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An American in Paris

08.13.08
Jaime Araujo, daughter of a Napa cult Cab king, is changing the way the French market their wine.

On any given spring morning at the newly smoke-free Le Descartes, a bistro in the heart of Paris’s Latin Quarter, as workers sip breakfast red wine at the bar and smokers shiver at outdoor tables, one can nurse a frothy grand crème while contemplating the worldwide credit crisis and the ever-shrivelling dollar on global currency markets.

“Money was always something dirty in our family,” a friend once told me, explaining that as a boy he’d been sent straight to his room for asking about a collection notice that had been posted on his family’s rundown manor house. “Money, in good families, is the distasteful side of civilization.”

French culture’s well-known antipathy toward the market (recent polls have shown that half of the French population distrust and dislike the idea of market economies, preferring … well, it’s not clear what they prefer) is what keeps most American and British entrepreneurs away from doing business in France. By contrast, the fumbling of the French wine industry in the global marketplace is what set a gleam in the eye of Californian Jaime Araujo, turning her into not merely France’s first American wine-marketing consultant but equally one of France’s first female wine-marketing specialists.

“Marketing wine is a foreign idea here,” she told me over lunch at a hideaway just off the Place de l’Étoile, reminding me that this so-called nation of petty shopkeepers possesses no precise word for marketing. Since 2004, her firm, Terravina, has doubled its billings each year and is set to do so again in 2008. Though Araujo has a staff of only three, she has assembled a network of nearly 20 specialists who will take on everything from label design to business plans to global-market analysis. Araujo won’t reveal the names of her clients, but she did tell me about one whose family had been making wine since the 17th century and hadn’t changed their label in more than 50 years.

“A lot of what I do is psychological,” she said. “Changing the identity of a wine that’s been in your family for four hundred years is hard, and it takes a lot of hand-holding.” After all, if it has been around for seven or eight generations and found a ready market, why change? The answer, of course, is that France’s place in the global wine market—faced with competition from Australia, South Africa, Chile, Spain, and to some degree California—has been steadily shrinking, forcing many families to close and sell off the grand old châteaux to New York lawyers and California set designers.

Precisely because Araujo is American, and perhaps because their backs are up against the limestone, a growing number of French vintners are ready to give her a shot. “To change the whole profile of a four-hundred-year-old winery, its logo, its packaging, launching a website, and then reshaping the whole identity of how the public is going to see your wine from now on … ouff,” she said. “Even though they wanted to change, when it got to the point of looking at new labels, it was scary. It’s a big responsibility, carrying that family tradition on your shoulders after four hundred years—something most Americans can’t quite grasp.”

Being female worked in her favor, Araujo believes: “France is a much more macho culture.” She paused. “People are possibly more ready to accept advice from a woman who’s not confrontational than from a man, because they feel a little less threatened.”

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that she’s attractive, speaks flawless, barely accented French, and knows how to work a room of stiff and stodgy vintners as well as any Hollywood agent at Cannes. On another occasion, we dodged the splattering spring rain beneath the budding chestnuts of the Champs-Élysées to make a 10 A.M. tasting staged at Ledoyen, a three-star restaurant established in 1792, the sort of place where ancien régime aristocrats might have gathered to count the toll of their beheaded cousins. The finest names of Burgundy were there—Raveneau, whose Chablis is hardly available, Leflaive, and Domaine Roumier. The murmurs were low and discreet. A dozen hand-turned wooden spittoons rested inconspicuously behind varnished columns and in corner nooks.

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