Meet The Next Gen. Champagne Entrepreneur Breaking Barriers With Her Vegan Brand Of Bubbly

We all love a good glass of bubbly to celebrate special occasions. With more awareness about sustainability and where the products we consume come from, there are many brands that are conscious about how they create their champagne and sparkling wine. For us, not only do we love the emphasis on sustainability, it’s always a bonus when we find a brand that is woman-owned and is breaking barriers!

Enter Rendez-Vous Champagne – a natural & vegan champagne brand co-founded by Fiona Perrin. Rendez-vous is the exclusive Cuvée of Champagne Diane Salem, a new brand of natural grower champagne, co-founded by entrepreneur Fiona Perrin and Jean-Michel Salem. The duo broke barriers and defied the odds by daring to create their own Champagne brand from scratch.

Less than 1% of all 16,000 Champagne grape growers are certified organic, and Rendez-Vous champagnes are part of that 1%. Why does it matter? Organic viticulture is relatively rare in Champagne but the movement is certainly gaining traction. She also eliminated the use of sulfur in the production of her cuvées. The reason for this is simple – the belief that organic champagne not only tastes better, but is better for you and for the environment given it is sustainably farmed.

In the world of the “Maisons de Champagne” (Champagne Houses), the Ex Nihilo creations of new entrants can be counted on one hand. The reason has everything to do with the colossal capital running a successful champagne house demands. Yet the story of Fiona Perrin shows us that the adventure is still possible … even in the midst of a global pandemic! As a woman entrepreneur, Perrin has succeeded in making her dream come true despite being an outsider (she is not a Champenoise) and a woman in a predominantly male dominated Champagne industry.

Fiona is part of new generation of women in Champagne who have taken a chance, shaken off-stereotypes, fought adversity and broken the glass ceiling paving their own ways. A native of Lyon France, Fiona moved to Montreal, Canada in 2004 where she began her career in the wine industry. In July 2018, she became VP of America for Champagne Jeeper, the co-owned Champagne House of Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux, building the brand and its distribution across the US, which allowed her to embrace the beautiful world of Champagne. After spending 10 years in the wine business, at the onset of the Covid 19 outbreak, Fiona decided it was time for a new adventure and launched Rendez-Vous Champagne.

We had the chance to speak with Fiona about breaking glass ceilings, why it’s important to think about sustainability when breaking out the bubbly, why the champagne world is traditionally exclusive and hard to break into, and what she is raising her glass in a toast to today.

Where did you career in the wine industry begin? 

After I graduated in marketing & Management from Business school I had in mind to work for some Champagne house, as I was fascinated by this product and the magic around it, but I didn’t know anything about wine! So I decided to take a sommelier certificate to know all the basics, get the knowledge and the professional tasting techniques. I remember heading into my first class, a glass of wine in my hand, swirling. I was totally transported and had a sort of revelation that it was my path! I truly discovered my passion and followed it from there.

After a start in luxury hospitality and in the high end tea business with my parents, I kicked off my career in wine as a sales & sommelier intern in a Château in the South France, where I would handle wine tastings and wine tours of the vineyards for large international groups. My dream was to come and work in New York. For almost a year I looked for that special opportunity, and one day it came. In 2011 I got hired by the renowned 1st Bordeaux Classified growth to be their Brand Ambassador for North America. At the age of 22 I arrived by myself in the New York jungle to work in a whole new country.

As a native of Lyon, France, how did you first fall in love with champagne and decide to become an entrepreneur?

I had the chance to grow in France’s gastronomical capital. I was raised with a culinary and wine culture through my grandparents, mainly. I eventually learned few years later that I was the great grand daughter of one of the first Michelin star Chef of Paris. My grand father had spent a lot of time in the vineyards of the Côte de Nuit in Burgundy so I would listen to his stories too. At 17, I experienced my first gastronomic diner for my birthday I realized that I had a true passion and sensitivity for taste and smell but had no idea I would work in this industry.

I first discovered bubbles through sparkling wines in France. I remember when I had first tasted this I was really young, I would have just took a tiny sip and it totally blew my mind as to why there were bubbles in there and how different it was from other beverages. There has always been a kind of fascination because of the marketing and trends around Champagne. 

After Spending 8 years in the wine business for renowned brands and vineyards of the world, something else started to come to my mind and how I could bring a new idea and concept to the market. It was not just about having a traditional importing company it had to be something else and exciting. I wanted to change perceptions and mentalities in this century old industry and break the codes of what was usually seen.

As with other industries, newcomers are always going to break the rules created by big brands and shake up what has always been done. That’s what we wanted to do for Champagne, moving the lines, and offer customers a truly different, modern and more conscious experience from what they had always known from the big commercial brands. Except this is more difficult in the Champagne business because you need the knowledge and connections.

Luckily I met my partner at the perfect time. We both had this visionary idea of what we could do together and jumped right in! We wanted to bring an all natural Champagne brand to the market with an outsider point of view and started the adventure together in 2019.

For those who are unfamiliar with what it takes to be a champagne entrepreneur, it is a very exclusive club and has very strict requirements. Can you share more about the path to creating a brand of champagne? 

Champagne is a very closed and private circle when you are a not a true “champenois“! I even remember when looking for jobs I would always hear “you have experience in the wine but not in champagne.” Everything is done to preserve this exclusivity. I am not from the wine world originally, none of my family had vineyards or connections in this industry so I had to make all my network and connections from scratch by myself. It is tough to enter this world when you are a not from the region or don’t bring millions on the table. It is thanks to my work ethic and different positions that I started to create bonds with owners and winemakers, and my passion eventually helped me to get my “passport” to be part of it.

