July 10, 2007


I had two things that I wanted to do in France, by special request. First, I wanted to see Versailles. You saw that I got to do that last week. Second, I wanted to visit Champagne.


Everyone's life is about choices, and one of the best I've ever made I owe to a nameless clerk at Marshall Field's almost ten years ago. He was working in the wine department when I said I was looking for a good bottle of champagne.


A twinkle crossed his eyes. "You'll want this," he said. "The French laugh at us for drinking Dom Perignon."


And with a smile on his face, he handed me a box of Veuve Clicquot.


Like a heroin pusher, I've subjected my entire family to this stuff. It's responsible for how we told my parents we were going to have our second child. (Julie had brought back a bottle of Veuve Clicquot St. Petersburg-unavailable in the United States-and Nat and I, well aware of the ultrasound results of a week earlier, could only look at it and each other, and they read us at the same time.) Veuve was what room service brought up on my wedding night. Veuve was what I celebrated new jobs with, new years with, new beginnings with.


And today we were going to pay its hometown a visit.


We headed for Gare Est to ride the high-speed train, the TGV (Train Grand Vitesse, or "Big Fast Train") to Reims, where you can tour the Champagne region in all its glory.



Problem was, there were two instances where the train had to stop, for reasons that weren't made clear in either language. One of them was supposedly a safety issue. As Julie pointed out, we had just paid twice as much money to get there in the same amount of time. This left us with some time to kill before our tour, but not a lot, so we walked into Downtown Reims and looked around a little bit.



We made our way down a side street, and then Julie, knowing the area, had us turn left down a rather nondescript path. In front of us was the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Reims, where the kings of France had been crowned since Clovis. It was an awe-inspiring building which had carved bas-reliefs of all the saints.



On the left side were recently discovered Roman ruins. We could have looked at this for a long time but decided to pass. We found a store that specialized in artisanal olive oil. Julie found some olive oil soap for a coworker and I picked up a cruet containing three different types. We then hopped a bus towards our tour.


The familiar shade of yellow-orange beckoned to us from a block away. Soon enough we were in the lobby. It was one of the more coolly modern areas we'd been to in France; most of what we'd seen was designed to be either ancient or extremely comfortable. Veuve's lobby was icy and slick. We were led to a waiting room, where a preposterous magazine in three different languages spoke of the brand as if it were some sort of mystical healing presence, and if you look at the portfolio of LVMH, Veuve's parent company, you would probably be right.



There was every size bottle of champagne available on the stairs, well past magnums and into jeroboams and nebuchadnezzars (10 and 20 bottles, respectively) and soon enough we were joined by lots of other people, though we remained the only ones speaking English conversationally. It sounded as if they were speaking Italian but Ken couldn't place it.



We happened to be the least ostentatious brand-whores in the room. The women wore Chanel glasses with rhinestones spelling out the C's on the corners of the eyes. They carried the requisite Louis Vuitton bags; I thought they might have been stockholders. A man in excess of 400 pounds wore yellow Puma soccer shoes brighter than my own. I'm sure he would have realized they didn't match his outfit if he could see them.


Shortly our guide, a pleasant young woman whose name escapes me, led us into an adjacent room. There were several pictures of the Widow Clicquot, the woman who the champagne was named for, as well as "the roll top desk that kept the company's books, which she took with her on all her travels." As a man who toted an entire computer docking station across the ocean, it warmed my heart to hear this.



There was a large wall display of about two dozen counterfeit products that the company has taken action against. Our guide asked us to identify the one authentic bottle of Veuve from amongst 30 or so frauds. Hint: it wasn't the one with the golf balls in it. She explained that both the label and the color are vigorously and zealously protected by all applicable trademark law the world over, and don't you try for a moment to copy it or nattily dressed attorneys would ruin you. Our next stop was a cheery map of the Loire Valley, much more cheerful than the one I'd seen the day before at Musee de L'Armee, where this whole area was bombed and fought over tooth and nail. The guide pointed out where the vineyards were that Veuve owned outright and where were the ones they had to buy supplemental grapes from, because there simply weren't enough within their own stock to meet the worldwide demand for this product, which I believe gives you clear skin and whiter teeth.



