Growing A Champagne House with Clémence Lelarge-Pugeot

Growing A Champagne House with Clémence Lelarge-Pugeot

Clémence Lelarge-Pugeot is the marketing and export manager for her family’s grower Champagne house, Champagne Lelarge-Pugeot.

In this episode, Clémence and I dig into her and her family’s story, how she is working to grow the company while living in Petaluma, California, one particular popular wine that they make called Les Meuniers de Clémence, and her dream of helping more grower producers in Champagne to grow their businesses by exporting to the US & Canada, which is much more difficult than you may think.

In this episode we mention... 
Champagne Lelarge-Pugeot 
Vrigny, Champagne 
Forty Hall Vineyards 
London Cru 
The Shuckery Parlor 
Hotel Petaluma 
Les Meuniers de Clémence 
Chateau Tour Grise, Gourdon Family, Sparkling Chenin Blanc

Full transcript of the episode below




Clèmence: My name is Clèmence. Most people call me Clem, because they have a hard time saying my name in english. I grew up in Northern Champagne in the very small town called Vrigny, which is actually a Premier Cru village. There's about 200 people living there's everybody know each other. I was there until 18 and then I moved to the north of France for college by Belgium then I finished my Masters Degree in New York, Master in Business and Marketing. And I guess this is where everything kind of started with my involvement at the family domaine because from talking to one person to another, I started selling wine and then we started exporting wine in the States. Because I was in New York and I was talking to some people and was going to wine shops and then there's one person to another like connection of people like, “Do you know this importer? Maybe they'd be interested in trying your wines.” And so this is where we started exporting actually so the States was our first market. For me, just finishing my, doing a student-exchange in New York. So now, I live in Sonoma County terroir. It was quite a journey like 8000 miles away from the winery but I do go back and forth often which is I’m lucky to get to travel to two amazing places very often.

Chappy: That’s really cool. So what did you study at University for I guess your Bachelor’s degree in Northern France?

CLP: My Major was first in Finance and then I switched to Marketing. At first I thought I wanted to work in Finance so nothing really wine even from doing all my summerjobs for either the winery or I used to work for a wine broker, not selling wine. I was buying grapes from growers and selling them. My Master’s degree is in Business with a Major in Marketing but I also chose this degree for traveling because I had a chance to do a student-exchange in Liverpool for about a month and a lot of internship outside of Europe and the student-exchange in New York. This kind of thing actually defined my life because this is where everything started.

CC: It set you up for this journey.

CLP: Yeah, exactly.

CC: Could you tell us the history of how your family first started making wine? And we’ll talk about how you kind of grew up in it.

CLP: Okay. So, my family has been in this same town in Vrigny since 1790. Maybe further than this but we would have to go to the archives in Paris to find out more about where we were before. So they were just growers until the 1930s when my great grandpa invested in a pressing machine and then started making the wine. During World War I, the Germans came to Champagne, especially in the northern part and everything was destroyed. The vineyards were burned and people had to leave so my family left for a couple of years in the south of Champagne. My great grandma used to say that this is actually where she learned how to work because people were working really, really hard there. And when they came back, my great grandpa had one hectare left so he was actually pretty lucky.

CC: Yeah, that’s impressive.

CLP: And from one thing to another, he was able to save up some money and decided to invest in a press machine and kind of started a cooperative for the other growers and then just decided to bottle his own wine. So this is where the grower producer story started in my family. And then my grandpa took over and my dad took over in the 80s with my mom. My mom was not from Champagne . She’s from Burgundy and not from wine at all. So my parents are still working full time at the winery and then it’s me and my brother who came onboard two years ago. So now we’re working the four of us together and he has two employees at the vineyard .

CC: Very cool. So it’s a family affair?

CLP: We farm eight hectares. Everything's organic and seems two years ago we started bottling all of our wines. Because we used to sell some of our grapes and now, in the last two years, we've been bottling all our wines. Now we make 60000 bottles.

CC: Is that for a grower-producer in Champagne, is that relatively small or is that kind of medium sized?

CLP: I would say that its medium plus sized because the average of grower-producers is probably two hectares. So we’re actually on the bigger side of grower-producer. We used to only make 20000 bottles until five years ago this is when we started exporting. We starte producing our fruit orchards and making more wine. And the biggest we can go up to is 60000 bottles.

