Upon arrival to the train station, we encounter credit card trouble while attempting to acquire our boarding passes electronically. Apparently, all European credit cards have a small gold chip on the front of them that are required for any kind of automated system. Also, many retail stores will not accept cards without the chip either. Sans chip, we are forced to wait in line for tickets. Actually, Joel waits in line, as I have promoted him to the position of “Minister of Transportation,” or as it came to be known, the “Tranny Boss.”
Due to the highly irritating pace of the ticket line, I am only able to quickly shovel a pain du chocolat into my mouth before boarding the train to Epernay, one of the larger towns in Champagne. From there we will cab it to Ay, about fifteen minutes away. Once aboard the train, we find ourselves seated next to a cabin full of what sounds like thirteen year old French girls, singing along (in English) to what may have been Britney Spears or possibly Fergie. They are doing this at a volume that is generally found unacceptable in society. I take deep breaths and remind myself that the best move here is to put my headphones on and refrain from angrily bursting into the neighboring cabin and causing a very uncomfortable scene with these little bastards. Just let it go, and it will all be over...presently.
Upon arrival in Epernay we are able to stumble through enough French to convince a cab driver who was busy picking someone else up, to call us another car. On the ride to our hotel, I inform Joel of my plan to break out “Cajun Willy,” my wildly obnoxious alter-ego from Louisiana, at some point in the near future. He gives me a look and a nod, implying that “If Cajun Willy makes an appearance I will pretend that I do not know you and walk away very quickly, leaving you for dead.”
As we enter the township of Ay, all I can think of is the Pearl Jam song Elderly woman behind the counter in a small town. As this particular Monday is a holiday, there is a feeling of tranquility in the air that implies to me that "nothing is going to be open." We arrive at the Hotel Castel Jeanson, a gorgeous old house that, according to the hotel’s info pamphlet, used to belong to “regional famous families.”
As the "Minister of Lodging," I make the executive decision to upgrade to a suite. The hotel manager, who is quite friendly,explains the lay of the land and gives us directions to the wineries we are visiting. As we head upstairs to the suite, we pass by the "salon," perfect for, according to info pamphlet, “reading books, having peaceful times, and tasting a glass of Champagne.” Little did I know that this is to be a sign of things to come.
I immediately run into technical difficulties while trying to operate the key to my room, and ask for assistance from the friendly manager who, in addition to being so friendly, slides the key in and opens the door without any effort at all. Now that I’ve properly identified myself as a helpless American (though in my defense I will say that Joel couldn't get it to work either), it’s time to investigate the suite.
The room is easily the most spacious of any we would stay in on the trip. It is like a small apartment, with a full living room, bedroom, and bathroom equipped with a large tub, two sinks, and separate shower and toilet rooms. The minibar is stocked with Champagne from Goutorbe, a local winery who also happen to own the hotel.
I have made appointments with two wineries that I represent in Maine. These are both small houses that fall under the category of Grower Champagne.
What does that mean?
The big houses, such as Veuve Clicquot, often buy their grapes from many vineyards throughout the growing region, or AOC, to make their wines. They are blended together in a very consistent manor from year to year and are produced, and consumed, in very large quantities. In his book The New France, Andrew Jefford discusses the reasons why the Champagne region finds itself in something of a conundrum going into the twenty first century:
“It’s wine is one of the most successful processed agricultural products in human history. It is prized worldwide, and intimately associated with luxury and wealth. The average price of a bottle of branded, non-vintage Champagne is, to be frank, several times more than a wine of it’s sometimes modest concentration (made from France’s highest yielding AOC vines) should cost. It is able to command these exorbitant prices because it has built an impregnable image over the last 150 years, and because (thanks to its climate and soils) at present has no rival on Earth for piercing and disarming finesse. Champagne is France’s only region of strong brands; Champagne is France’s only region of monolithic, consumer-friendly simplicity. We are prepared to pay that much for Champagne not because it is worth it, but because there is no functional alternative and that is what the experience of drinking it costs.”
