A sparkling lunch, maybe a blind tasting
Besides the fact that the wine menu at Chez Panisse’s famous upstairs café has no sparkling wines from California — what’s up with that, Ms. locovore Alice Waters? –my sparkling wine lunch with Joy Sterling, Hugh Davies and Xavier Barlier was, well, sparkling.
Ms. Sterling (Iron Horse), Mr. Davies (Schramberg) and Mr. Barlier (Roederer Estate) represent the trifecta of sparkling wine in California. The trio had once previously gotten together (at Celadon, in Napa) to talk shop, which in their case was the state of tête de cuvée sparkling wine in California, and, as Xavier emailed me afterward, “One seat was empty. We thought: ‘Who would be the perfect 4th whose company is always a treat?’”
I’m sure my company is not always a treat, but Joy’s, Hugh’s and Xavier’s is, for me, and as Chez Panisse (where parking is impossible; both Hugh and Xavier got parking tickets afterward) is only a couple subway stops away, I eagerly assented. Joy proposed, as a matter of logistics, that we structure the first part of the conversation this way: each person would explain why he or she was at the luncheon. That was fine with me, but I did ask to be allowed to go fourth (without multiplying), since it was no doubt clearer to them why they were there than it was to me, other than that I’d been invited.
After hearing them out, I intuited the following. Each was aware of his winery’s position and reputation in the hierarchy. Each was proud of its tête de cuvée (which means, if my high school French is correct, head of the class, i.e., the top wine the winery is capable of producing). And each, in his or her own way, came thiiiiissss close to admitting that selling an expensive wine, especially an expensive sparkling wine, isn’t the easiest thing to do these days.
They were concerned that such French wines as Dom Perignon and Cristal were grabbing market share for prestige bubbly in the U.S., even though (in their opinions) these wines are mass-produced and not particularly distinctive. (Xavier shared a case production figure for the former that, literally, blew my mind, but I can’t repeat it without risking a lawsuit.) I told them they must fight, fight, fight against the slanders that perpetually are hurled against California wine. When some Europhile puts it down, call him out. Expose the lies. (I’m afraid I got a little worked up at this point, but I think Hugh liked it.)
Finally it was my turn. They were asking me for advice. I gave it. “First, you can’t just sell tête de cuvée. You have to sell the entire category of sparkling wine, in order to persuade Americans it’s not just for holidays and weddings. Sparkling wine is the most versatile food wine in the world. If you can convince people to buy more, they will naturally buy it at whatever dollar level they’re prepared to invest. A rising tide lifts all boats.”
I’m not certain that argument worked. At least one of what Joy dubbed The Three Mousseketeers seemed dubious. After all, they wanted to advance the cause of their têtes de cuvées, not of some $8 bulk process “Champagne” manufactured in the tens or hundreds of thousands of cases.
I continued. “And you must get the tastemakers on your side, the writers, bloggers, sommeliers who have influence.” They agreed, but Joy pointed out that somms are less influential these days because people aren’t going out to expensive restaurants. All right, that left writers. That raised the question, which writers do you reach out to? And in what format? Here were the three of them, focusing in on one writer (me), which, I pointed out, was a time-consuming and expensive way to influence the Fourth Estate. Wouldn’t it be better to travel to a few important cities and host tastings with an invited audience of 10 or 12 influential local writers, instead of doing dozens of one-on-ones?
That’s when the discussion got interesting. One point of view was that no format is as successful as a one-on-one. Another, opposing viewpoint was that these collective group tastings are irresistible to writers, providing the venue is well-chosen and the wines are alluring. After much back and forth, Joy put forward a suggestion. What if I, Steve, hosted a tête de cuvée tasting in San Francisco? We could decide whom to invite (not just locals, but New York, L.A., etc.). We could expand the California presence from the three têtes de cuvées they represented to all wineries with a tête de cuvée (e.g. Chandon’s Etoile, Gloria Ferrer’s Carneros Cuvée, and so on). We could throw in some number of real Champagne têtes de cuvées, including Dom and Cristal. We would do the tasting blind. I asked the three of them, “Wouldn’t that be risky for you? I mean, if your wines came in last and the Champagnes came in first?” They all smiled knowingly. Joy said, “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
We’d all had our share of sparking wine by then, some of us more than the others; and maybe this happytalk of a big blind tasting was just a bunch of bubbles, fizzing and evaporating into Chez Panisse’s rarified atmosphere. But I have a hunch it will happen. I’ll keep you posted.