“Well I might be into it if it all tasted like this!” the response from a customer/friend upon taking his first sip of Camille Saves Champagne. We were just about to close Sunday evening and one of my much loved customers stopped by to wish me a happy birthday and maybe share a glass of wine with me. We ran through the wines on the tasting bar together, the ones left over from our Italian vs Cal-Ital tasting on Saturday, and while I found most of them delightful and interesting I was just aching for something a little more….special. I mean this dear man came all the way over to the store just to wish me a happy birthday, the Lakers were going to win, (ahem…dammit) and we were done for the day, that’s pretty much the trifecta of “it’s time to open a bottle of Champagne” right?
I had first poured him some Jean Milan Carte Blanche Blanc de Blancs that was left over from Friday night’s tasting and while it was indeed lovely it had lost some of its sparkle and didn’t quite have the power I was looking for….the power needed to change a, “I don’t really like Champagne” mind. One look in the cold box and I knew instantly which wine was needed, which wine would flip his switch and which wine would wipe the bad taste that was left in my mouth by an appointment earlier in the week.
“We use no Pinot Meunier like they do in Champagne. We know it’s an inferior grape. Been there, done that, didn’t work” to which I explained that there were many houses in Champagne that do not use it either and was rebutted with something like, “Well Moet does” said in a somewhat snarky and accusatory tone. “Well I wouldn’t know as I don’t carry any Moet” I responded and went back to tasting the wine he had poured for me.
“Our Rose gets its color from skin contact, we don’t add still wine for color like they do in Champagne” I sat there tasting and taking notes on the wines which were quite pleasant actually, but he didn’t need to keep reminding me that they were not Champagne, it was apparent. I just sat quietly and listened as this guy did his sales pitch, it’s his gig and he was just doing his job but after the fifth, somewhat incorrect comment that gave Champagne a little bitch slap I felt my feathers ruffling and pointed out his error. This just ended up making things a little worse and once again I was tossed a handful of names; Veuve Clicquot, Mumm, Charles Heidsieck and Taittinger with the same tattletale tone as I got before. “Been there, done that, didn’t work” I responded. I finished tasting, shook his hand and assured him that his wines would continue to have a space in our sparkling wine department.
The whole thing just bugged me. A couple of things about it bugged me really; how about taking a stroll around our bubble department to get an idea what we are all about huh? You’re not making your best impression by rattling off the problem with Champagnes that I don’t think highly enough to stock because um, duh who ya tellin’? Secondly how about not trying to badmouth a region to a person passionately in love with that region….again maybe a stroll around the department would have tipped you off here. I’m sure the guy sees all kind of buyers, the score chasers, the anti-bubble knuckleheads, the people that only drink sparkling wine when they are sitting in an appointment like the one I was in. I’m sure his job is not all that easy and that he was not intentionally trying to irk me but….well he did. Is your wine better than Mumm Cordon Rouge? Maybe, I would put it in the same class as anyway but is your wine better or on par with Camille Saves, hells to the mother effin no. Sorry dude, not even close.
I have been told from time to time that I should include things like Mumm DVX and Schramsberg J. Schram when I write about amazing sparkling wines. I understand that people view these as the best of the best from what California has to offer, and if you say it that way, “You should write about the best sparkling wines from California” then I might consider it but to suggest that I include those wines in the same breath as things like Agrapart Cuvee Venus, H. Billiot Cuvee Julie, Pierre Peters Les Chetillons, wines that fall under the same prestige cuvee umbrella, well I have to tell you, “No dude. Not even close”
I’ve been amazingly lucky in that I get to taste a lot of Champagne and sparkling wine, I not only taste them but I drink them, often. More often than most and in my ten or so years as the buyer for the sparkling wine department I’ve been introduced to the world of difference between the standard and the exceptional. The standard is serviceable, people like it well enough, especially people that occasionally drink bubbles but once you taste exceptional, much like my beloved customer did on Sunday night….well, it changes the scope and the playing field is no longer even.
When I first began my love affair with sparkling wine I was able to slip in a Prosecco, a Cremant d’Alsace or California sparkler once in awhile, just a little something bubbly to hold me over until I found a good enough reason to buy the real stuff. Pretty soon I started getting the same feeling I do when I taste some mass produced yellow label crap, “Not even close” so why bother? You can buy Agrapart and R.H. Coutier Grand Cru for about ten dollars more than Schramsberg, in the case of Agrapart less than ten dollars. Thirty five or forty bucks and you are getting exceptional. The weight, texture, breadth of flavor, the finish that goes on forever, these are the things that simply cannot be copied. I try really hard not to compare sparkling wines from anywhere else in the world to those of my beloved grower Champagnes. I taste each wine and keep in mind that they are not and should not be the same….damn, that is part of what is so sexy about wine but when I get some sales dude in my grill telling me or implying that his wines are in some way superior, well now you are forcing me to compare them and if you had taken a look at my Champagne rack you might have figured this out but…you lose. Are your wines comparable to those from the estates whose names you tossed at me, yup, might even be a little better or at the very least, fresher tasting, but are they better than the wines I champion, stock and drink on a regular basis….no dude, not even close.
As a buyer I try and to be fair, I offer an open palate and space on the shelf to any wine that I think has merit and might please my customers. I do not buy just for me or only wines that I wish to drink, I mean I carry Coppola Sophia for gawds sake and I think that stuff…for me, my palate, well, ewe…. but it is well made and people seem to love it so on our shelves it lives. I don’t hold California sparkling wines to any higher standard than I do my Champagnes when I am thinking about placement; they must be well made, clean, fresh tasting and be able to hold its own with what I already have. The wines I tasted that afternoon do and will have a spot on the shelf for as long as they keep making wines the way they do but….should I flip my rack, mix the sparkling wines from elsewhere in with my artisan bubbles from Champagne….start comparing them to one another the way this salesman was trying to do…sorry dude, not even close.