What this means is that many of the famous Champagne houses that everyone associates with "being successful", from Louis Roederer to Moët et Chandon, are basically resting on their laurels. They do this armed with the knowledge that you, the consumer, will purchase their brands regardless of the quality of the wine in the bottle.
This is where the grower producers come in, producing what Champagne guru Terry Theise lilkes to call “Farmer Fizz.” These guys are growing their own grapes, and making wine with an emphasis on terroir, a term the French use to identify flavors of a specific place. They have a much smaller yield than the big guys, and produce Champagne that is, in my humble opinion, far superior and much more interesting than bottles from big name producers that fetch quadruple the prices.
The first producer we are scheduled to visit is Rene Geoffroy, but we’ve got about an hour and half to kill before we need to be there. The winery is holding a yearly event called picnique, where the locals show up with hunks of raw meat to throw on the grill, while drinking away the afternoon. Of course, since it’s a fucking holiday, the butcher shop in Ay, which looks amazing from the outside, is closed. To be on the safe side, we decide to eat a "light lunch," just in case there is a meat shortage at Geoffroy.
After wandering around for thirty minutes, we settle, based on the fact that they are the only place that appears to be open, on a small corner bistro. Our limited grasp of the French language tends to cause more confusion in such a small town, but we are eventually able to express that we’d like to have lunch – even though we understood that everyone else in the town had already finished theirs and are probably taking a fucking nap.
I’m outrageously hungry by now, so I glance at the menu and, seeing andouillette, order it on the assumption that it’s most likely some kind of sausage. The waitress seems quite pleased with my decision. We order the house Champagne, and as I’m finishing my first glass my memory suddenly jogs, forcing me to recall that andouillette involves some kind of offal, though I can’t remember which.
My meal arrives, a plump sausage atop fries and the stereotypical French green salad. It definitely has a barnyard stink to it, that I don't normally mind, and upon breaking the casing with my fork tripe bursts out everywhere, much like a spring-loaded gag can of nuts. I love tripe, so I dig in hungrily, but this stuff turns out to be abnormally gamey, and a very difficult for me on an empty stomach. Joel is having a much better time with his spicy merguez sausage, and I struggle through a couple more bites of mine before surrendering, lesson learned, to the fries and salad. Joel tries a bite of the tripe orgy and agrees that yes, it’s a little on the rugged side.
I do what is, in my mind, a reasonable job of pushing everything around on my plate as not to offend the waitress when she shows up to clear them. I slug my second glass of bubbles and we head out to our appointment, about a ten minute walk away. En route we pass several Champagne houses, from Bollinger to Deutz, all very close together within the town. The vineyards themselves encompass the township, with small plots all owned by different producers.
There is a large tent set up in the courtyard at Rene Geoffroy, with several picnic tables full of people eating and laughing. We are welcomed at the door by Renault, a jovial man who looks to be in his late fifties, and when I explain that the holiday has prevented us from showing up with any meat, he laughs and waves his hand to imply that this won't be a problem.
He escorts us to a table situated away the tent, where there is a full lineup of Champagne. We taste through them all, while getting to know each other and establishing my role in selling the wines back home. We are greeted by the winemaker, Jean Baptiste Geoffroy, who has taken the reins from his father, Rene (in his mid-seventies and also in attendance). He thanks us for coming all this way, and encourages us to eat and drink our fill, in addition to inviting us on a tour of the vineyards later.
As you may or may not know, Champagne can only be made out of three grapes - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. It can be a single varietal or a combination of the three, but only these three. A wine made up of exclusively Chardonnay is called a blanc de blanc, and if it is only Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, or a combination of the two, it is called blanc de noir. Geoffroy favors Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes from the vineyard site of Cumieres, whose rugged terroir gives Jean Baptiste's wines their distinct flavor profile.
As we continue to drain glass after glass, Renault informs us that there is "great news." Apparently, they have plenty of meat for us, provided that we like a local specialty called andouillette. I politely attempt to explain that I generally enjoy tripe but am not a huge fan of this particular food, but it seems to get lost in translation, and Renault interprets this as "My pussy hurts."
