It is the beginning of another month and thus time for another installment of the Ohmygod saga (to catch up on the previous installments click on the Ohmygod menu up top). As you will recall, I used to be a cycling tour guide in Europe for several years. Through that job (yes, it is a bit difficult to call it a ‘job’) I met countless interesting people and have a few compelling stories to tell, but most of them pale to the story of Ohmygod, one of the clients that I had for three weeks. Some may wonder about the moniker, but the name chose itself really; it is what I uttered repeatedly during just about every interaction with him.
In the previous installment (Part Twenty-Six), Ohmygod had adopted Ellen and Anne as his own personal muses–but not in the traditional sense. Instead, they liked having him around since he would eat anything they had left on their plates and they would not need to feel guilty about wasting food. Ohmygod benefitted solely based on the former….
The three main grape varieties used to make champagne are each associated with their own region: La Côte des Blancs is known for Chardonnay, the Montagne de Reims for Pinot Noir and La Vallée de la Marne for Pinot Meunier. The last of these three was to be our playground for the day as we meandered our way to our next hotel in Epernay, one of the two “capitals” of the region. It is a favorite ride of mine for three main reasons: riding along, one gets the feeling that the vines are about to engulf the roads; many of World War I’s battles took place not too far from the Valley (and most of the locals remain grateful to the U.S. for helping to end the war); but the main reason is that there are champagne tastings to be had by the hundreds.
I mentioned to the people on the trip that I would likely stop for at least a couple of tastings along the route and asked if any would like to join me. Surprisingly, every last one of them agreed—even Ohmygod (sure, he was the last to chime in, and perhaps gave into a bit of peer pressure, but he actually seemed a bit excited about the prospect of tasting some champagne—it just as easily could have been the fact that I mentioned that many of these tastings take place in the family home and he thought he could get a free meal out of the deal).
I was pleasantly surprised by the interest and set up a rough plan—there was no real need to set up a formal tasting, since there are countless opportunities right along our bike route to just stop in for a tasting. Nonetheless, I suggested that we meet up for lunch in Château-Thierry (the location of a famed WWI battle) before we were to take a brief train ride to skirt some really heavy traffic, and then ride along the Marne more or less together. At some point after entering the vineyards, I would be picking a spot somewhat at random at 2:00 for the tasting.
After making the plan (which on a normal trip would present few, if any, problems), I began to regret my decision to open up the idea of a tasting to everyone once the questions started to flow and I soon realized that trying to organize any group activity for people who signed up for a trip that touted individuality (certainly not “group-think”), as the questions started:
“Are they only going to have champagne?” Um, yeah.
“Do I have to go?” No, this is not a root canal.
“What if the champagne is not any good?” Really? Like you could tell the difference.
“Will it by dry? I only like dry wine.” Here we go again.
“Will they have beer, too?” Ohmygod.
Despite all the questions, we were somehow all together as we started to ride through the vineyards. I decided to pull over at about the 12th house we saw with a “Degustation” sign out front. If not for the sign, one would have thought it was a rather modest middle class house. There were toys strewn across the front lawn and even though there were no cars in the driveway, nor in the open garage, I figured I would go knock on the door nonetheless. After ringing the bell twice and wrapping my knuckles on the door a few times, I turned to leave just as the door was swung open by a svelte woman who must have been in her late fifties or early sixties, but still quite attractive. I informed her that we were hoping to have a tasting and she responded that her son, who was the winemaker, had just left and would likely be back in 30 minutes or so. I debated my next move quickly—I took her comment to mean that we would be welcome to wait, but given the cast of characters behind me, I was certain that would not be the best option. I also was worried that just leaving would appear a bit rude, which I try to avoid unless necessary. Just as I was formulating a sentence that would not come off as too terribly impudent, she interjected:
“Of course, I give much better tastings than my son, so why don’t you all come around back and we can get started?”
With an invite like that….
We parked our bikes around back and as we sauntered into her living room, I indicated that we would be happy to pay for the tasting, since it was unlikely that we would be buying any wine as we were on our bikes.