CC: That’s cool. Nice. I think I read somewhere that most of your vineyards are Pinot Meunière?

CLP: Yeah exactly. So 8 hectares or 8.5 hectares of Pinot Meunière. It used to be way more, pretty much all Pinot Meunière and then my parents replanted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the late 80s. So our oldest vines are the Meunière vines. The oldest we have, they're from 1934. They planted Meunière in Vrigny because the vineyards are northeast and southeast exposed and it used to be way colder back in the day compared to how it is now. And Meunière is a better resisting grape than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir so this is why they planted Pinot Meunière over there.

CC: Yeah I was curious why that was.

CLP: There were so many blossoms of Meunière than Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It technically does not need too much sun compared to the two other grapes. Meunière was just so thriving there compared to the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

CC: Okay. So, growing up were you very much like a part of working in the vineyards and helping your parents and all that? Or did you just like some kids, they grow up with a wine making family and they don't really care, they just do whatever it is.

CLP: I think, so we always had, if we wanted something in my family, we work for it. I think really being like, really loving wine, we also had to work in the vineyard to get whatever we wanted. So, all of our summer jobs were in the vineyard and we always worked harvest. Actually, my first year of college, I missed the first two weeks because I was working harvest. Not because my parents forced me to, I wanted to. But when we were younger, maybe when we were 12 or 13 years old, we used to work during harvest for summer. I always enjoyed it. When I think I was 12 or 13 years old, somebody at school older than me, he was like, “You don't realize how lucky you are because your parents can do something with the dirt.” That's something that people with each other do I thought that was a really cool concept. I think it was when I realized how lucky I was.

CC: Do you think that was the moment where you realized, “Wow! I want to do something with wine.”

CLP: I don’t think so. I think I realized how lucky I was that that what my family is doing and I always want to be involved with that but I think I realized that I wanted to do something with wine was throughout the years of different experiences with different wineries, different steps in winemaking or selling also. I just realized that wine is a pretty cool industry be working in because you're like talking about something that's life pleasure, that tells you a story, the origin the tradition, the family because most wines are made by family.

CC: So how did you get from New York to Panalpina?

CLP: So the year in New York was the last year of my Masters and I could either go back to France and look for a job in France or do one more internship and I knew at that point that I wanted to work in wine. And since I studied Marketing, I was like, “Why don’t I just go to California and go work for a winery there and see what as going to happen?” So I started looking for jobs and I found one and hopped myself on a plane to Sonoma County even though I knew nobody there. I really fell in love with Sonoma County. It's a beautiful area. So I worked for a couple of wineries and I worked at a burry there and I ended up staying here.

CC: While you were working those internships, working on the wineries and burries, were you still kind of introducing your family champagne? I’m curious about growing up in the US and working at small wineries, do you hear about the TTB laws and regulation and all that stuff? What was that process like of initially importing your champagne in the US?

CLP: It was definitely a learning process because it’s kind of complicated and from like a country where there is no rules for alcohol, being here is kind of funny. Because when I worked, there were some weird rules when I worked for the burry. Two years before I worked there, burries were allowed to having people coming tasting but people couldn't walk from the burry without the beers that they purchased. People had to go to a store to buy it. Now I think they just changed this rule maybe four or five years ago. The important process was just like you just have too register for FDA, you have to submit all of your labels.  We’re lucky that most of the importers we work with know the process and we just have to help. They walked us through it but it’s a complicated process. I was talking about with a friend and our parents make champagne and we would like to sell our wines out there in the States. I was like looking for people to help them and I guess I kind of forgot how most of the process you have to do first importing to the States. We were talking and I have to do this and that like register for FDA, make sure that you submit all your back labels and front labels, and you have to remake back labels. Theres’s a lo of stuff to do.

