The Legacy of Dom Pérignon’s Chef de Cave, Richard Geoffroy

From the masterful 2008 vintage to developing a worthy successor, Vincent Chaperon

Celebrating a new vintage of Dom Pérignon is always an event, and doing it at its spiritual home in the fields of the Hautvilliers Abbey in France’s Champagne region, all the more so. But this wasn’t a typical release. The adjectives and superlatives of the industry fly around faster than most can keep up with, but everyone is saying that the 2008 vintage will go down as one of the best. Ever. It’s also the result of a remarkable partnership between a mentor and an apprentice of more than a decade, who—along with a great team—crafted the wine. But the 100 or so people who gathered from all over the world represent more than a group of very lucky people who get to be among the first to try the highly regarded release, they were also present to witness and celebrate the end of an incredible chapter in the brand’s history and the start of the next one.

Richard Geoffroy has been the Chef de Cave (head winemaker) at Dom Pérignon since 1990. In his 28 years he has coaxed more vintages from these grapes than anyone could have expected or imagined. His passion for life, champagne and for the brand is legendary. He is a master of quotations and of moments (“I’ve never made a good decision in the afternoon,” he says) and an MD freed by the magic of fermentation. He’s said that his education in medicine doesn’t help where you’d expect, but rather in having “an appreciation for the living.” That appreciation has left its mark on the brand and on those who bring it to life every day, including Vincent Chaperon, his collaborator of 13 years and heir apparent for some time. As exciting as it is to celebrate Geoffroy’s legacy, it’s perhaps even more exciting to be witness to the next chapter in the brand’s storied life.

The handover ceremony took place in the church at the Hautvilliers Abbey where Dom Pérignon—himself a monk—created champagne, lived, worked and studied and was ultimately buried. There were three generations of Dom Pérignon Chefs de Cave present: Dominique Foulon (who led the house from 1975-1990), Geoffroy (who will hand over his role in early 2019) and Vincent Chaperon (who will assume the role).

We spoke with the mentor and mentee during a whirlwind 36 hours in Champagne and Paris, surrounded admiration, appreciation and friendship, and a seemingly never-ending flow of a pretty magical liquid.

The ceremony in the church, literally standing over the grave of Dom Pérignon, felt like a wedding. You were surrounded by your closest friends, favorite people and most important partners. People were laughing, eyes were full of tears, there was such emotion in the room and you could really feel the love.

Richard Geoffroy: Did it feel more like a marriage or a divorce? [laughs]

Perhaps both? There has been so much emotion today, in the field tasting your latest release, the 2008, and the ceremony.

RG: At the maison we discuss it a lot. We have to continue to bring a lot of humanity to Dom Pérignon. The rest we already have—the power of the brand, its heritage, its stature, the talent. What we need to do is to continue nurturing its humanity in the most sincere and unforced manner possible. There’s no trick. It’s just to be human. What struck me the most was that the pressure of the ceremony was in fact a reminder that we can just be people—that’s what is important. The ceremony in the church was a happening! We of course thought about what each of us would say, but we decided not to tell one another. So what came out was what we each felt. It wasn’t planned, written out, practiced—it was just how we felt, and that’s how it came across. Dominic Foulon, who is now around 80 years old, left the company 18 years ago and could be completely out of touch, but his knowledge of and passion for the brand haven’t lessened. It’s been cultivated. It’s the result of many, many things to get to that place. I had a moment of great joy—I didn’t feel the pressure. A friend asked if I was feeling emotional, but what I was feeling was joy.

He’s allowed me to continue to grow, and to not become an old asshole

What have you learned from Vincent?

RG: It’s very clear—his energy. Looking back today it’s very much the same energy I had when I came to Dom Pérignon in 1990. He’s given me a renewed energy. I’ve given him love, I’ve given him my energy, and he gives me that back. He’s allowed me to continue to grow, and to not become an old asshole [laughs]. It’s the truth. You are younger than me, but it’s important to recognize the risk of becoming an old asshole. That’s the worst! And the best way to do that is to learn from others. If you rest in your personal comfort zone, you’re dead. It’s the relationships you have in your inner circle that count the most. Vincent has considerable humanity, and to me that’s much more important than having technical skills. And that’s what the maison needs. We have incredible technicians. More than ever, with great and varied experience and expertise. But what we need is to be human, to not get cold or arrogant. We need to be warm, and that takes awareness and a lot of energy.

What’s next for you? We can’t imagine that you are going to move to a golf course in Florida.

RG: I’m retiring from my day-to-day responsibilities from Dom Pérignon but I will still work as long as I have the heart and intellect to continue doing so. My wish is to work until I take my last breath, in whatever way suits me as I get older. I am excited to share some of my other endeavors with Cool Hunting when the time is right, but today we are celebrating the launch of the 2008 and the future!

Vincent, you’re about to lead a team responsible for the future of a well established brand. How does that make you feel?

Vincent Chaperon: I’ve been part of the team for many years. It’s a long process of learning and sharing. You project, and imagine, that one day it may be your responsibility. When you accept to be a successor it’s a long process of transmission. It started when I arrived in Champagne, but more conscientiously I started seven or eight years ago. You start to project and ask yourself—one day, perhaps I will be in charge? And then you realize you’ve got a long way to go.

At first you are completely afraid, you never understand that it’s a very long process to become free and to understand that the end game is not to be the face of the brand, it’s to understand who you are and to be able to give something with all you have. If you are able to understand the brand, perfectly understand what it is, understand its heritage, understand where on the journey you and the brand are. To understand where the two can meet, what will be the point of encounter between you and the brand because it moves in two directions. You have to really grasp what the brand is and accompany it while you add what you can along the way. You have to understand that you are not here to just be the guardian, you have to accept putting in your energy, making it live, and align, because the brand and the team need you to go on breathing it, giving it energy and modernity, projecting it in the future.

It’s a very long process to become free and to understand that the end game is not to be the face of the brand, it’s to understand who you are and to be able to give something with all you have

There are many great winemakers, and it’s not hard to imagine there are many talented ones who could lead the winemaking at Dom Pérignon. But the role is more than that—technical capacity is a given, but it’s also not about you being the best winemaker—its about you being the best person to lead the brand into its next chapter.

VC: You are right. It’s not the technical skills. We have an amazing team with many very talented people who are more skilled than I am. It’s really the sensibility, the desire and the opportunity to both bring and give something in addition to that.

Can you describe the 2008 release in one sentence?

RG: The 2008 is like the 1996 on testosterone. It’s the best fucking wine I’ve ever made!

Image of Richard Geoffroy and Vincent Chaperon together and Geoffroy in the field courtesy of Pascal Montary, all other images by Evan Orensten