Wednesday, January 15, 2014

By All Means, Proceed But....

“And Samantha, what is it you do for a living?” some poor cat at my husband’s holiday party, (first one I’ve had to attend in like 15 years, no pressure) that had no idea I was just seconds away from making him hate his life. “I sell wine. Specifically French wine and sparkling wine” although I say it sheepishly there are few other times that I feel that, “I am so gonna win this” tickle in my bottom, telling people what I taste and sell wine, often in France well those are the bottom tingling times. Ended up getting molested, time wise of course, this was a tech company party and all, by two guys, one that used to sell wine for a living and missed it painfully, the other a quirky, way funny cat that was captivated by the very idea of it. Several cocktails later, (the wine offered on the Queen Mary was, erm, pass inducing) and I was buzzily holding court on one of the ships many patios and this quick witted wine lover huffed cigars and grilled me. My favorite question of the night, “I love Champagne, what do you like to pair with it?”

I rattled off the regular anti truffle, (as in the chocolate jobies) and cake rant. Talked about salty, briny and savory and tugged at my necktie as I laid upon him my most favorite of all Champagne combinations. The one thing I crave above fishy eggs, oysters and even my cherished French fries, “Fried chicken”. I watched this fairly high strung guy’s head spin, his foodie mind twist and his envy bubble up around the corners of his mouth as he leaned in and said, “Are you messing with me?” wearing the kind of grin that assured me, he was questioning me….but hopeful. We closed every bar on the ship that night, met for breakfast and football the next day before he and his wife had to hop a flight home. We got along great, he seemed enthralled and it was just a couple days later when my husband got an email, with a subject line, “Your wife is on to something” and a link to a Wall Street Journal article recommending fried chicken as a perfect partner to…yup, Champagne. “Finally!” my holiday weary pant when I was handed the forwarded article.

Managed a couple sparkling wine events during the holiday season. One early on that was specifically to showcase a few, somewhat geeky wines that I got in just a wee bit too late to include in any of the other, earlier events. Too late and honestly, wines I didn’t want to mix in with the more showy, opulent and neck biting wines I tend to pour and sell buttloads of as we trudge into the holiday season.  An “off the menu” tasting  that was never included in the newsletter but one I was totally stoked about and as I read the names of the people that signed up to suck back some new bubbles on a Wednesday night, during the holiday madness, I was lit up like a kid huffing candy canes and figgy pudding. 

The wines showed intrigue and drew us all in. The salty wines from Lassaigne making people suck in their breath and furrow their brows. The herby layering of the Hure Freres, the lean tart fruit in the Laherte Freres, the gripping tang and stones on the Marion-Bosser Extra Brut and the heart-thumping sensuality of the wines from Coessens. The wines did their thing, I babbled and lead, my Champagne freaks totally got it and we even sold a bit but….well the next morning, when I woke thinking about and trying to compose my answer to the question I knew Randy would ask, the “Well? How’d it go last night? How did the wines show?” question, I ended up feeling much like I did as I did during the tasting, exhilarated but cautious. The bubbles still racing through my active mind, my desire to get back in the shop and wrap my palate around the leftovers, this Champagne zealot still trying to figure the wines out I knew what my answer would be, “They were outrageous, but not for everyone.” 

Our little Champagne department plugged along through the holidays. People shopping at price point for gifts more often than people coming in to reward or treat themselves, (we have to work on that folks, we deserve it) and while I did move some of the geekier Champagnes it was the more traditional, well traditional for us anyway, bubbles that I reached for most often. Some of that may have been out of habit but, for the most part I wanted to put bottles in people’s hands that I knew would blow the receiver’s mind. Pleasure them, seduce them and not challenge them, I mean seeing as they didn’t sign up to be geeked out and all. Right?

Somewhere in the middle or end of last month, (whole damn month is sort of a blur) I opened a bottle of 2005 Marcel Moineaux Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, a nervy wine full of tart citrus along with the typical Chardonnay apple notes, massive minerality and bits of toast with salted butter. I dug the wine, it was tight, but it showed me enough flesh to give me a pleasant show. I didn’t finish the wine that night, stuck it back in the fridge, without a stopper, assuming I would get to it the next evening…I didn’t. In fact I didn’t get back to the for at least four days and when I pulled the open bottle from the fridge I felt like you do when you leave your pet out in the rain, horribly guilty.