CC: I have a friend that, he started a brewery in North Carolina two years ago, maybe a year and a half ago and they were waiting for one of their licenses for like six months or something. It was like the last thing they needed and it took six months to get. So they went back and forth with the lady in the office because supposedly, I forgot which license it is in particular, but supposedly for the entire State of North Carolina, there's only one lady that processes all of these licenses. And North Carolina has a ton of burries and wineries and distilleries now so he was like back and forth every single day for three weeks straight and they had their brew tanks ready to go. They’re like boiling water for three weeks and all that stuff because as soon as they got the license, they want to start brewing. And it was just like absolutely insane just to get somebody's signature on a piece of paper.

CLP: That’s funny. It's the same. It's either hit or miss in the States. Some stuff are super easy to do, takes you one day, two days for the business but then like applying for a license will take you like six months to a year.

CC: Yeah, it’s crazy.

CLP:  I think it’s good representation of how the United States is.

CC: Yes, very true. Very true especially compared to Europe.

CLP: In Europe everything just takes forever to do.

CC: Yes it does. So I moved over here in England in August of last year and it took me six months to get a bank account. I had dual citizenship too so I’m a full citizen and it still took me six months. It was ridiculous. That’s bureaucracy in government and banks for you.

CLP: It doesn't surprise me.

CC: You mentioned before about the vineyards being organic. Have they always been organic since your grandfather, great grandfather started planting?

CLP: No. I think there was a big transition between my great grandpa and my grandfather. My grandfather was in the generation that they told you that pesticides are going to change your life. It’s going to make your life much easier and they kept like pushing them to farmers so this is when the big transition happened. And now my dad says the way he works now remind him of how he worked with this grandpa. It started in 1990s that he stopped using herbicides and started growing grass between the vines. He noticed that growing grass between the vines was really helping with betritis of Pinot Meunière because Pinot Meunière is sensitive to betritis. And then thoughout the years, he started reducing the amount of pesticides that he was using until one day, "I’m so close, I’m almost there.” So we had a huge stock with him, my brother, and my mom to see if how involved we were and how involved we will going to be in the winery because we’re not going to do all of the organic certification if you guys are not going to take over the winery one day. So, my brother at that time was just getting into wine making school and I was in my second year of school and I was already kind of working with them on the weekends and during vacation. Then we realized we all wanted to be part of it so we went forth in 2009 and it took a little longer for us. Usually it’s a three year process, for us it took five years. In 2007, we only put the Pinot Meunière for organic certification because they were the easiest vines to work with and also the easiest soils to work with. An then in 2012, we started the Pinot Noir. So anything that comes out of 2014 is 100% certified.

CC: That’s really cool. So how many wines are you making now?

CLP: How many different type of wines? We make a lot actually a week. We had 12 different wines.

CC: That’s kind a lot.

CLP: Yeah it is. So we have, out of these 12, three of them are Chardonnay so still wines from Champagne. There are 100% Meunière red, 100% Meunière white, 100% Chardonnay and 100% Pinot Noir. Actually we have four I just realized.

CC: That’s really cool. Has it been difficult getting into either shops or restaurants or what not with Champagne knowing that it had a sparkling wine competition in the US?

CLP: I think it might be harder in France than in the States to get into shops because I think the wine industry, the way it works is that it’s a tiny club and its often that you see the same producers on the list. And we started selling wine after the most famous growers-producers so we’re kind of behind them. So in some places its harder to get into but I don’t think there is, I think people that are buying Champagne, they'll never compare like Champagne to any other sparkling. So I was able to deliver wine by the glass. It's really hard to get into but I don’t think there is an actual competition between Champagne and other sparkling because it's such a different product in such a different market and also a diffferent price point.

CC: So actually I've been finding here in England because any English winery produces a sparkling new it’s Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunière made in the traditional method. And the wines are really good. All the ones that I've had. But I still find that and I guess it’s just because it’s such a new market that a lot of people will look in a bottle of Champagne next to an English sparkling and they'll be, “Why would I buy the English sparkling when I can buy Champagne.” It totally makes sense because some of them are in the same price point or not that different in price but this one says Champagne on it. So you know there’s a trust factor in that you know that this is really going to be good. And if you buy this English sparkling, you don’t know what you're getting. It's been interesting to see, to talk to people and hear their opinions on it.

CLP: I had an English sparkling a couple of months ago, 40 Hole. It’s made in London actually and they're certified organic.

CC: Is it from London Curb?

CLP: I think so.

