Among others, Colich recommends 1989 vintage J. Lasalle, at $40 a bottle. "It's a typical blanc de blancs," he explains, one of those champagnes made exclusively from the Chardonnay grape that tend to have a rich, buttery texture and be more winelike than most. He also likes Tarlent, a nonvintage brut ($32), and Delamotte's Blanc de Blancs ($45) and brut ($25).

"What a lot of people don't realize," Colich concludes, "is that there have always been many, many champagne producers--it's just that many of them never sent their wines to this part of the world. A lot of them are taking advantage of the craze over the millennium to try to get some new customers. Hopefully it will work.

"Unfortunately, a lot of people just buy cheap champagne," he adds. "Then they say: 'I don't really like this.' Well, that might well be because it is bad."

Michael Dvorak

The problem with a lot of budget sparklers, says Jason Kallsen, a wine consultant at Surdyk's, is their overwhelming acidity. But, he points out, "you can find a well-balanced under-$10 bottle, like the Seaview Brut from Australia ($8.79). It shows its fruit very well and has a balanced acidity. We had a champagne tasting a few weeks ago, and it just blew away all our other under-$10's." For slightly higher spenders, Kallsen recommends Jacquesson Fils nonvintage brut ($24.99)--the real thing, from the Champagne region of France. (In wine circles, champagne refers exclusively to the sparkling wines made in that region--everything else is just bubbly, cava [Spain], spumante [Italy], etc.) The Jacquesson, Kallsen says, "offers all of the classic champagne nuances at a budget level: It's toasty, has a nice yeasty aroma, and a deeper level of peach, pear, and apple fruit. With the Jacquesson, you get the sense that you're tasting something pretty profound."

For just a few bucks more, Kallsen says, consider the René Geoffroy nonvintage ($34.99), made by a tiny producer in the Champagne region and available at Surdyk's thanks to pure luck. One of the wine consultants happened to be biking through champagne country a few years back, and one morning breezed pass the Geoffroy château. He went in, tasted, fell in love with the wine and started importing it.

"The Geoffroy is a profound champagne," raves Kallsen. "I'm a sparkling-wine lover, and I can truly say I'd far rather drink a bottle of this than a bottle of Dom Pérignon. With the Geoffroy you really get a sense that there's a family involved with this wine, that there's a family pride taken in each bottle. This season it's been great to open up people's eyes to some champagne levels they've never been exposed to. It's great to say: Here's something you'll never forget. And hopefully they won't."

Kallsen, like nearly everyone I talked to, hopes that the millennium frenzy will result in more frequent champagne drinking over the next decade. But Michael Thomas, co-owner of Thomas Liquors in St. Paul, is very nearly sure it won't. "Most Americans don't even like champagne," he says. "They just get it to pop at midnight and get back to their beer. We've got a ton of customers, but only one comes in to buy champagne all the time."

That customer is one smart cookie, because Thomas Liquors seems to be sitting on a goldmine of good, name-brand champagne. Although they're out of many of the 1990 vintages--and who isn't?--last week Thomas still had some bottles of Veuve Clicquot 1990 La Grande Dame ($135). Thanks to judicious stockpiling, he was also still selling Moët & Chandon White Star ($39.99); Roederer Anderson Valley Brut ($20.99); and the aforementioned Australian Seaview as well as Spain's Cristalino, another fine bottle for under $10.

So what, if anything, have these champagne insiders stashed in their bunkers for New Year's? "I've got one bottle of the Bollinger Grande Année left," says Thomas. "I tucked that one aside a long time ago, because I love that stuff." Phil Colich from Hennepin-Lake has hung on to a bottle of Cristal--"not the big one we're selling by auction, just a regular little one." And Surdyk's Jason Kallsen is practicing what he preaches, drinking the Geoffroy he's been talking up to so many customers. "I'm going down to San Diego--my family has a ranch out there. We're going to roast a hog for a day and a half. I shipped out a Schell's [beer] sampler pack for the hog, and six bottles of Geoffroy for the big midnight."

And Ted Farrell, of Haskell's? "I'm one of those wine snobs who believes any wine's first duty is to be red," he admits. "Personally--you're not going to believe this--but carbonation gives me a slightly upset stomach. So I don't even really drink champagne."

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