 I poured some wine in a glass, watched and a tiny bead of bubble gathered at the bottom of the glass, was shocked to see a steady stream of super-fine bubbles swirl its way to the surface before breaking apart into a smattering of rogue eruptions. Gave the wine a good spin, buried my nose in the glass, “Hmm, not at all oxidized. Quite fresh actually and showing way more roasted apple skin than the other day” I was dumbfounded. I left the wine sitting out so it could shed some of its icy sweater, giving me a truer idea of how it actually smelled and held up. Sat with that wine for nearly an hour….stunning and light-years better than it had been when I opened a few days earlier. Couple things at play here, from being produced by an actual human, one that farms his own land and has his family out in the fields during the harvest, to the fact that we are talking about one of the world’s noblest of varieties, Chardonnay and a Grand Cru Chardonnay at that. Brilliant wine that just needed a little time to ooze out of its clothes and spread across the palate. 

“I just love Pinot Meunier” a fellow I’d met once, a year earlier and seen another time at a trade event mid-year but sort of backed away from when I saw he was one of those lean in, check the name tag and lapel before greeting kind of guys. “He’s looking to measure his certification which is basically the wine hipster equivalent of butt sniffing” the winemaker I had been talking to called it. The words I’d heard before, “I love Pinot Meunier” and increasingly over the years, but rarely from the customers I serve, almost always from an importer and a few times from people like the cat standing beside me.  I stood there, super-tart, lean, rhubarb tasting wine sloshing about in the bottom of my glass, I could see how people could enjoy this, hell I was enjoying it and fully comprehend that quirky wines that are, out of the bottle as it were are especially fun for those of us that taste a bunch of wine but, how would this come across to the consumer? Could they crave, this? I tossed back the last bit of curious wine before moving on to a pour of H. Billiot Grand Cru Brut, a Champagne that I've known, and craved for over a decade. I let the powerful Pinot Noir rich wine coat my palate and massage my mind. Soothe me while drawing me back, sort of like a sexy but buttery voice in your ear that causes your shoulders to go soft and plushy….until you feel the lips on the side of your neck.

One of my first Sundays off of the New Year I decided I would start the day with a bottle of Champagne. Amazing how little resistance I get from this particular move, no matter how friggin early, I get around this here joint. I popped the cork on a bottle of Laherte Freres Brut Tradition, a wine I had been sampling but really hadn’t spent the time I would like with, popped the cork, cooked up some sort of anti-resolution breakfast and delightfully washed it don with the fiercely herby and profoundly intriguing Champagne. Super fine bead, floral, herby, solid core of fruit and toast, charming as all get out and the extra snap of citrus rind on the back end made it perfect for my eggy, cheesy breakfast fare. I did as I always do, left the wine out of the fridge to watch it evolve as it warmed and about forty-five minutes in I found myself returning taking smaller sips and being distracted by little shit, and before an hour was up I was plunking the wine back in the fridge. As lovely as the wine was earlier I found that as it warmed in the glass it lost weight, left a little more prickly and that rhubarb like tartness was making my eye slam shut. Well shit. What gives? Oh yeah, 60% Pinot Meunier. Remind me again why this variety is planted all over the world again? 

Grower Champagne, or Farmer Fizz, (I know this is a Terry Theise phrase and while I adore that ground breaking importer and champion of the genre, fucking hate the term, nearly as much as “Champers” ugh) is popping up all over. I cannot even begin to express how marvelously rewarding it feels to see people come through our front door, some bent newsprint, glossy ripped out article or printed from the internet list in hand asking for the wines I have been busting my sizable ass, (that’s a lot of busting to do dude) supporting and being a very loud mouthpiece for, the better part of my seventeen years in this business. Unreal. Really, just unreal. Couple that with the fact that people are now removing the far-too-long imposed stuffiness of caviar and tuxedos, replacing the pairings with simple foods like, fried chicken, grilled cheese and yes, my always served potato chips, well it gives me so much hope that far more out there will take the time to taste, learn and feel what truly great Champagne is. Takes me right back to that night of the geeky Champagne class and leaves me feeling exhilarated….and cautious. 

