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Terence Kenny-Doo Wop King of Champagne

in Interviews - Personalities

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Over flutes of champagne Terence and I swapped New York stories, sang accapella doo-wop to the amazement of nearby diners and discovered a shared passion for France and bubbles

 When did you first come to France?

I first came to France in the summer of 1977. I had won a fellowship to study Irish literature in Dublin the year before and after I worked a bit in London. At that time I spoke fluent Spanish and I wanted to hitchhike to Spain. I had always loved hitching rides. I had planned on visiting Paris then zooming down to Spain but a ride in Lyons took me to an old farm in the Ardèche where I met a French girl I stayed a couple of weeks. Then somewhat reluctantly I went to Spain. I made it to Valencia but hitched back North. I felt compelled to learn French and had just met a great teacher.

When and why did you come back to stay?

I went back to New York to finish university and by now the French girl had come to the states to visit me. Upon graduation I looked in the paper for jobs for Joyce scholars and there were none. Not even my poetry sessions with Seamus Heaney could help. I toyed with the idea of starting a rock band in New York but as I had some money and more importantly no debt so I decided I would move to France and live in a commune in the Ardèche and rebuild a 16th century farm house. That way I could really learn the language and the culture. So I bought a one-way ticket. Just before leaving I remember seeing Sid Vicious attempt at playing at Max’s Kansas City. When I arrived in Paris Jacques Brel had just died and his picture was everywhere in all the papers. Then a couple of weeks later Sid ‘s picture was everywhere. I thought wow they can’t like this guy here. Then someone told me he killed his girlfriend Nancy that’s why he was on all the front pages. I’m digressing….Well anyways as well as trying to fix up the old farm house I did the vendange in Tain L’Hermitage I worked for Gerard Chave and got my photo in the paper carrying a huge basket of grapes down the hills of L’Hermitage. He then gave me a job for a few weeks as a cellar rat. This would all come into play later on.

 How did a “Big Mick” like you get into the wine biz?

Well after a couple of years in the Ardèche the pickings were slim and as I didn’t have working papers (I was sort of a new wave migrant worker) so we decided to get around this by getting married. The government of Giscard had a minister called Christian Bonnet I believe. He wrote a circular saying all those without papers could not get married. I remember going to the US consulate about this and the officers laughed saying : “this doesn’t include Americans”. But it did. We upped and left for New York where we were married and started working in Manhattan. I parlayed vous-ed my French experience into a job as Adjoint Directeur for Sales and Promotion for the French Government Tourist Office. 6 months earlier I was a sans papiers in France now their government gives me my own office in Rockefeller Center.

After a couple of years as a fonctionaire in New York (which was great I had all the French vacation plus the Jewish Holidays) I was recruited as sales director of a tour company specializing in luxury barge cruises and hot air ballooning in France. This was right up my alley. My wife couldn’t take living in New York anymore (I guess it was because she didn’t have the French holidays) so I asked the owner of the company (Rex Carr at that time the most successful PI lawyer in the USA) If I could work half the year in France and the rest in the states. He apparently had this in mind because he sent me to France the next morning. I went on to create one of, if not the first, wine tours for American Tourists called The Bouquet of France. It was based on visiting only Michelin starred restaurants and vineyards. Talk about a great lifestyle. This got me into all the famous restaurants and cellars. I started to take wine tasting courses to keep up to speed. Plus I really loved wine. Still do.

This lasted a few seasons until terrorism and a weakened dollar became too much. Back around 1987 a small incendiary device was found in the Eiffel tower. Of course the US media made a big deal out of it and within two weeks all my clients cancelled. No more Paul Bocuse for a while. I then helped some friends open a wine bar in Lyons and was teaching at the business and law school. Not Joyce but legal English.  This was not my calling. I went to see an outplacement firm and they said I should work in the wine business. Funny but at that time I thought I had no real experience in the wine trade. They said I was too humble so I re did my CV and had many job offers. Bordeaux, Rhone, Burgundy and lastly Champagne. I was going to work for Albert Bichot in Beaune but decided to take the job in Champagne because I wanted to stay in luxury products. Bernard Bichot would call me the last Friday of the month for the first 3 months asking if I still wanted to stay in Champagne. A class act.

What is champagne?

