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Taittinger Heirs and French Bank Buy Back Champagne House

Crédit Agricole, allied with family members, will buy Taittinger and Domaine Carneros for $850 million

Mitch Frank
Posted: June 1, 2006

Family members had been hoping to buy back the winery since selling Groupe Taittinger SA to Starwood last summer.
Members of the Taittinger family once again control one of Champagne's oldest and most prestigious houses. French bank Crédit Agricole du Nord Est, aligned with several of the Taittinger family heirs, signed an agreement on May 31 to buy Taittinger Champagne from Starwood Capital Group, the American private-equity fund that purchased the Taittinger hotel and luxury goods empire last July. The final price tag is almost $850 million.

"The quality and number of offers Starwood received is a tribute to the outstanding work accomplished through generations by the Taittinger family," said Starwood CEO Barry Sternlicht, in a statement.

Now the family will continue to play a leading role at the famed producer. The third-oldest Champagne house, Taittinger produces a total of more than 400,000 cases annually of several different cuvées, including the prestige Comtes de Champagne. The house owns more than 650 acres of vineyards--a valuable asset in a region where producers buy most of their grapes from more than 20,000 small growers.

The company also owns Bouvet-Ladubay in the Loire Valley and a majority share of Domaine Carneros, a respected sparkling wine producer in California. Though Domaine Carneros was part of the sale agreement, for now Starwood is retaining an option to keep Bouvet-Ladubay, a sparkling wine producer based in Saumur.

Faced with mounting taxes, the 38 Taittinger heirs sold Groupe Taittinger SA to Starwood last summer, but several members expressed hopes of buying the Champagne division back. Groupe Taittinger's biggest assets are its hotels division and luxury brands such as Baccarat crystal. Sternlicht, who made his fortune in hotels, always made it clear he would soon resell the Champagne brand. That led to a vocal debate in France over whether Taittinger Champagne would end up in foreign hands. In recent years, French politics has been filled with fears of globalization and talk of "economic patriotism."

Starwood began taking bids for the Champagne house in March and by mid-April had narrowed the list down to a half-dozen suitors, all of whom had offered roughly $650 million. Things got ugly on Monday when one bidder, India's United Breweries, the world's third-largest spirits company, dropped out of the bidding, claiming that Starwood had asked it to increase its bid to match a French bid for more than the house was worth. A United Breweries spokeswoman also complained about remarks that Champagne trade officials had made about India's failure to respect appellation names like Champagne.

Starwood's announcement did not say whether Crédit Agricole's bid was highest, but that it chose the bid based on the price, the simplest contract terms, and the quick speed at which the buyer could complete the deal. Starwood hopes to close the deal by August, allowing the new owners to be in place by harvest.

Crédit Agricole du Nord Est was certainly the hometown favorite in Champagne. The regional division of France's largest bank, it provides more than 70 percent of the money that Champenois grapegrowers borrow annually, as well as half the loans taken out by Champagne houses to finance grape purchases. Earlier this year, the bank formed an alliance with several Taittinger heirs, including Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, the brand's deputy managing director. Pierre-Emmanuel played a leading role in negotiations, though his future role in the company and the extent of the family's involvement is unclear.

According to several news reports, another group of heirs, including CEO Claude Taittinger, formed an alliance with former Taittinger investor Albert Frère, who co-owns Château Cheval-Blanc in Bordeaux. But the Belgian billionaire dropped out of the bidding in April. There is no word yet on whether Claude will continue as CEO, a job he has held for 45 years.

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