So along with the push from the media and added chatter of the newly onboard there comes the super-geeky or fringe element as happens with any newish trend. Those Pinot Meunier loving folks and their ultra-dry buddies are chattering amongst themselves and I can tell some of those importer folks, they’re hearing it. Never, in all my years buying Champagne for The Wine Country, have I seen more bone dry, teeth shattering high acid, salty and sinewy wines come across the tasting table. Wines that engage my inner bubble dork and drag me in but cause the buyer in me to hover over the snooze button. Not that the wines aren’t way fucking cool, they are, and I buy them in two or three case lots and even pour them….for the way-into-it folks but are these what we should be selling the article-ripping-out consumer coming in looking for grower Champagne to taste for the first time? The ones reading the Los Angeles Times and watching Fox News for wine suggestions? We should send these uninitiated grower virgins home with Marion-Bosser Extra Dry Blanc de Blancs and Laherte Freres Brut Tradition? Dude, sounds like a dangerous plan that just might send us, the us that have been fighting for just this kind of opportunity to share grower Champagne with as many people as the tiny production allows, that it just might set us back another five years, at least. Lets soften those shoulders with the sexy and buttery wines like Saves, Billiot, Coutier, Laval and Agrapart, then maybe let the others slip their intrigue around their throats and sink their teeth in. 

I love the attention these very deserving wines are receiving and I wholly encourage more importers to seek out and bring us more of them. The one word of caution I might express to both importers and winemakers in Champagne….don’t go changing to suit this fickle market. Maybe have a word with the Austrians and see how their Gruner Veltliner sales are going. Have a chat with the guys making orange wines and see if their numbers have continued to increase. See if those trend setters have stuck hard and fast with their wines or have already moved on to discover and preach to the masses, the next new thing. Stay true to the wines you make and let us find an audience for them. Please.

By all means, proceed but…might I suggest just a little caution? Maybe listen to the knocks that opened the door, wait to see if everyone is willing to stay for the after party....

Thanks so much

I love you lots, always have

Your devoted bubble slinger,







Thomas said...

Doesn't surprise me. Wouldn't surprise me if you came across Moscato Champagne.

Samantha Dugan said...

Argh!! Why would you put such a thing in my head?! We did have a guy in yesterday looking for the "Champagne made from Zinfandel that I got here" um, didn't get it here dude. Nice to see your face kid.

Thomas said...

I'm told I should change the photo--either it's too young or I've aged, not sure which it is.

luvgrapes said...

Love it when you testify, girl! Good to hear the words of caution about not forgetting what you are trying to accomplish.

Samantha Dugan said...

It's a friendly face, no matter the age, so I adore the picture.

I fear this will come off a little, "Get off my lawn" to some and I can see why it would but, I stand behind the idea that we need to get them in the seats before we can truly begin the show. Don't think zero dosage and Pinot Muenier based Champagnes are going to win us many converts. Like I said, I get why professionals and "lifers" dig them for people just trying to get into it? I think they will settle right back into their once a year bottle of Moet or Perrier Jouet. I can't help but think of the orange wine "movement" or whatever. Sure it has its diehard fans but for the most part they aren't making many converts. I want converts dammit! Thanks for reading!

Ron Washam said...

My Gorgeous One and Only,
It must feel good to have been driving this now crowded bandwagon all these years. Folks like Mr. Theise and Ms. Wasserman, early importers of Grower Champagnes, owe you a great debt. Your tireless promotion and passion certainly fueled the current talk about those wines. I can't even see a bottle of Champagne without thinking of you.

Unlike Gruner, which still manages something of a presence in the wine market, despite me, Champagne is one of the planet's greatest wines. Once people are hooked, they'll stay hooked. Its price is an obstacle, but these are wines worth every hard-earned dime. That the press is talking about them as every day, don't need a goddam celebration, wines is the main thing. That's the shift in mentality that is needed. That it is arriving is much to your credit, Love.

I'm thinking I'll pop one tonight...

I love you, Gorgeous

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Sweet Love,

Oh I would never presume or pretend that I have had anything to do with the current fervor and steady frothing around grower Champagne right now. I've worked really hard and because I have a boss that believed in me I was able to do it honorably, without using Clicquot and Moet to pay my way as we laid the ground work. I was profoundly blessed to stumble in right as Terry and Becky were starting the push, I was a pushover, You know how I am) and picked up my sword. Right place, right time.

I remember once Sir Charles made a comment saying the stories from my shop were, "anecdotal" and it bugged me. Those are real people, spending real money on the things that this former hood rat sold them...we aren't anecdotal, we're grassroots. This new perky interest in the wines we've, I've, been bluingmyself in the face for, well I think this sort of proves that. I owe my customers more than any importer owes me..of this I am positive.

I've had Champagne in a million different situations and settings, with people I admire and work for and with, none of them resonate and excite me more than that groan you gave when you first smelled Saves Rose. I can hear that like it was yesterday and I could have spent all night listening to that over and over again.

You have been one on my biggest supporters and my favorite guinea pig...still reeling from your reaction to the Coessens I sent you. Not surprised that you "got it", just so fucking grateful that you understood it, and me. Thank you and I love you so!