do­maine Pom­mery, we found the most beau­ti­ful mas­ter­piece of Art Nou­veau— the Villa—which was closed and aban­doned. So don’t you think it’s funny, or in­ter­est­ing, or eso­teric, or philo­soph­i­cal? Think about the story: you had a guy, who de­cided to spend all his life in cham­pagne, who made a spe­cial bot­tle in­spired by Art Nou­veau, that no­body else was do­ing. Then he made money with that, ac­quired Pom­mery, and in the Do­maine Pom­mery there just hap­pens to be a mas­ter­piece of Art Nou­veau? Is that not a destiny point?”

Though the Villa De­moi­selle is now used for re­cep­tions and tours, Vranken is adamant that its spirit is wholly tied to hers. “She is 1,200 square me­tres, prob­a­bly one of the big­gest pro­duc­tions of Art Nou­veau,” Vranken at­tests. “Even if it’s used for re­cep­tions and tours, it is still my house. I have made it, I ren­o­vated it, I did every­thing, even if I don’t live in it. I will never com­mit to that kind of work again: it took five years of my life. I was there every day.” The ren­o­va­tion bud­get re­mains undis­closed, but it re­quired sundry crafts­men, dec­o­ra­tors, plum­bers, roofers, pain­ters, car­pen­ters and glass work­ers. The Vrankens waited pa­tiently for the ex­act right mar­ble stone for the fire­place, had miss­ing pieces of wood sculpted one by one, and had the mo­saic floor re­stored tile by tile. They scoured auc­tion houses and an­tique stores to se­cure gems, in­clud­ing Paul-alexan­dre Du­mas’s mon­u­men­tal fire­place and a set of Ser­rurier-bovy chairs at auc­tion in Brus­sels.

“They share a cer­tain idea of el­e­gance,” Vranken hums, pon­der­ing the in­ter­sec­tion of cham­pagne and art. “That’s the best word for it. Art is not just the visual: it’s also the smell, the song, it can also be the taste, as we now have chefs pro­fess­ing to make ed­i­ble art. It’s to­tally open to all five senses.” Vranken shuns the trap­pings of art’s ab­so­lutism, “I am to­tally eclec­tic,” she defends. Art Nou­veau does how­ever di­rect the con­ver­sa­tion: “I adore Bel­gian Art Nou­veau, and the work of Hec­tor Guimard and Louis Ma­jorelle in France. It de­pends on my mood and time of day,” she sighs, be­fore ad­mit­ting, “tshe only thing that is con­stant is how I feel for my hus­band.”

Vranken avidly crosses the thresh­old from spec­ta­tor to par­tic­i­pant, which she does in a for­mal ca­pac­ity. Cham­pagne Pom­mery has been spon­sor­ing the Frieze Art Fair in Lon­don for seven years. In Oc­to­ber 2015, Vranken pre­sented The Stand Prize to the Stu­art/shave Gallery for its two-artist pre­sen­ta­tion of Mark Flood and Yngve Holen. “It’s im­por­tant to be with the artist, and it’s im­por­tant to be with the cu­ra­tor and open your mind to new things,” she says. Vranken quickly takes her phone out to present a pic­ture of the Flood and Holen booth, which she had seen in Lon­don a week ear­lier. Dis­played on the walls of the Stu­art/shave Gallery car­rels are Flood’s paint­ings: ab­stracted spreads of neon colour, fogged along their lines so that they ape the paint­ings of Mark Rothko. A se­ries of wash­ing ma­chines, in­stalled by Holen, line the cen­tre. Nes­tled on top of each one is a model air­plane and mag­ni­fied in­frared pho­to­graphs printed on silky sheets of per­spex. “Fab­u­lous, no?” she coaxes.

Vranken Pom­mery Monopole does not focus on an ag­gres­sive dig­i­tal scheme, re­ly­ing in­stead on the or­ganic re­la­tion­ships it forges through stag­ger­ing cul­tural part­ner­ships. One of the cham­pagne house’s ma­jor events is the Ex­péri­ence Pom­mery an­nual art fair that at­tracts over 100,000 peo­ple to Do­maine Pom­mery. “It’s a great op­por­tu­nity to find what’s next, be­cause I may get an idea for the new bot­tle, a new box, or for the next ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign,” she says. “What we’re do­ing is for the wine, too, be­cause, in a way, we con­sider our prod­ucts to be works of art. It’s an ex­change.” The base­ment vaults— the ‘caves’ of Do­maine Pom­mery— house over 20 mil­lion bot­tles of cham­pagne, which con­sort with the artists’ works in sur­feits of rev­er­ent light. The com­pany also part­ners with the French Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion to raise aware­ness of con­tem­po­rary art: 800 stu­dents from 30 schools dis­play their works in the caves. “I do a vernissage of their art, but with grape juice!” Vranken jokes.

Pablo Pi­casso once opined that every child is born an artist, but that too many un­clench those soar­ing dreams as they grow older. “No, I wanted to be a princess, not an artist,” Vranken ad­mits. “But to­day I know that life is work. A princess is de­sir­able; be­lieve me, but I am too old now.” Cre­ativ­ity might be a child’s first refuge from ado­les­cent storms, but the work, Vranken demon­strates, re­mains a game of strat­egy well into adult­hood. “The great func­tion of cre­ativ­ity is mak­ing life ap­pear. With­out it there is no com­pany, there is no way you can even live to­gether. And you need to lis­ten. If you don’t lis­ten to the peo­ple around you, you can’t be suc­cess­ful.”

It’s no sur­prise, then, that she re­lays the ad­vice of Madame Chirac, for­mer First Lady of France, with such es­teem: “She told me that you must al­ways be rig­or­ous, in life and in work.” Vranken breathes quiet, al­most in­cor­rupt­ible in­ten­sity: her aura seems to smoul­der and sim­mer at once. “But do you know what rep­re­sents me the most?” She quizzes. “It’s not the cham­pagne at all. It’s ac­tu­ally the bub­ble— be­cause I’m sparkling!”

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