Bringing Relevance to Champagne: My Chat with Philippe André, Charles Heidsieck Ambassador
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
Below is part two of my series on amplifying Black voices in the French wine industry and in French culture. I'm constantly looking for new people to chat with, so if you know someone who would be a fit for the series, let me know! I'd love to continue to amplify Black voices as best as I can both now and in the future!
Anyone who knows Philippe knows how dynamic, hilarious, and kind he is. He was one of the first to send me a pronunciation request - for both his handle name (@niquesomm) and the Champagne House he represents in the U.S., Charles Heidsieck. We'd tag each other in stories, usually with a fair amount of tongue and cheek - he still can't believe that I'm not a fan of Champagne.
So, when I asked him whether or not he would be interested in interviewing with me for this blog, he replied with an enthusiastic YES - on one condition. That I would open up a bottle of Heidsieck while writing and compiling his thoughts... so, without further ado, here we go.
Katie: What was "the wine" that got you interested in working in wine?
Philippe André: Wow - so many, but I distinctly remember buying two bottles of Champagne from my family’s restaurant’s cellar Oceanique 505, to enjoy a summer night home from college. I couldn’t believe how very different they both were. The first bottle I opened was an NV Blanc de Blancs by the grower house Waris-Larmandier. I remember being extremely annoyed and disappointed at first and I struggled in finishing the first glass. So much so that I decided to put it aside and open the second bottle, 1995 vintage Brut by Laurent-Perrier. Right out of the gate I was so very happy. This was everything I was looking for, lush orchard fruit, baking spices, vanilla creme brûlée and puff pastry with a velvety texture - it was so good I finished it almost as quickly as it had been opened. I decided to go back to the first bottle and holy shit was I so glad I did! Now the BDB had time to open up and the precision, fruit and length were all there on display - simply gorgeous wines, the both of them. This experience puzzled me and was the spark that challenged me to learn everything I possibly could about the two wines and why they were so different. That summer, I spent every day thinking and learning about the incredible diversity and history of Champagne!
KM: How did your career progress from there? How did you end up at Charles Heidsieck?
PA: I spent 9 years on the floor focusing on hospitality and wine service. I then accepted a winemaking apprenticeship at a biodynamic vineyard in McMinnville, Oregon. After harvest I came back to Chicago to work in the auction and private client world at Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. Then I went on to represent the very large champagne group here in Chicago focusing on the top restaurants in one of the greatest food scenes. I then moved on to found my own consultancy @_grandcru_, which connects a national network of private clients with luxury brands. One day I got a call from a mentor and dear friend, who connected me with the EPI Group as they were looking to create a unique Ambassador roll to manage Charles Heidsieck here in the US. After a few months of discussions I had earned the opportunity!
KM: Why Champagne?
PA: Because it’s the best damn wine dollar for dollar you can drink for any occasion period! Curating wine pairings for multi-course meals, I quickly learned that there is the perfect Champagne for every dish, moment, guest, hour and my favorite pairing: an aged Cuban cigar! The value Champagne offers in your glass every time…the often decades of work it takes to create is simply unreal. If you asked a winemaker to go make 200+ individual wines every year for 10-20 years, then to create a blend balancing both aged and young wines only to then age again for five to nine more years in a bottle before getting to actually taste their work – [I’d bet] that winemaker [won’t] still be interested! They will most likely just say, “Hell no!” and move on. No other wine region of this scale meticulously does the work we do in making a $50-$70 bottle, no one! In my opinion, no wine or region is ever consistently perfect, but the obsessive attention to quality makes it so you can be extremely confident whenever you see Champagne on the label, and when you see Charles there next to it I’m rather confident it will be an experience you won’t forget.
KM: What I love about your ambassadorship is that your content makes Champagne accessible. When you started the role, was that the goal? How has it been working with the brand with regard to messaging and your creative direction?