We were soon finished with the formalities and were off to the caves. We headed down a gigantic staircase, lit on the sides like you would find at an amusement park. When we reached a clearing at the bottom, there was one thing that was apparent above all else: bottles. Hundred of them. A label on one indicated "Grande Dame 2002." Grande Dame is Veuve's top-of-the-line, made from only nine grape varietals rather than 27. This typically retails for over $200 a bottle; I've given it to people for job references but never had occasion to drink some myself.



Once we got down there, we had several different features of the wine explained to us. First, the chalk caves were carved out by the Romans, by hand. The fact that Madame Clicquot invented something called the riddling table, which allowed the yeast and sediment to be taken out of the wine more easily before being re-corked. Quite frequently we would see tractors like the baggage carts you would see at the airport, transporting hundreds of bottles of wine at a time; the drivers would honk to make sure people weren't run over. Several of the tunnels were named after employees who had been with the winery for 25 years or more. One gentleman was there for 36 years. The guide said, "How you could work for 36 years in the same place, I'll never know." A lot of people shrugged and said, "Well, if you got to work HERE..." blithely ignoring an interesting lesson I learned in luxury hotels: If you have to be there and they're paying you, it's not as much fun.


Some of our tour companions were very annoyed by the honking trucks, feeling that it was interrupting their Moment. Julie quickly pointed out that if the guys in the trucks had to stop, we wouldn't be able to drink this stuff in America or anyplace else. "They're doing important work! Let them be!" Apparently the big guy told Julie, "I can put a stop to this."


We made our way through a yellow-orange tunnel that was made two years ago and dedicated to Madame Clicquot. The apparent purpose of this tunnel was to avoid taking the visitors through some of the busier tunnels where they would no doubt be run over like field mice. Once we were through the tunnel, we were led into another cavern, where an enormous carving featuring Bacchus, the god of wine, had been done in the chalk over our heads.




Additionally, she showed us spots on the wall where there were Red Cross markings, pointing towards an area used as a hospital during World War I. Ahead of us were the stairs out. The tiles going up marked vintage years. I didn't think the big guy was going to make it past 1956-I'd been climbing stairs all over Europe, but this guy looked like he might have some issues on an escalator.



For me, the most fascinating part of the caves was the knowledge of how this place-all these thousands of bottles, farther than the eye could see-intertwined with my own life. Every bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne ever produced came from right here. That bottle on my wedding night? The one we had at dinner with my parents a few years back? The one when I got the job at Metro? Every one of them did time right where I was standing. So somewhere in here was a bottle waiting to celebrate some happy occasion with me. It may have shown up last week and have to wait two years, or maybe it's a really special occasion and it will wait about nine, but it's in there somewhere.



We made our way to the tasting area and gift shop, where we were all handled flutes of Yellow Label. We cheerfully drank champagne as it was right around lunch. The tour guide asked patiently, "Are there any questions?"

One of the Eastern European types who looked like he'd already been on two wine tours asked, "Can I have some more?"



Two ladies from California were right behind us, asking the tour guide about what type of champagne to buy, and the tour guide was pushing vintage years, rose, that sort of thing. I turned around and demonstrated one of the few things in the world I actually know something about.


"Excuse me, are you from the US?"

"Yes, California."

"I'm from Vegas, and if you want to get something amazing, get the Saint Petersburg vintage. It's not sold in America. My sister bought it for me the last time she was here and it was terrific."

They thanked me profusely. I felt like I'd just given someone a video game cheat code, or told them why they should order their In-and-Out burger "animal style." Then they saw Ken's and my Wimbledon bags.

"What did you think of Wimbleton?"