I immediately regret not just going with the flow, as Renault laughingly conveys the message about the state of my vagina to the men working the grill. In an effort to repair the damage that had been done, I insist that they pile it onto my plate, attempting to explain, without success, that I'd had some earlier that had been fucking disgusting but i'd love to put this in my mouth again. They appear pleased with my decision to conform, and we are seated with Renault and Jean Baptiste's family, at a separate table away from the others. We are immediately handed down bowl after bowl of different side dishes, and two bottles are placed in front of us, one of bubbly and the other a still wine made from Pinot Noir, produced in very small batches and mostly consumed locally. The still wine actually pairs up quite well with the andouillette, which is much tastier this time around. Still, Joel and I agree that it isn't something we'd ever order again on our own. Upon doing a little research later, It turns out that the sausage is made with pork tripe instead of beef, which explains the unusual flavor.
After we've had our fill, several local cheeses are passed around, as well as more bottles of Champagne. I feel a little funny getting all bent out of shape about Brie, but holy shit, this was the best goddamn Brie I've ever tasted. It is delightfully rich and creamy, with intense flavors of white truffle. I slather an enormous amount on some baguette and go to town, washing it down with vintage bubbly. Life is good.
Renault is pleased that both Joel and I have finished our tripey goodness, and offers to give us a tour of the wine cave below. We descend into an ancient and cavernous cellar, passing rack after rack of bottles resting quietly. There are cube shape machines that turn the bottles a specific number of times per day, a task that used to be done by hand. The only exception to this is the rose, which, due to the shape of it’s bottle, is still dealt with the old-fashioned way.
We move into a large corridor, that for some reason reminds me of the old sewer system that Dan Akroyd gets lowered into in Ghostbusters 2, where 60,000 bottles rest on their sides. I tell Renault that I could easily drink all of them in a years time, to which he promises me the entire stock for free if I were to achieve this feat. I break out the iPhone calculator, and it turns out that I'd only need to drink 164 bottles a day. I tell Renault to arrange shipping and I'd take care of the rest.
After finishing our tour of the caverns, we ascend and return to the fray, where we enjoy a glass of wine with the winery's founder, Rene Geoffroy. It's safe to say that Joel and I are a little bit "lit up" around now, and after a few more glasses Renault informs us that the tour of the vineyards is getting underway. It appears that the whole group is coming along for the "walk," but Renault informs us that he is going to sit this one out.
What ensues is a three mile excursion, that is both breathtaking and fucking exhausting, through the vineyards and hills of Champagne. This is all fine and great, but honestly If we had any idea that "tour of the vineyards" meant "fitness quest," than we may have taken it a little bit easier on the booze prior to departure. Actually, maybe Joel would have, but probably not me.
After about forty five minutes, my choice of footwear becomes problematic. Apparently, nori-green Gucci ankle boots are a very poor choice for hiking. To remedy this in my mind, I envision myself as the banker from the popular 80's video game, Oregon Trail.
"The banker wouldn't know any better, and would have encountered the same kind of difficulty walking on rocky hills with leather soles that were clearly designed with restaurant floors as the preferred terrain."
After sweating out a large portion of the alcohol we have consumed, we reach the highest point of the vineyards and are presented with, surprise surprise, more Champagne. We attempt to chat with Eduardo, a very serious man who manages the vineyards for Jean Baptiste, but due to limited English this doesn't go very far. Standing on the hill and looking out over the vineyards to the town, accompanied by a cool breeze and glass of sparkling wine, is a rewarding and quite unforgettable experience.
There is still about an hour to go before arriving back in town, and I take advantage of this opportunity to chat for awhile with Jean Baptiste. We discuss many things, from his experiences with Terry Theise to his opinions on past vintages. He speaks of how his wines differ stylistically from those of this father, as does his level of involvement with the entire winemaking process. He points out which vineyards belong to who, all very small plots, and explains the characteristics of the terroir. It becomes apparent to me why the French don't actually have a word for "winemaker," but rather refer to them as vigneron, which means "wine helper." This is because they believe that mother nature truly does most of the work, and we are here to assist her in creating wines that taste of where they come from.
