Is the Spirits Valley a trump card of French soft power?
International reach through the spirits industry
At a time when France is under attack on its values internationally but also within its own territory, it is interesting to take stock of a trump card of its economic influence. Because more than a simple currency carrier, Spirits Valley represents the French art of living to more than 50% of consumers of super premium spirits worldwide.
Following the example of Hollywood in the USA, French know-how in terms of top-of-the-range spirits undeniably contributes to the country's influence. As such, the Spirits Valley can be proud to be the epicentre of this economic success. However, the question arises as to what we should do with this tool in the medium term and to take into consideration the future challenges to be taken up: developing attractiveness (reception, tourism, communication, training), improving performance in terms of quality and services, modernising (factory 4.0, organisation...) and protecting the existing system from future political and economic unrest.
However, before we know where we need to go, it is interesting to ask ourselves about the deep roots of the Spirits Valley concept.
What are the origins of the Spirits Valley?
This recent concept takes shape in the mid-2000s, in analogy with that of Silicon Valley in California. At least three historical factors explain its emergence:
1) A direct heritage of the peasants who shape the Charente vineyard: its centre of gravity has not always been Cognac since the vineyards of Aunis concentrated more surface area of vines until the middle of the 19th century. It was located between La Rochelle, Niort, Rochefort and Melle.
2) The marketing know-how of mainly English, Scandinavian or German speaking entrepreneurs: this geographical shift in Cognac coincides with the creation of the major trading houses which are revolutionizing the marketing of cognac. From now on, most of the wine is burned, unlike the vineyards of Aunis, which generally ship it without distilling it.
3) An innovative packaging sector: in particular Claude Bouchet, who was at the origin of the industrial manufacture of bottles in 1898. Thus the proportion of cognac sold in bottles exceeded that of casks and the decoration industry developed in parallel. Today, the activity is centred around the Saint-Gobain glass factory built in 1962 (now Verallia), which groups together the former glass factories of the region, including the one in Niort.
But if this heritage comes mainly from the production of cognac, the emergence of the Spirits Valley is fuelled by other alcohols with Russian or African-American accents.
The Spirits Valley concept emerges thanks to a new generation of spirits (1996-2005)
Several emblematic products will provoke the emergence of the Spirits Valley concept in the space of a few years, with respectively :
1) The vodka Grey Goose created by H Mounier in Gensac (1996) for the American Sidney Frank. Its sale to Bacardi for $2 billion will be like a bomb in 2004.
2) The Distillerie Merlet de Saint Sauvant was also approached by the American tennis player Raphael Yakobi and created the liqueur Hpnotiq (2000), definitively a blockbuster in the USA with its bottle derived from a bottle of champagne and launched in September 2001.
3) In the meantime, something unexpected happened in 2001 with the hit 'Pass The Courvoisier' by Busta Rhymes. The hip hop group boosted the sales of Courvoisier de Jarnac by 30% in the USA and gave a new lease of life to a spirit that was struggling to renew itself at the end of the 90s.
4) Jean-Sébastien Robicquet of Maison Villevert also innovates withthe grape-based Ciroc vodka(2003) in collaboration with Diageo. The earthquake was such that the European spirits regulations were turned upside down to verify the legitimacy of this new category of vodka. The arrival of Puff Daddy as a brand ambassador in 2007 also made an impression.
5) Finally, the liqueur X-Rated (2004) created by Daucourt in Angoulême is also causing a sensation on the other side of the Atlantic.
Thanks to them, the Charente will become aware of the value of its know-how and authority in the world of ultra premium spirits.
The success of these liqueurs and spirits will in turn bring a wind of freedom rarely experienced in the region. In this respect, the creation of the Meukow decanter in 2005 is a perfect example of audacity, with several packaging awards (Michel Coste chose this remarkable emblem as early as 1995).
This has led to an acceleration in the modernization (meaning premiumization) of the VS / VSOP cognac ranges with the creation of limited editions, capsule collections and innovations that are sometimes borderline if we take into account the specifications protected by the BNIC.
The time of the precursors (1988-2009)
At the same time, the packaging and training sectors based in the Charente region were the first to structure Spirits Valley around two institutions: the Atlanpack association created in 1997 and the CIDS (International Spirits Centre), created in 2000.
Atlanpack was born from the study of the creation of a packaging pole created between 1990 and 1996 by leaders in the sector such as Saint Gobain, Amcor, Smurfit and Bernadet. As for CIDS, its affiliation with the University of Segonzac's eaux-de-vies created in 1988 by the mayor of Segonzac Paul Hosteing and General Councillor Pierre Hitier is undeniable.
In particular, Jean Christophe Boulard from Atlanpack and Sébastien Dathané from CIDS (an alumnus of the Université des Eaux-de-Vie) will catalyse the Spirits Valley concept. First of all around the VS Pack events with a first edition in 1999 focused on the concept of 'Packaging Valley'.
We then notice a semantic shift between 'Packaging Valley' and 'Spirits Valley' around 2005, an adjustment that comes from the collaboration between actors coming from different sectors but preaching for the same parish: the development of the territory. Indeed, coopers and winegrowers are exchanging with the actors of packaging. And there is already a 'Packaging Valley' in Champagne-Ardenne, created in 1993...
Thus the articles that relay the news of the region put more and more emphasis on the name of Spirits Valley from 2007/2008. It is now perceived internationally as the leader in high-end beverage packaging. Hence its consecration with the organization of the first Spirits Valley congress in 2009.
It is at this point that the question arises as to what to do concretely with this still elusive Spirit Valley?
Time for action (2009-2016)
The Cognac chamber of commerce is aware of the extent of the phenomenon and plans to participate in its structuring from 2012.
Even local companies are adopting the concept and the Linéa agency is taking the next step by taking over the 'Spirits Valley Designers' claim in 2014.
Other players prefer not to see the emergence of a concept that could harm their business by promoting competing companies or refuse the possibility of being headed by an organization that exceeds them .
Thus different projects are carried out at the same time by several actors and finally, the association Spirits Valley is the first one and is born in 2016 with the vocation to represent this world pole of excellence and to make it even more visible. At its head, Julien Courtey Février is also an alumnus of the Université des Eaux-de-Vie.
The years 2010 were those of organization and structuring around the sectors, packaging, viticulture and universities. But the coming years will certainly test the homogeneity of this concept.
To know whether the Spirits Valley is part of a coherent territory, we must also ask ourselves what are its limits?
(continued in a future article: where does the Spirits Valley begin?)
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