Joseph Henriot, the French wine executive who helped build Veuve Clicquot Champagne into a global icon and restored Burgundy négociant Bouchard Père et Fils' reputation and profitability, died suddenly Monday in Paris. He was 78.
"My father died standing up as he was in life—straight, sharp and with dignity," his son Thomas told Wine Spectator.
Henriot was charming and a gentleman, but behind his twinkling eyes was a shrewd, focused mind, always looking for opportunities. He knew how to operate in a boardroom full of egos and how to grow and market brands. But he also understood that the wine business required investment in quality vineyards, wineries and people. After leaving his role as an LVMH executive in 1994, Henriot built his family company into a top player, acquiring Bouchard, William Fèvre in Chablis and Villa Ponciago in Beaujolais. He also established an American import firm, Henriot Inc., and reenergized his family’s Champagne house.
Henriot was born in Reims in Champagne in 1936. He was a 21-year-old agronomy student when his father passed away in 1957 and he soon found himself in charge of Henriot Champagne. Despite a life as an executive, he would insist his true passions were for farming and for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “I knew nothing about business,” he told Wine Spectator in 2008. “But to learn, you have to jump into the deep end of the pool.”
He proved a natural, making several deals that took him from a small company to some of wine’s biggest. In 1976, he purchased control of Charles Heidsieck, which had fallen on bad times. He installed Henriot's capable cellar master Daniel Thibault in the caves and generated new publicity for the brand with a series of popular yacht races. After turning Heidsieck around, he received an offer to join the board of Louis Vuitton.
In 1985, Henriot sold Heidsieck and took a job as president of Veuve Clicquot during a surge of expansion at the brand. Louis Vuitton purchased Veuve in 1987, shortly after LV merged with Moët Hennessey, and Henriot found himself an executive in the world’s top luxury goods company. He played a major role in LVMH's acquisition of Cloudy Bay in New Zealand and Cape Mentelle in Western Australia, a sign that the Old World of wine had embraced the New World.
But as Bernard Arnault took the reins as LVMH’s new executive, Henriot decided it was time for him to depart, exiting in 1994. He kept the Henriot brand, but most of its assets remained with LVMH.
He found a second act in one of Burgundy’s most storied brands, Bouchard Père et Fils, which had begun selling wine in 1731 but had fallen on hard times. Quality had declined and an investigation found illegal chaptalization and acidification in 1987. Yet Henriot reportedly paid $50 million for the winery and its vineyards in 1995. “How could I turn it down?” he said in 2008. “How often does a Burgundy producer with 320 acres of land—including 30 acres of grand cru vineyards and 183 acres of premier cru vineyards—come up for sale?”
Henriot invested heavily, improving vineyard management and building a gleaming new winery. Quality improved and so did sales. In 1998, he bought Fèvre in nearby Chablis. In 2008, he bought Château Poncié, a 120-acre estate in the Beaujolais village of Fleurie, renaming it Villa Ponciago. Working with his sons, he also rebuilt the production and reputation of Henriot Champagne, leasing vineyards and launching a new marketing effort in the United States.
"He was a very smart man, very much involved and focused on top quality," said Pierre-Henry Gagey, president of Louis Jadot. "He came to Burgundy with a very clear idea of what he wanted to do and reached his goals. Bouchard Père et Fils and William Fèvre are without any doubt strong ambassadors of top quality Burgundy wines throughout the world."
Always energetic, Henriot showed few signs of slowing down through most of his seventies, working on new projects while gradually handing control of his company to Thomas. In his spare time, he was a passionate enthusiast and patron of classical music. Joseph is survived by his wife of 50 years, Dominique, three children and seven grandchildren.