PA: Yes, absolutely- thank you so much for noticing! I’m so very proud of that! My idea from the very beginning of my personal “brand development” way back before Instagram or what I knew a personal brand could even be to ask myself what can I do to inspire others to love wine the way I love wine and have fun along the way. I knew I wanted to genuinely be myself and to be proud of it. I did it on the floor as a sommelier in fine dining and I try to continue to do that every day by being honest about who I am and what I love - wine! Through my discussions and interviews with the EPI team I utilized my Instagram account as a digital résumé of who I am and most importantly how I would steward the brand. Because it was so genuine from the very beginning I was confident of the alignment of our two brands @niquesomm + @charlesheidsieckchampagne. I saw the situation as if was a race car driver looking at a next generation F1 prototype. I knew I had the opportunity to finally show what I could do on the track. When I joined Team Charles the sincere welcome, immediate support and confidence I had from the very beginning inspired me to keep pushing and to trust in myself for creative inspiration. Champagne is my first love but so many inspiring bottles and more importantly inspiring people have helped me to challenge myself professionally.
KM: Are you doing any upcoming exciting projects with Charles Heidsieck?
PA: I’m always trying to think outside the box in how bring our wines into the spotlight they rightfully deserve. From the very beginning when I moved to New York in November of 2018 I immediately met with sommeliers and wine collectors that I trusted would focus on the quality and dedication we show in the glass to build honest relationships. For years I envisioned a world where selling Champagne successfully didn’t require the stale pretense or tone deaf marketing that most large Champagne houses heavily rely on - and I did it. Thankfully, at Charles, I have the most important factor for this disruption and it’s quality. Looking into the near future I continue to carry the torch but right now my sommelier and hospitality fam are hurting. I am doing my best to support them through this difficult and emotional time and look forward to safely getting through this- we all will truly deserve a glass of Charles after this emotional rollercoaster of a year for sure!
KM: Have you experienced racism from the French or in times that you've visited France, and what was it like? How was it different from American racism?
PA: I have been very privileged to visit France as a teenager and as an adult for both vacation and business many times. I was lucky to not have experienced discrimination while there. However, I have experienced it in my career in the U.S. from both my fellow Americans and French natives. One experience was not unlike what the many of my BIPOC colleagues have recently shared. During a final round interview for a very prestigious role, it came down to me and a significantly less experienced white candidate. The HR team asked me to do a final video interview with the US brand director whom I would report to. This very senior French white male would go on to say that he would not allow someone that looked like me represent his “historic ultra luxury brand”- regardless of my qualifications. It was an extremely difficult and heartbreaking moment to accept. It still haunts me today.
KM: Your name is SUPER FRENCH, and so is your handle name! Do you have French in your heritage, and/or do you speak the language?
PA: Haha, yes! I have French heritage in my family by way of Haiti! I took five years of French in my younger years and hit a wall at the time. I ended up switching my focus to Japanese and Spanish but always wanted to spend time in France to become more proficient. My love for French wine, cuisine and culture has compelled me to get back into it over the last fifteen years. Now that I work with a French family I could use your help to brush up - are you willing to trade? Maybe we do one bubble for one word perhaps ;)
KM: Outside of Champagne, what's your favorite French wine, and what's your favorite French region to visit?
PA: Favorite French wine: Burgundy and more specifically the Grand Cru bottlings of Le Montrachet! They are fascinating to me. Crazy complex, luscious and decadent wines that become the moment no matter what you’re doing.. 20+ year old Monty is the truth y’all! I was fortunate to open a bottle of 1984 Joseph Drouhin Marquis de Leguiche Montrachet with my father at my wedding in New Orleans- a wine and night I’ll never forget. If I can’t swing Monty on the reg I‘ll settle for Corton Charlemagne.. good enough for the king is good enough for me!
Favorite French region to visit outside of Champagne is tough- I actually haven’t been to many. Burgundy, the Rhône, Bordeaux, Alsace and the Loire are all on my short list for sure.. I have been to Cognac three times on Business trips and I was always impressed visiting- it’s regal, historic and a bit sleepy. I’ve seen their passion and attention to quality firsthand- reminds me a lot of what we do in Champagne.
Widely distributed in the U.S., you can find Charles Heidsieck Champagne at a variety of local, regional, and national retailers, including wine.com and totalwine.com. Be sure to follow them and Philippe on Instagram!