The differences between large and small Champagne houses is fairly vast, with Moet et Chandon, the region's largest producer, putting out 2,000,000 cases annually whereas Geoffroy comes in at merely 10,000. It's fairly obvious to me as to why you would seek these smaller producers out, here are a few of my personal favorites:
Vilmart & Cie
When we arrive back at the winery, we help ourselves to more cheese and bubbles before purchasing several bottles of wine, thanking Jean-Baptiste, and making our way back to the hotel. On the way, Joel makes ambitious plans to "take a nap, go swimming in the pool, read for awhile in the bathtub, go to dinner, and probably have more Champagne."
The nap goes according to schedule, but it turns out the pool is closed, throwing Joel's personal goals into a tailspin. Upon stepping out into the streets of Ay in search of dinner, it becomes painfully apparent that the entire town is closed for business. Every residence, every storefront, and even the front desk of our hotel have been locked up and abandoned. Apparently, people take their holidays quite seriously here. We walk around in the dead silence for about half an hour, take a few obligatory "church pictures", and inevitably arrive at the painful conclusion that food just wasn't going to fucking happen.
This is actually a little bit surreal, as I can’t actually recall a time in my life when acquiring food was actually impossible. In most circumstances, one can at least call a taxi and go to a 7-11 or Cumberland Farms to get something, but in this case, it's a no-go. Our only option for dinner appears to be two bottles of Champagne, a Geoffroy Rose and a Goutorbe Brut, and two tabs of Prilosec - for heartburn.
The prophecy of the hotel’s information pamphlet comes to life as we sit and read quietly while drinking Champagne. I actually find it fairly amusing to be forced to go without, but it definitely sucked that one of the last things I did eat was the stinky andouillette. Joel, after succumbing to a brutal case of hiccups, surrenders all of the wine to me and focuses on drinking water. He proceeds to actually read a Star Magazine in it's entirety, from cover to cover, a feat that we both agree is pretty impressive. Even after both bottles, I still have trouble sleeping - getting about an hour and a half of sleep before waking up and counting the minutes until 6:00, when I would strike out in search of a bakery. The town is still deathly silent, and each of my footfalls echoes up and down the street. Upon reaching the square, I am pleasantly surprised to find a single bakery open for business, and I rush in to purchase several pastries and five bottles of water. I inhale a croissant on the walk home, which is perfect to tide me over until the hotel begins serving breakfast at 7:15.
When I arrive back at the suite, Joel is still sleeping so I head down to breakfast solo. I'm very tired, so it takes me a moment of staring at the buffet to register what the hell I want to eat. After filling a plate with various meats and cheeses, I put a piece of bread in the toaster and begin to eyeball the “boil your own egg” station, contemplating whether or not I feel like dealing with this endeavor. I decide that an egg would be delightful on my toast, and proceed to load up the little baskets and submerge two into the water, while setting a timer. The helpful and patient hotel manager materializes, and quickly takes notice of the fact that I’m using the “egg cooker” before the water is actually ready yet. Because she is already familiar with the kind of trouble simple tools like keys and doors present to me, she explains that “letting the water boil and then leaving the eggs in for a little while” will achieve optimum results.
After my eggs are cooked, and I've carefully peeled them over the course of ten minutes, I consider my options. Because the only other patrons in the dining room are an elderly couple in the corner, who seem completely oblivious to my presence, I construct an egg, mortadella, and boursin sandwich on toast, and wolf it down before the manager witnesses my painfully American creation. I justify my actions with the knowledge that it may be awhile before I’ll be able to track down another breakfast sandwich.
When I return to the suite, Joel is readying himself for breakfast. I begin to explain the process of using the hard-boiled egg cooker, but he has already had some of the pastries I brought back and just wants coffee. While we are checking out an hour later, The owner of the hotel, who also owns Goutorbe, introduces herself to me. We chat briefly, and upon discovering that I’m in the wine business she comps our breakfast. I attempt to explain the rest of our travel itinerary, but trying to explain that we are going to "Hellfest" begins to confuse her, so I thank her and we are on our way.
We have one more appointment in Champagne, at Pierre Gimmonet, before beginning out journey to the city of Tours. Dinner will not be skipped a second time.