A New Year...


The first month of 2017 is almost over...and I have posted nothing. To some degree, I've been hibernating. Hibernating from winter--though the first half of it in DC has been relatively benign. Perhaps even more, hibernating from the anger and negativity in and around politics. Politics has always been a contact sport, but I've never seen anything like this. I have views, but you came here for comments on wine, not political opinions. I also believe it's wrong to associate my former rank and position (cited elsewhere on this site) with partisan comments. So I'll just say I'm sad.

What to do? I can obsess about it (there's a fair amount of that going on). Some issues may be so compelling that I cannot avoid thinking and talking about them. But I cannot let them dominate my days. While there's much I cannot control, I can--if I work at it--control my attitude. It helps to remind myself there are mountains to climb, books to read, children to hug...and wines to drink. Ah! There! We're back on track. Wines to drink. I'll say for 2017, I resolve to drink better wine. But I said that last year...and the year before...and the year before. To a significant degree, I've kept those resolutions. So for this year, I think there'll be an extra focus on champagne. Wiser men than I have suggested it has the power to help. Napoleon and Churchill have both been quoted in similar terms: "In victory I deserve it, in defeat I require it."

And in that regard, 2017 is off to a pretty good start. Twice (at Field & Main in Marshall), I've had Henri Goutourbe Special Club. It's really, really good! That wasn't exactly a surprise. I first had Goutourbe Special Club a few years ago, when importer and author Terry Theise served it. The other champagne he served (to David White, author of the recent But First, Champagne, and me) was Marc Hébrart Special Club. I was entranced with both. They were the first special clubs I had ever tasted. For those who aren't familiar with "special club" a little explanation may be in order.

Many of you know that the history of champagne has been dominated by a relatively few large champagne houses--sometimes called grand marques--who bought their grapes from many of the thousands of small growers across the region and blended wines according to their house style. In recent years, more of those growers have started making their own wines rather than selling their grapes. These have become known as grower champagnes. Thanks considerably to importers Terry Theise and Kermit Lynch, who sorted through the efforts of the grower producers and brought some of the best to the US, these have gained significant popularity. Because of that, if you have a solid wine shop in your area, chances are good that you can find some grower champagne there. What you probably can't find are special clubs--which are a tiny subset of grower champagnes.

In 1971, a group of winemakers in Champagne came together to found an organization dedicated to the highest standards of quality. To be eligible to apply, a winemaker must control the process from end to end--making the wine entirely in his or her own facility from grapes grown entirely in his or her own vineyards. There are currently 28 (or 29--I've seen both) members. Membership has a certain prestige. But membership in the club (officially, the Club Trésors de Champagne) does not entitle any winemaker to sell wine as special club. To do that, the winemaker must submit the base wine (the "vin clair") to a jury of wine professionals, who taste it blind for quality. If--and only if--they approve, it can be bottled in the distinctive special club bottle for secondary fermentation and aging. After three years of aging, the winemaker can submit the finished product to that year's jury for another blind tasting. If it passes that second evaluation, the winemaker can label it and sell it as "Special Club." Are the standards enforced? I'm told they are...that it's not unusual for wines to be rejected at the initial tasting or for a few to be turned down at the final tasting. So...supply is limited and demand among wine afficianados is high. That's why few go to wine shops (many go to high-end restaurants). If you live in New York or San Francisco, there are shops that have them. In DC, to my knowledge, there is one (Cork Market--associated with the Cork Wine Bar). Most of us, if we want them in our home cellar, will have to order them from one of the big online wine sellers. I have done that several times (a half-case of Marc Hébrart Special Club arrived just this week). Now to be clear, I have not tasted all of the special clubs personally--perhaps only about half. Besides Goutourbe and Hébrart, Paul Bara, J. Lassalle, Pierre Gimmonet, Larmandier and Moussé have stood out to me.

Enough about history. This year, I will drink more special club than ever before. But I do not mean to imply other champagnes can't be just as good. So far this year, I've really enjoyed Cedric Bouchard Les Ursules and Jacques Lassaigne La Colline Inspiré. And I'm looking forward to tasting recent arrivals from Ulysse Collin, Chartogne-Taillet and Clement Perseval. And that's just what I'll drink from my cellar. Restaurants provide a chance to taste wines I haven't had...and then there's travel. July will see us back in Oregon for IPNC. Portland has some of the best wine and champagne bars in the nation. David Speer at Ambonnay always has something new and interesting--as does Pix Patisserie (I know...it's odd that a patisserie has one of the country's best champagne selections, but it does). September, we'll be in Europe. Since the focus will be Hungary and Austria, not sure how much champagne we'll see--but will certainly sample some sparkling furmint and sparkling riesling. And then there's Blackberry Farm in December. Champagne there? Of course. Every evening... and great wine and great food with winemaker Maggie Harrison and chef Katie Button. There! I'm feeling better already!

And while it may be hidden inside this self-indulgent rant, I do intend a couple of messages here. First, maximize your opportunities to drink good wine. There are interesting wines at every price point (and in every category). Never, ever settle! Second, expand your horizons. If you like Marc Hébrart Special Club, great! Buy some. But don't order it every time you're out. Find something new you might like just as much. See if you can find that new "star" that's about to burst on the scene the way Chartogne-Taillet, for example, did in recent years? Is it Clement Perseval? I've heard good things. Excited to find out. People who know wine can help you--somms, wine directors, wine consultants.

Maximize your opportunities to drink good wine and expand your horizons. Not exactly novel advice but both take some effort. It's easy to get "wine lazy."

Oh, and strive to be happy. Politics goes on forever. Life is short.


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