CC: Yeah,  I was just there two weeks ago at the winery. All their stuff was really good that I had.

CLP: See, this is like a perfect example, its so different from Champagne. It has nothing to do with Champagne but it’s an exciting sparkling. It’s more useful and playful than Champagne.

CC: I think that's what a lot of people, they hear a sparkling and if you at just like how’s it made and the whole process is almost identical to Champagne but I feel that most of the English sparkling that I had, like you said, they are more useful and a little bit more playful, fruitier. They're just, they feel a little lighter than Champagne having that creaminess and more body to that.

CLP: It’s a new region. They have to figure out new things and who knows, in twenty years, if they still make the same style.

CC: Yeah, it'll be interesting to see what happens and there's quite a few wineries popping up. I went to one in Cornwall, I guess a couple of weeks ago and you would never think that they're making great wine there because it’s like in the middle of the country, in the middle of nowhere in Cornwall, not far from the ocean and it’s massive hillside and it’s really, really good. It’s been unusual to explore them but at the same time it’s really, really surprising and exciting.

CLP: Yeah.

CC: Anyways, back to mostly about you. As a brand ambassador for your family’s champagne company, what does a typical day look like, given that you're living in California?

CLP:It really depends. It goes from being on my laptop and my phone all day to touring with distributors or calling on restaurants, going to wine shows. At the end of May, I’m going to Montreal for a few days to start working with our new importer as soon as we met in New York last year. There’s two girls and there’ll all about natural wines and I’m all excited about working with them. Going back and forth between the winery here and working with the sellers, bottling, labeling, packing boxes, dropping off cases of wine. I really don’t have a typical day, I think. It really depends and lately, like in the last three weeks I started a new project. Now, I work two to three days a week in a wine bar here because I wanted to be involved in the local community in Sonoma County. So I started working at a wine bar and built a wine list of them with only organic and biodynamic producers, most of them are local because there’s this really important local vibe in California. So 70% of the wines are local and 30% are French. I want to bring out Georgia wines later but we started with California wines and French wines.

CC: The best.

CLP: Some people make really good wines in California.

CC: Yes they do. I was talking to, a couple of days ago, Alan Viader in Napa, and he’s mainly making Cab Franc but it’s Cab Franc Bordeaux styles varietals and it’s just really smooth and silky wines that he’s making and they're on hallow mountain. He said that some of the stuff coming from California, especially Napa and Sonoma, I mean other than the obvious ones, some of them even smaller producers are just making Bordeaux-like wines. So what's the wine bar called?

CLP: It's called The Shuckery Parlor. It's attached to a restaurant, a seafood place that was opened by a young lady about a little less than a year ago. The bar is inside a lobby, inside Hotel Peraluma. It's an extension of the restaurants.

CC: Yeah, I saw some pictures on your Instagram. Very cool.

CLP: That was one of my dreams, working in a wine bar and building your wine list because I just love promoting enough different wineries and trying to direct people to good wines. Good wines not only in taste but also good wines on how they were made.

CC: I feel that pretty much everyone I talked to through this podcast, it’s no matter what they do within the wine industry, the always say that that is their favorite part is sharing wines with people and just introducing people to new wines from all over the place and just seeing their reaction.

CLP: That gives us the best thing when you're like bringing a bottle of wine that you believe in, that you just love, and you bring it to a party or to a friend’s house and you just wait for them to like try and ask, “What do you think?”and you just see their eyes going bigger. They're like, “It’s amazing.” To me, it’s such an important thing in wine when you get people’s reaction in a good way.

CC: I think it’s best when you give somebody who maybe don’t like wine or they think that, “I only like Pinot Gris.” Or they are code drinker or beer drinker or whatever. You give them a glass of wine then they're super skeptical and then they take one sip and they're like, “Oh my God! This is so good.” It's just this like whole new world opens up for them.

CLP: And there's so many things that you learn about wine every single day.

CC: Yes. Yes. So let’s talk about your other projects, The Lumiere Clemence. Could you tell us the story behind that?

