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Sunday June 3, 2012

Seeing the value in wine

JÉRÔME Legras was eight years old when his parents, François Legras and Brigitte Haas, decided to start a new Champagne house in 1991. The family house and big garden in Chouilly, north-eastern France, was to be turned into a winery, and he recalls that it was a busy and exciting time.

“Being eight of course meant that I wasn’t that involved, but I was a witness. I had no clue about what it meant in terms of change of lifestyle. Everything was built from scratch and everything happened so fast. Within six months, we had to buy presses, set up the vat room and find the first customers,” says Legras, 29.

His two older brothers, Rémi and Olivier, were involved in the business right from the start, but he only joined them in 2006.

Legras relates that his father was adamant from the beginning that it would be a classic Champagne house offering high-quality Champagne of all ranges.

“He wanted a full-fledged Champagne house that’s good at everything, so that’s what we have been trying to do since then. It’s quite a big challenge.

“Being a family-run house, we are of course more quality-driven than revenue-driven, because we have no shareholders to please but ourselves.

But we have a strategic plan for the years to come, we invest in R&D, and we work on making our products better all the time,” he says.

Legras & Haas started with just one cuvée, a blanc de blancs Grand Cru, and the first bottling in 1992 yielded a modest production of less than 10,000 bottles.

“Our dad still jokes about the fact that it almost killed us from the start. The growth of the house was slow and steady, and mostly driven by word of mouth,” Legras says.

Today, the house produces a range of six kinds of Champagnes with an annual production of 150,000 bottles. In line with its fervent belief that winemaking starts in the vineyard, and a winemaker should also be a grape grower, the house currently has 35ha of vineyards to its name.

After finishing his studies, Legras went on to work in Germany and then in Britain. In London, he worked in the web advertising industry and says that he very much enjoyed his job and the lifestyle there.

“I like travelling and I like languages. I think I’m from a generation that values things like travel and working very far from home. We had an education that valued leaving things behind rather than staying, exploring instead of grooming,” he says.

But a visit to a wine trade fair in London (Legras & Haas had a stand there) was the turning point for Legras, and it was one that changed his career path.

After hanging around the fair for a day, meeting people in the industry and soaking up the atmosphere, Legras found himself thinking of heading back home.

“When I told my family that I was thinking of coming back, they said that there’s a lot to do and two more hands would be most welcomed,” he says.

Legras did not stay very long in London after that. He was away from home for around two years, and it didn’t take him long to realise that this was what he wanted to do.

He returned home in the summer of 2006, and this year marks the sixth year he has been involved with the family business.

“Somehow, being home and involved in the family business turned out to be much more exciting. I found that the place where I’m the happiest in the world, oddly, is the place where I was born,” he says, adding that the reasons he came back to the family business are the same ones that keep him in it today.

“The people in the wine industry are open-minded, serious, yet they have this laid-back attitude about them. It’s a world full of very hard-working, well-educated specialists. I have the feeling that these values are so anchored in the wine world that they’re not about to go.”

It’s the same sort of devotion and dedication that he sees in his parents. Although his parents are now officially retired from the family business, Legras says that it is not really the case in practice.

“My parents are officially retired, but that means absolutely nothing to them in their way of life! Of course, dad plays a bit more golf today than he did yesterday, and they have slightly more free time than before. But as far as the company is concerned, they are still involved. The truth is, I still have a lot to learn and it’s very good to have them around. I have somebody to rely on, and who probably knows the job much better than I do. We are at a point where we are doing research for Champagnes that we will release in a few years, and having people with experience helping out with that, well, that’s fantastic peace of mind.”

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