Archive | Wine Adventures

Inside the Champagne Harvest

Chardonnay Grapes in Champagne, France

I’m very proud to announce that my story. “A Certain Sparkle” (AFAR magazine, Nov/Dec, 2012), has just won an award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors! To celebrate, I thought I’d take you inside the harvest, with some additional photos from my experience as a vendangeur, picking grapes for a Champagne-producing family in Hautvillers, France. Champagne is a vast patchwork of vineyards, but they’ve been divided over the years until some plots are just a few rows. Three types of grapes go into a classic Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. I picked all three of them when researching my story.

The Champagne Vineyards of Hautvillers

Harvesting grapes is hard work. We started before sunrise, after a breakfast of bread and homemade jam. By 9:30 or so, it’s time to eat again. Out in the fields, we noshed on cheese, meats, bread and chocolate – washed down with wine, of course!

Morning Break at the Champagne Harvest - With Wine, of Course!

But the vendanges isn’t all work. Below, some harvesters are having some fun with Vincent Bliard, the winemaker whose grapes I helped harvest. These pickers, who all have other jobs, gather every year to harvest the Bliard family’s grapes. Some have been returning for more than 30 years.

Good Times at the Champagne Harvest

  The Bliard family maintains the old harvest tradition of housing and feeding their 20 grape-pickers. Meals are homemade, hearty and lots of fun. The pickers – who take vacation time to come work the harvest – bring treats from around France and Belgium to share with everyone. Read more about what we ate in my AFAR story.

Dinner with the Harvest Crew in Champagne

Nearly every home in the village of Hautvillers has a handmade iron sign that reflects the occupant’s profession – and nearly every profession is something related to making Champagne. It’s wonderful to stroll around this town where Dom Perignon lived and look at all the signs – not to mention sampling some local bubbly!

The cute, quirky signs of Hautvillers in Champagne

When you visit Hautvillers, Champagne G. Tribaut is the perfect spot for a tasting. The friendly, English-speaking family provides a warm welcome, and you don’t need an appointment to sip and enjoy their wines along with the glorious view.

A beautiful spot for Champagne tasting

  Now, let us pray. This tongue-in-cheek prayer is posted on a house in the village of Hautvillers:

We should all be saying this prayer!

Here’s the translation: MORNING PRAYER Give me health for a long time, Work, not too often, Love, from time to time, But Champagne all the time. Want to learn more about Champagne and the harvest? Go inside the vendanges in my story for AFAR. And, keep up with all my adventures by following me on Twitter.          

Been There, Did That! Opening Champagne with a Sword

Swash! Buckle! Whoosh! Pop!

I just learned how to open a bottle of Champagne with a sword. I feel like a buccaneer! A musketeer! I’m invincible! I’m already the hit of holiday parties. My life is changed forever!

Yesterday evening I, along with about 20 other foolhardy San Franciscans, gathered in the Mission District clutching cheap-ish bottles of brut to learn at the feet of the master – Josh Adler of 18 Reasons (one of those reasons has to be, “Because it’s dangerous but really, really fun”). Josh has his own custom-made Champagne saber – a short, heavy blade that any pirate would covet…

We trouped out to the sidewalk with wine glasses in hand and Josh demonstrated the technique:

1. Remove the capsule and all surrounding foil or paper.
2. Remove the wire cage that secures the cork to the bottle. Handle the bottle with care and don’t point it at any passing pedestrians, dogs, cars or that plate-glass window over there.
3. Make sure you have at least 15-20 feet of clear space. The cork is going to go flying into the air as if fired from a mini-cannon, with a sharp ring of glass around it. Definitely don’t do this inside.
4. Find the seam in the bottle that runs from top to bottom and turn it to face up. Hold the bottle out in front of you at about a 30-degree angle, with your hand firmly gripping its widest part.
5. Position your sword (saber, heavy kitchen knife, machete, etc.) perpendicular to the bottle, with the DULL side against the glass and the blade tilted at a 45-degree angle to the bottle.
6. Slide the sword away from you and toward the end of the bottle, whacking the lip of the bottle and beheading it with a flourish.
7. Hold bottle over glasses as champagne flows forth.
8. Run out into the traffic on Guerrero Street to recover your cork/glass projectile.

(By me telling you this, I am in no way condoning the act or the specific technique detailed above or the use of weapons or cutlery in general to open champagne. You could put your eye out, kid!)

At first, members of the assembled crowd were timid about trying it on their own. Then the first newbie took saber in hand and gave it a go: whack, blam, spew! “It’s easier than it looks,” he reported. In fact, the pressure inside the bottle is your best friend, finishing the job once the sword-wielder creates a fault-line at the lip.

Before long, everybody was sabering away at Champagne bottles, with no injuries or rogue shards of glass that I could detect. Most times, the bottle lip and cork flew cleanly away, beheading the bottle, and leaving a clean cut that was easy to pour from.

But oh, the sense of power, panache and general savoir-faire whacking open a Champagne bottle can produce. Once I’d lopped my first top, I wanted to do it again and again. I am seriously considering becoming a Champagne mercenary, traveling with my swashbuckling sword to wherever bubbly needs opening and wrongs need righting.

~To read about my previous adventures with Champage (in Champagne), check out my Washington Post story…and see photos of the Pommery Champagne house in Reims here!~


Pop Stars

Here’s to the new year! I hope you celebrated 2008’s arrival with a champagne toast, like we did. Actually, we started a bit early – in November – while touring France’s Champagne region. You can read all about our adventures, including tasting organic Champagne, in this story I wrote for the Washington Post. And, for more photos from the Champagne region, go here. Cheers!