CLP: So Meunière was the ancestral grape of the family but it’s something that my parents got away from because many had a better reputation for a long time. It didn't have structure. It didn't have enough acids. So that's the reason why they planted more Pinot Noir and Chardonnay so it would be easier for them to sell their grapes and also easier to sell the wine. But Meunière is a really cool grape. If you look at a vineyard from far away like a vineyard that would have the three different grapes, you can see Meunière from far away because of the white texture the leaves have. It’s the reason why it’s called Meunière so people would used to say that the leaves look like that of a flower, white flower on the leaves. I think Meunière considered a bad grape had affected my family’s work. When things are left on the side, I just like bringing them back, like defending a bad person. And when we’re tasting the blends, they were always my favorite things. Doing the Meunière was always the pretty one. It had so much diversity. It has grown on sand and clay. Meunière doesn't have enough chalk. It’s mostly sand and clay. Clay will give you a more cold style of Meunière and sand will give you a more aromatic, a little bit more heavier style. Anyway, I’ve always been excited with Pinot Meunière and in 2010 which for us has really been a good year. That was also the first year into our organic certification and Pinot Meunière was one of the vineyards we first put into organic so we wanted to make a new wine. And so we made a 100% Pinot Meunière. It tasted amazing. They were so mineral and such high acid even now like, this wine is eight years old, seven years old, and it’s still like super vibrant. When you open a wine, it’s just like, it’s a really good wine. I think of giving myself some. I’m really proud.

CC: I would be too. How I heard about you and about that wine was from Deidre Heekin at La Gargarista at Vermont. She was on the podcast and we were just talking about different wines that she’s enjoying  and she was like, I met this girl. She has this Pinot Meunière from Champagne. It’s incredible. I love it. It’s one of my favorites. I was like, I have to learn about this. I have to figure this out. So I guess, if I were you, I’d totally be super stoked about it.

CLP: I was in New York and I was across the hall from her. Our tables were almost in front of each other. I’ve heard so many great things about her and I’ve tried her wines and she makes beautiful wines too. Her wines are incredible.

CC: I haven't had them yet but they're going to be at Real Wine Fair at London, next week or something. I think it’s this weekend or the weekend after but I’m going to put them there so I’m excited about that. So I’m curious, diverting the conversation a little bit, I’m curious if a young woman in the wine industry, particularly in the US and growing up in Champagne which is seen more as a male dominated industry, have you ever faced any inequality while working in the industry?

CLP: Not within the producers because every time I go to wine show, most of the time I do the wine shows by myself and I always end up like talking to other producers that are next to me at the wine store too and are mostly men and I’ve never felt that at all. The only time was in France and I went to drop a sample with my mother at at wine shop in Paris and the guy was really like demunition to us. To him, we were just women who did not know what we were talking about and I was offended. Most of the time I don’t get offended very easily but at that time, I was very angry. One time that I felt really offended, other times were I walked into wine shops by myself for some wine and sometimes, I mean I did this when I was 18 or 19 years old and people used to look at me like who is this young girl who is not even old enough to drink wine coming over a wine shop.

CC: That’s a good point so when you were first introducing and starting to bring the wine in New York. You weren't even legally able to drink in the US.

CLP: Yes in the States it was 21.

CC: Okay.

CLP: But in France, I was because the legal age is 18. But I was 18, 19 years old when I went to cobble shops in France.

CC: I feel that for a lot of people, that would really, really be intimidating.

CLP: It was at first. I just really pretended I wasn't scared. You just get used to it. Our first importer was from New Jersey and he took us to this wine shop and this man in his 50s. I did the tasting and we were talking about Champagne and he was geeky about Champagne and we started hitting it off and at the course he said, “You are not even old enough to drink wine.”

CC: That’s so funny. I feel that you're really at a good point in your career where you're just starting and it’s still new and there's so much more to go but at the same time, you’ve been just working in the wine industry your entire life. So what are your goals and dreams for your career?

CLP: So I definitely want putting my family out there especially by increasing the production because I think we’re getting there but there are still a lot of markets that we need to open. I just went to Australia last year so I’m hoping we can start selling wine in Australia. We’re going to start with Canada, in New Zealand so that's definitely on my goal. Then one of my dream was to, like I told you, to work in a wine bar and I just made it happen like about a month ago. So we are excited about this project. But my other dream was and goal for the next five years was to be able to help other growers to move towards organic farming. Maybe start a non-profit, helping them or like a few years ago, I started giving classes to other producers. I wa working with the Agricultural Farming Department and most of the people coming to these classes were people from Southern Champagne or other region, nobody local.