Around the world champagne is a way of life; it is a lifestyle it defines panache and celebration. Here in champagne it is a wine and moreover an agricultural product. We drink it for absolutely any reason at any time. If you drink wine and live in a champagne village (one with vineyards) as I do you drink it constantly. This is the up side to the long grey winters. You have to know how to leave this behind when you go out in the world and sell champagne. The last thing you talk about is the wine or the agricultural aspect. People want the sexy story; they don’t want to hear about grape varieties and time on lees. Of course I have to be an expert in all these aspects for journalists or serious wine people. But most of the time you speak about everything else.

Describe the different types, eg blanc des noirs.

At Pannier we have a very talented wine maker named Philippe Dupuis. He’s not avuncular nor media prone but he blends great cuvees. As a chef de caves I’d say he is like a top studio musician. As we source grapes from all over the region we can offer different styles and blends of champagne. We do a Blanc de Noirs, which has no chardonnay, hence the name. It is big robust better with food as its antithesis we do the Blanc de blancs all chardonnay light airy lemony and fresh. We also make three different kinds of Rosés. Our top cuvee Egérie is sublime while our regular brut just over delivers all the time. Have you had it on Eurostar? C’mon you go first class don’t you?

Talk about the history of Champagne Pannier.

Pannier was started in 1899 in Dizy Next to Epernay. In 1937 the Pannier family purchased the amazing cellars, which were in effect the quarry of Thibault Count of Champagne he had the quarries dug to build the Chateau of Chateau Thierry as well as some other edifices. After the Second World War Pannier was selling more champagne than Laurent Perrier but the Pannier heirs were no match to the great Bernard Nonancourt. The Pannier brothers sold out to a group of wine growers in the early 70’s. This was the first time a négociant sold their business to growers. The business grew thanks to a lot of hard work and a serious quality process. The former director Francois Alvoet spent 37 years chained to his desk he was serious, there was and still is no margin for error.

How do your wines differ from the aggressively marketed brands like Moet and Veuve Clicquot?

Our wines have their own style that is due to the blend 40% chardonnay and 30% Meunier and 30% pinot noir. We hold them back a bit longer before release. Pannier is a yeasty nose, a fresh fruit filled attack on the palette and a very long after taste. We make champagne for people who like wine.  Veuve and Moët have a bigger agenda more mass appeal. They are two of the great brands that helped build the reputation for Champagne around the world. My hat is tipped.

You are student of the First World War. What are some of the historic places near Chateau-Thierry?

The United States expeditionary forces saw a lot of combat in and around Chateau Thierry during the last months of the Great War. With no small boast they helped put an end to it. Belleau Wood is 10 minutes from Chateau Thierry. This is where the US marines defeated the Germans in hand-to-hand combat. For any US military person it is Valhalla. The cemetery there has about 2600 marble crosses and the Chapel many more names of those who sleep in unknown graves. There is also an enormous American monument above the Hill 204 over looking Chateau Thierry. It commemorates Franco-American solidarity and friendship. For me it is a must see.  I am interested in perpetuating the memory of all those who were sacrificed in World War 1. My wife Valerie is president of Courville Patrimoine an association that helps renovate historic monuments. There is an interesting monument to an American aviator William Muir Russel in my town. He was shot down over my village just two weeks after his classmate in Air school Quentin Roosevelt (President Teddy Roosevelt’s son)

The monument has been restored and 4 members of the Russel family are coming over from the states for the ceremony. This is the culmination of a dream. When we moved to the village and I saw the monument I thought it would be great to get in touch with the family who erected it. Thanks to the Internet and Valerie’s association it will happen this fall.

You also have an anachronistic fascination with doo-wop? Why and who are your favorites?

Well I started buying records fairly young I joined the Columbia record club when I was 7 years old. Remember get 10 LPs for 99 cents well I joined. They let me off the hook when I told them how old I was. I always loved the Beatles but when Revolver came out I bought it and didn’t get it? So for 3 years I listened to a lot of 1950’s music; great for a 10-year-old mind! I never stopped, later of course I went back to contemporary rock and jazz but I still have a soft spot for doo-wop.

I love the Spaniels, The Orioles, Johnny Maestro, and of course dozens of one hit wonders. Diamonds and Pearls by the Paradons anyone? Not to be confused with the Paragons.

 How has France affected your life and work?

France has affected my life and work in more ways than I can think. I have spent almost my entire adult life here. I have 4 four Franco American kids. The eldest are now in New York and China. The younger two attend lycee in Reims. I guess I am spiritually Irish, mentally American and geographically French. Of the three, “where you are” may be the most important. If it weren’t for France we’d probably be drinking a pint of Guinness

 

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