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A New Generation of Women Is Leading Some of Europe’s Most Storied Winemakers

The generational changing of the guard has never quite looked like this before.

Saskia de Rothschild Courtesy of Marlene Awaad

Every year, with each new bottling, wineries have a fresh opportunity to impress the world. But high-profile changeovers in the industry’s upper echelons may occur just once in a generation—which is why the wave of recent ascensions within major winemaking dynasties is so intriguing.

Some of the new guard, including Saskia Prüm, recently named owner and winemaker of Germany’s S.A. Prüm, and Anne Trimbach, now in charge of sales for famed Riesling house Maison Trimbach, have relevant old-school experience—vinification and marketing, respectively—but others bring entirely different backgrounds to their family businesses. Saskia de Rothschild (above), elevated to chairperson at Château Lafite Rothschild in 2018, began her professional career as a journalist writing for The New York Times, among other publications, while Champagne Taittinger’s new president, Vitalie Taittinger, previously worked as a designer and illustrator. Still, the wine world is happily (and profitably) hidebound; when it comes to change, the preferred pace is more evolutionary than revolutionary. The major exception now is sustainability, with a shared focus among new leadership on lowering the industry’s carbon footprint through sustainable and organic farming and other measures.

“Sustainability will be at the forefront of what this generation does,” says Erin Kirschenmann, managing editor of Wine Business Monthly, “whether in the vineyard or cellar or on the bottom line.”

Maison Trimbach vineyard

Inside the Maison Trimbach vineyard.  Courtesy of Marlene Awaad

Prüm, 40, the first woman in charge of S.A. Prüm in its 800-year history, is spurning insecticides and reducing waste by using lightweight bottles. “We don’t want to damage nature with expensive garbage which has no effect on the quality of the wine,” she says. Anne Trimbach, 35, represents the 13th generation to guide the winery founded by her ancestors in Alsace, France, in 1626; all of her vineyards are in the process of becoming certified organic, and she is pushing the outside growers she works with to become similarly accredited. Trimbach says her vision of the future is “more and more towards equality, respect for the environment and the people who work with us.”

Taittinger, 40, whose family has been in the wine business since the 18th century, has a similar view. “Because we are a family company, everything is focused on building for future generations,” she says. That includes spotting new opportunities in unexpected places: Champagne Taittinger is now growing grapes in the cooler climes of Kent, England, as part of its Domaine Evremond project, to be used in a sparkling wine set to debut in 2024. Bob DeRoose, president and CEO of Kobrand, Taittinger’s US importer, believes Vitalie is “growing the Taittinger brand with a distinct and very strategic eye to the future,” and as extreme weather events such as hail, drought and severe heat threaten entire crops in some regions of France, that future may increasingly require finding suitable land further afield than the ancestral stronghold.

That also means contending with rapidly fluctuating economies. The United States and United Kingdom are two of the largest markets for European luxury wines but have been buffeted by proposed tariff increases on wine imports and Brexit, respectively. Expanding your global footprint is one hedge against regional uncertainty—Barons de Rothschild Lafite began investing in China more than two decades ago, and all the major players have followed suit—but the risk for US consumers is that, as allocations shift to other countries, prices may rise on coveted wines, especially on the secondary and auction markets.

Vitalie and Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger

Vitalie and Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger.  Courtesy of Luc Valigny

But Rothschild, 33, says modern technology can help mitigate some of the aftereffects of globalization. “With the internet, there is a transparency on prices, [fewer] boundaries between different markets, and we have a way to address final consumers,” she says. “This makes us more aware of who is buying our wines, [so we can] build tailored plans with the Bordeaux merchants, depending on each market.”

And while technology will play an increasing role in winemaking—Rothschild says her company has experimented with drones to map field conditions and robots to do the weeding, and now employs near-field communication tracking on its newly released Chinese wine, Long Dai, as an anti-counterfeit measure—the new generation seems drawn, collectively, back to the land.

“My father’s era was one of scientific progress, where it was an extraordinary feat to be able to protect our vines with pesticides,” says Rothschild. “My era is completely different. We observe a lot, to understand the natural habitat and balance of our wines, and intervene as little as possible.”

Such stewardship is unsurprising, perhaps, given each woman’s lineal role in preserving businesses—and sometimes vineyards—that go back centuries. As Taittinger says, “When you know that your children will inherit what you have built, you want to preserve everything at its best.”

Saskia Prüm Taittinger vineyards

Saskia Prüm, left, and Taittinger vineyards, right.  Courtesy of S.A. Prüm/Taittinger Vineyards

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