CC: Interesting.

CLP: So I would like to kind of push local people towards organic farming and maybe promote Meunière as an organic town but it will take a lot of work because we don’t really have a sense of community in Champagne.

CC: Why is that?

CLP: I honestly don’t know and I think it’s changing for the last couple years. And I think my generation is very different than my parents’ generation but there's still a lot of work to do today to be working together. For example, my parents never really had winemaker friends until they joined the Association of Organic Grower-Producers five years ago and now they're like, they feel so much better because they can make friends that are growers. And they think they have the same way of seeing things so they help out each other. That's something that they never had before eventhough they are at the same place for years.

CC: I get what you're saying because I've heard like in some parts of Burgundy, the people there that have been growing vines have been, their families have been doing it for hundreds of years and even if they make wine or they don’t, a lot of them they don’t consider themselves winemakers. They just think that what they're making is just a product. That it’s just like anything else that is on the market. It’s nothing special. What I found really, really interesting and a lot of them have friends and they've grown up in this community but it’s just a village that they're from and this is what they do and there isn't that community aspect. It’s missing. They really love what they do and they’re really proud of what they do but they don’t see it as anything special which I found really interesting because the rest of the world finds what they're doing fascinating.

CLP: I guess that’s the way with everything like you always want what other people have and when you have it you don’t really realize how lucky you are.

CC: It’s true.

CLP: Because I know in the south of France, it really depends on the region or the people because I have some friends in the south of France and they're saying they're really having a hard time with their neighbors because they're not organic. I think there’s this kind of jealousy or people that are not organic do not want you to succeed because then, it will prove that you're right in farming the right way.

CC: Interesting. I guess that’s a whole lot new conversation but interesting topic to explore. What have you been feeling grateful for lately?

CLP: I think because of what’s going on in the world, for growing up in a stable country and also being able to travel freely. And grateful for all the values that my family taught me and being surrounded by really great people. That’s something I’m definitely grateful for.

CC: Love that.

CLP: The most important question is where can people connect with you online and buy your wines?

CC: They can email us. That would be the easiest way to buy our wines. They can directly email me at or just there’s a contact form in our website and it can function where they are. I can direct them to a store or a restaurant. We work very closely with our importers so I know pretty well where our wines are sold. And in the UK, unfortunately, we don’t have any accounts yet.

CC: That’s alright. Champagne’s just over the channel. I have to get a flight.

CLP: People can always visit us. We love taking people in the vineyard to show them how we work and take them in the cellars and do tastings so, it’s also been something we’re working on.

CC; Yeah, cool. I have to do that for sure when I plan a trip. And I’ll link the website and email so in the description so people can go. And then, what’s one wine, other than the 12 yourself make, that you're super excited about lately.

CLP: So at the wine bar that I started working, Chenin Blanc Sparkling by the glass. So it’s still sparkling. It’s Montlouis by the Goudeux family in Saumur. This wine was aged in bottle for ten years. It had such a deep minerality but in the meantime some like honey notes from the Chenin Blanc aging… It’s a beautiful sparkling. And these people have been certified biodynamics since 1990. I actually realized a couple of weeks ago, that I was reading more about them that I met Philip Goudeux , the owner of this winery at a biodynamics seminar a few years ago that I went to with my dad. He was actually giving a seminar on how to help young generations taking over the vineyards because they are very aware that it’s hardwork. The money’s kind of hard in certain appellations. He’s been like working towards helping younger generations to farm the vineyard properly and not give up on farming.

CC: That’s really cool.

CLP: Yeah. So that’s definitely impressive. Just the fact that this wine has aged for ten years and bottled before they release it is so much because you don’t find this very often anymore.

CC: Especially when you think of Chenin, you think, most people think South Africa. And they think super light, young, maybe like a few months in the bottle, if that. And it’s really crisp and yeah, ten years in the bottle, that’s insane.

CLP: They're amazing.

CC: And I’ll link that so people can attempt to go find that or they can come by and see you