Yes, We Have Champagne

Michael Dvorak

81 S. Ninth St., Mpls.; (612) 333-2434
Hours: Monday-Thursday 9:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m., Friday till 10:00 p.m.

Hennepin-Lake Liquor Store
1200 W. Lake St., Mpls.; (612) 825-4411
Hours: Monday-Thursday 9:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m.; Friday-Saturday till 10:00 p.m.

303 E. Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; (612) 379-3232
Hours: Monday-Thursday 8:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m., Friday-Saturday till 10:00 p.m.

Thomas Liquors
1941 Grand Ave., St. Paul; (651) 699-1860
Hours: Monday-Thursday 9:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m., Friday-Saturday till 10:00 p.m.

Looking back, digging my Y2K bunker was definitely the easy part. I did it with the power of squirrels--those little guys in Loring Park are stronger and have a lot more time on their hands than you might think. All I really had to do was buy them some espressos from Dunn Bros. and treat them to the occasional massage at Spalon Montage, and they were not only willing, they were eager to hollow out a space about 30 squirrels wide and 90 long.

Figuring out what to put inside was trickier. The Web sites were all never-spoil ham, waterproof matches, hand-crank this and solar-powered that. But all I really wanted was champagne, and champagne-style sparklers from the West Coast. I wanted Pol Roger Cuvée Winston Churchill for a pillow, a case of Roederer L'Ermitage for a footstool, the walls lined with Perrier-Jouët, the one in the flower bottle. After all, if society was going to crumble, I might as well get good and tipsy with my squirrel friends.

And then, just like that, I found out that it was all for naught. "If you believed what you read in February and March, you'd have thought that if you wanted to drink something sparkling at the millennium you'd be pouring seltzer into white wine," says Ted Farrell, manager at the downtown Minneapolis Haskell's. "But here it is and yes, yes, yes, there is champagne--and no, no, no, the sky is not falling."

Farrell, who was busy putting together an order for delivery to a customer's private plane when I spoke to him, says the downtown Haskell's has, in fact, run out of a few specific brands and vintages, but that happens every year. At the moment there's no Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, Pol Roger Cuvée Winston Churchill or Louis Roederer Cristal--the premium vintage champagne only made in years when Roederer judges its grapes to be especially fabulous.

But like every major retailer I spoke with, Farrell also has scads of very nice champagne left in a variety of price ranges. A few days before Christmas, Haskell's offered Perrier-Jouët nonvintage at $29.99; Perrier-Jouët Fleur de Champagne for $109.99; special millennium packages of Gosset with a complimentary watch ($29.99); and a few of those magnificent, multiliter bottles that fill champagne lovers' dreams: "We have four or five nine-liter bottles," Farrell announces. "There's also a big, bad dog of a 15-liter Gosset for $1,300--a whole lot of party right there."

If you've never heard of Gosset (pronounced Gah-say), you're not alone. "It's one of the better-selling champagnes in Europe," Farrell explains. "It just never got a chance here, because Americans tend to be very label-loyal about their champagne." So will they sell a $1,300 bottle--even if it's from a winery that has been going strong since 1584--without name recognition? "We will definitely sell it," says Farrell. "We just had two six-liter bottles of Cristal out here, at $2,000 each. We didn't even put them on display. We just let our 20 best customers know--and out they went."

But how does a 15-liter behemoth just go? Do you throw it in the back of your station wagon? ("Pretty much," Farrell says.) And how do you chill it? In the bathtub? "Get a garbage can or something," Farrell advises, adding: "You definitely need a strong arm to pour that out. It's not something you just pass around the table."

"I definitely wouldn't want to stand in front of the cork," laughs Phil Colich, owner of Uptown's Hennepin-Lake liquors. As luck would have it, Colich has gotten his hands on another one of those ultrarare six-liter bottles of Cristal (only 2,000 were made), and he's auctioning it off. Those six-liters, by the way, are called Methuselahs; nine liters is a Salmanazar, and 15 liters is a Nebuchadnezzar. For more champagne trivia--did you know that there are 49 million bubbles in an average bottle?--check

Right now, Colich points out, Cristal Methuselahs are selling on eBay for $6,500 to $9,000. "But our latest bid is only $5,000. A bargain, right?" Incomparable, in fact--unless you happen to be among the folks behind the quarter-of-a-million champagne heist that cleared out a West L.A. wine shop November 15. The thieves nabbed 65 cases of 1990 Cristal as well as 3 Cristal Jeroboams (three-liter bottles). Watch out for them! If found, stop drinking and summon me immediately, by squirrel-gram!  

Sadly, by the time this issue hits the street Colich's Cristal auction will be over. But there remain plenty of other reasons to drop by Hennepin-Lake: "I think this season is going to have the net effect of promoting some of the lesser-known champagnes," Colich says. "People will be forced to try them because the big names aren't available, and what they're going to discover is that some of these smaller producers make some excellent champagnes."

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."

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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