"Beyond belief. We were on Centre Court, and saw Henin-Bartoli."

"We were on Court One! We saw Roddick-Gasquet! I think I'm a curse, because every time I've seen Roddick play, he loses."

Ken said, "Great. Call those people from New York, because now I'm off the hook."

Those two graciously accepted arrogance cards, so if they finally get around to reading this, you'll see some of the pictures I promised.


We bought several items-souvenirs, the Veuve Ice Jacket, and two bottles of Saint Petersburg. (One was for the Bastille.) I wanted a Trendy Ice Bucket, which I felt would make a terrific addition to my curio cabinet, but they were out. And while we were on for the purchasing, Julie and I paid up for our tastings of Grande Dame. Ken declined because he felt he wouldn't be able to tell the difference between it and regular champagne. Julie and I felt that we had to know. So we grabbed some.



How was it, you ask? For the most part, it tasted just like champagne. I'm not a wine snob, so I don't go with adjectives that have nothing to do with wine ("oaky", "hints of apricot", or "Windexish") but it did taste a little toasted, a little smoother, bubbles just a little smaller. It was very, very nice. Not pay-the-same-as-five-bottles-of-yellow-label nice, but very impressive.


Happy and a little buzzed, we made our way back out to the bus. We were soon in downtown Reims, where I successfully ordered a lunch combo consisting of a ham and cheese sandwich and a bottle of Diet Coke. Entierement en francais, peoples!


We walked around the grounds near the cathedral, as we had some time until our train. I found a store that was selling the correct ice bucket and purchased it, for reasons the others couldn't figure out. I asked if they'd ever heard the doubloon story.



"Is it something with pirates?"

They hadn't. So here goes:


When I was in New Orleans for the first time, Nat and I saw this amazing diamond-shaped lithograph from the Krewe of Endymion. In the matting were three doubloons in Mardi Gras colors, purple, gold and green. It was gorgeous. It would have gone perfectly in the space at the top of the stairs. We looked at the price tag and we thought about it. And thought. And thought. And headed out onto the street corner and decided, nahh, we'll find it somewhere else, another time, just not now.


And ever since then, we said we should have gotten it. Or I thought we should have. I've searched Ebay, every Mardi Gras site you can imagine, and it was gone, baby, gone. I could probably go back to that same store in New Orleans and it would still be gone. So when I find something like that, no matter how weird, no matter how irrational, I need to get it. Thus, I was the owner of a Veuve Clicquot ice bucket, no longer manufactured, now a collectible, first seen on display in the bar at Jury's Kensington and now proudly displayed in my cabinet. (But not, apparently, before my good friend and my sister conspired to shoot a picture of said friend wearing it in his head.)



We stopped for coffee and dessert at a cafe along the main drag in Reims, just down from the carousel. Julie ordered a waffle, which is "gaufre" in French, so lots of gopher jokes were necessary. We did our best. Then I stopped into an upscale tobacco store and picked up a...White Owl, yeah, one of those cigars. You don't want to read about how well it paired with the burgundy wine that Julie picked out, or how it was so good that I didn't want to type any more that night so you could blame my not writing on two countries big with Hemingway: Cuba and France.


The TGV ride was uneventful, and actually on time. We wound up falling asleep on the train, even me, who hasn't fallen asleep in a moving vehicle, train, bus, car or airplane-since probably shortly after birth.


Dinner that night was at La Petite Nicoise, a restaurant on our block that we passed every time we went to the fruit market, not more than 100 steps from our front door. I had the mussels, a whole saucepan full of them, in a garlic and cream sauce that had me stealing bread from nearby patrons to sop the rest of it up. The food here was better than 95% of the restaurants I could have visited in the United States, and I didn't have to cross the street.


That night, I smoked and watched the twinkling of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. I can't blow smoke rings, so as my eyes darted from the Tower to the National Assembly to the couple arguing in the street below, I smiled brightly, exhaled deeply, and figured life wasn't quite so bad.

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