As I imagined, she refused, waving her finger at the suggestion emphatically to dissuade any further discussion on the topic. She asked where we all were from and after I explained that we were all Americans (and one Canadian) she made it clear that she did not speak a word of English, so I was in for a bit of translating.
Madame Roger started with a brief history of her family that had lived in Champagne for over ten generations. They had always grown grapes in the Vallée of the Marne, but it was not until recently (the last hundred years!) that they had made their own wine. Her grandfather had joined the local co-operative and quickly became one of the wine-makers there. Her father followed her grandfather and eventually became the chief blender at the co-op.
When she was a young woman, she did not have much interest in champagne (she indicated that she was far more interested in men), but eventually came back to the family business (after an affair with a married man in Challons that caused quite a stir) when her father became ill. Eventually, she became the first female winemaker at the co-op, and just retired three years ago.
About this time, she opened and poured from the first bottle–about an ounce in each glass. Like most producers, the Rogers produce a non-vintage Brut—a wine that is a blend of several vintages (there is not single “year” associated with the wine) and is blended with the goal of producing a consistent wine every year. After she was done pouring, each person took a flute.
He seemed paralyzed from the neck down. He was staring at his glass. Then he would look to me, then Madame Roger, next the bottle, and back to his flute. It was a sort of four-way tennis match as this sequence repeated itself in rather rapid succession several times. After the third volley, it dawned on me that he was not quite sure why the glass was not full, and it was not until he saw the others take a sip that his internal match came to an end.
He picked up the glass and threw back the 1-2 ounce pour as if it were a whiskey shot. I was waiting for him to turn the glass over and slam it down emphatically as if he were in a western saloon, but instead he delicately set it on the table and brusquely nudged it forward as to not so subtly announce he needed more.
Madame Roger, to her credit, while clearly a bit taken a back, was not all that fazed. Immediately adopting a posture that Ohmygod seemed to have been trained to respect, she repeated the finger wagging that I had experienced earlier. This time, however, the wagging was much more emphatic and accompanied by a scowl that would have frightened even the most precocious offender.
Ohmygod dejected, sunk down into his chair. Clearly, this was not his first trip around this block.
The tasting moved on to the next wine—a Blanc de Blancs (made from only Chardonnay), and then on to a bit of a rarity in Champagne, a Blanc de Noirs (made only from the “black” grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, a style that is much more popular with American sparkling wine producers).
As I started tasting more and more, I began to translate less and less. As a former high school teacher, it became clear that I was losing my “class” so I attempted to re-double my efforts and asked if there were any questions.
Ellen jumped at the opportunity, and wanted me to ask if there were many lesbian wine makers in Champagne. When I told her that I was not going to ask that question as it did not seem to be the time nor the place, Ellen became rather frustrated, muttering that I was some sort of “censor” and that it was not up to me to decide what questions she could or could not ask.
My initial thought was to suggest to her that she learn how to speak French, come back, and fire her questions à volonté (at will). She was clearly offended—she stated that by my using French was some sort of linguistic oppression and she was not going to stand for it.
Sensing that the situation was spiraling out of control, I turned to Anne, who, at least at this moment, seemed to be the more rational of the two (I realized that it could change at any moment, but I really had no other choice). To my surprise, Anne agreed with me, and actually tried to calm Ellen down a bit.
That did not go well.
Ellen got up in a huff and exclaimed to Anne that she never supported her, and they might want to re-evaluate their relationship. She then turned in a huff and stormed out. Well, not exactly. She did stand up abruptly, and she did try to storm out. She would have been successful, too, had she realized that the sliding glass door was closed. Instead, after her forehead made a rather violent impact, she staggered back a bit, as if she were a boxer suddenly dazed by a left hook.
A simple champagne tasting was quickly devolving—I was starting to formulate a plan to find an English-speaking marriage counselor in either Epernay or Reims (but given the elevated temperatures, I was doubtful that it would last that long), and maybe even a general physician to evaluate a possible concussion.