The Champagne region is the most strict of all wine regions of France and of the world. Everything is ruled from the date of harvest to volume, to production methods to name and mentions on the labels. It took us more than a year to create our own Champagne brand from scratch between all the sourcing, legal process, registrations and marketing design. We met with dozens of growers to taste and share our project. Many were extremely surprised, some reluctant about it and looked at us like if we were crazy. Others would ask us for huge volumes.

I met one young grower a few years earlier and was totally blown away by his Champagnes. In my head I had already told myself, “this is the new generation of Champagne!” I contacted him again but didn’t know if he would remember me. When we did finally meet up, I soon learned that we shared the same vision and philosophy about what we wanted to create though this venture, so it ended up being a great meeting. Creating a project like this with an organic grower who believes in nature first was exactly what we wanted to bring to consumers. 

When looking at a label on the bottle, what is the main difference between Brut, Extra Brut and Rose champagnes?

The difference between a Brut and Extra brut is all about Sugar Dosage. A Brut can have up to 12g of sugar per liter which is considered as high today. Higher dosage will usually be found on more commercial Champagne brands. I like to say that the healthier the vineyard the healthier the grapes, which means less sugar needs to be added to hide the grape’s defaults, but not always. Sometimes it’s just about the style of the champagnes.

For me lower sugar allows a better expression of the grape, that is why our Champagne Brut has a dosage of 7g/L. Extra Brut has a sugar level between 0 and 6g of sugar/L. We chose a dosage at 3g/L to keep a nice roundness to it. Rosé Champagnes is a style of Champagnes and refers to the “pink” color of the juice that can be obtained by two different processes. We chose the Rosé d’Assemblage which is a blend of red wine and white wine from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Meunier.

The village and Terroir of Chamery, Premier Cru, in the Montagne de Reims where part of the Rendez-Vouz grapes come from.

Your brand, Rendez-Vous, is organic and vegan. What does this mean, in comparison to other brands. 

Less than 1% of all 16 000 Champagne growers work in organic and even less work completely naturally without the use of chemicals and animal products from vine to bottles. We are part of that 1%! Why does it matter? The reason for this is simple: organic champagne not only tastes better, but is better for you and for the environment. Grapes are not tampered with by any chemical products to force a specific aromatic profile like in mass produced champagnes and sparkling wines. Natural winemaking is offering the consumer the luxury of tasting a pristine wine not altered by any chemical products with the least amount of manipulation as possible and respect to the soils. 

The wine industry is largely still very male-dominated. Did you experience any barriers along the way in your career? 

Women, especially young women, in wine sales or as a sommelier, presenting to a male assembly are still often considered as inferior, with less knowledge or experience than their male counterpart. I felt this many times through my carrier, where you can read the doubt on their face when entering the room or starting a presentation. I definitely had to prove my worth throughout the years. But at the same time my experience in a male dominated industry was also a success for me. I had the support of many men with high positions that helped me a lot to evolve, a few that I have called my mentors that helped me build my career.

How did the pandemic become a catalyst for you starting your own business? 

Before Covid, we already had the idea to connect in a brand new way with a new generation used to online buying and via social media. No other Champagne brand was connecting this way with their customers, we wanted to be the first champagne brand to be fully digital and exclusive to consumers!

I love this idea to be in direct contact with my customers, having a much more real and friendly approach. By direct message on social media, I made new connections, new customers that are now friends that I hope to meet soon when I come to the US. The relationship is much more transparent and trustworthy, which was the idea behind our brand. I love to be a pioneer in this way and offer a new way of democratizing natural champagne to everyone.

Image of the some buds from the Rendez-Vouz grower’s vineyards, April 2021.

Although it is male dominated, there are iconic female names associated with champagne – Veuve Clicquot, Madame Pommery, Lilly Bollinger, Jeanne Krug and Olry Roederer. How do you hope to continue the tradition of strong women paving new paths in a male-dominated industry? 

I pay tribute to all those women who inspired famous big houses and helped Champagne be the most celebratory drink in the world! Today, it is time for a new generation of women to take action in the world of Champagne. 70% of Champagne is bought by women but only 27% of wine estates in France are managed by women. They are growers, entrepreneurs, sommeliers, importers, influencers that help the Champagne region to shine in a different and more conscious way. I am proud to be part of them and to advocate for a new vision of Champagne more accessible, more respectful and more humble.

We like to say we are a 21st century Champagne Brand. We actually have put on the corner of our front label “Established in 2020”, because you never see this in Champagne!

Where can champagne lovers buy Rendez-Vous? 

For now exclusively online, on our website here you can find our three exclusive cuvées; Brut, Extra brut and Rosé and more to come soon!

We are the first digital native champagne brand in the US and we ship direct to consumer pretty much all over the US and deliver right to your door.

Champagne is a drink that is commonly associated with celebrations. What are you celebrating today about yourself and your business? 

After 2 years of business I am proudly celebrating my strength and passion to never give up and always trust the process, especially during the difficult times when I felt it could be over. I celebrate all our customers and the fantastic people who believed in our project and the new opportunities that come along the way. One of the big rewards is to have been selected to present our Champagnes to celebrities at the luxury DPA Pre-awards Gift Suites in Beverly Hills for the 2022 award season this year. Time to pop some Champagne in style and toast to everything that is coming next!

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