I hesitated, wondering what in the world to do. My first thought was to hop up to help Ellen, but I figured it would be just as likely that she would blame me for her unfortunate encounter and respond with a left hook of her own to my jaw. Luckily, before I could conger up my defense strategy, Anne hopped to her feet and steadied Ellen as she staggered backwards, attempting to make sense of what just occurred.
Anne slid the door open and they both walked out—I was not sure if Ellen’s best move was to get onto a bike at this point, but I was certainly not going to broach that subject.
Out of instinct, I glanced over to Ohmygod, who seemed to be in a state of shock—not due to any concern about Ellen’s well-being, but rather since he saw his gravy train leaving the station and he was perplexed as to offer a reaction: he could stay and continue to receive small shots of free booze, or he could leave in a show of solidarity with his benefactors.
After opting for the latter, he first downed the remaining drops of the latest wine in his glass and then proceeded to finish the Anne’s and Ellen’s glasses in quick succession as if he were at a frat party with his brethren shouting “Shot! Shot! Shot!” behind him.
I glanced over at Mme. Roger, who was once again maintaining her composure, and simply turned to me and smiled, shook her head briefly, and gave me a wink. Had I been paying closer attention….
Ohmygod scurried after his patrons, as Mme. Roger got up to get the next bottle—the current release of their vintage champagne. Vintage champagne is kind of a big deal, since it is only produced in “good years”. Basically, at some time before, during, or (most likely) after the harvest, champagne makers determine whether they are going to produce a vintage champagne (“milléisme” in French). While it is essentially up to each house to decide whether to “declare” a vintage; thirty years ago or so, “exceptional” years in Champagne were relatively rare—2-3 times a decade perhaps, since Champagne is one of the furthest North wine growing regions in the world. Now, with a warmer climate, they seem to be happening much more often (in fact, every year since 1995 has included at least some houses producing a vintage, and many of them considered exceptional).
The vintage wine she poured was exquisite, and Mme. Roger, sensing my excitement, surreptitiously refilled my glass as the others were sipping their own. It was during this glass that Maggie and CC decided to leave. I was flanked on either side by the duo (one could make the argument that they were vying for more “personal” attention), and once they realized that I was more interested in the wine than I was in them, they seemed to form a sort of silent “truce” and got up simultaneously to ostensibly go to the restroom, but they never returned from their break.
That left Mme. Roger, Paul (the only one in the group who spoke more than a few words of French), and me to run through the last few bottles.
Next on the docket was the Rosé. There are officially a two ways to make a rosé champagne: By either leaving the skins of the red grapes in contact with the juice for a brief time (called saignant—almost all grapes made into wine have clear juice regardless of their skin color), or by adding some red wine to the blend (making a sparkling rosé in this fashion is only legal in Champagne).
Typically, rosé champagnes are more expensive (simply since they are rarer), can be a bit fruitier, and are fuller bodied due to the extra Pinot Noir (or Meunier) in the blend.
The wine was fabulous—rosé is usually my favorite style for the reasons stated above—and once again, Mme. Roger snuck me a little more when Paul started consulting his phone.
Just as Mme. Roger opened the next bottle, their prestige cuvée (many houses in Champagne produce a prestige cuvée—generally speaking, the prestige cuvee is made from the best wines from the best years—think Dom Pérignon [Moët et Chandon] and Cristal [Roederer]), Paul excused himself while glancing at his phone.
“Is everything alright?” I asked.
“I hope so—I just got a strange text from my wife.” He replied.
Wait, HUH? You have a wife?!?
Before I could address that conundrum, Paul was gone and out the door.
Just Mme. Roger and moi left.
She immediately gave me a generous pour of the prestige cuvee, and it was fabulous—rich and yeasty (vintage and prestige cuvée often have longer time on the lees—the dead yeast cells—which often results in baked bread or brioche flavors).
As I neared the end of the glass, I started to formulate an exit strategy. I informed my generous host that I was, in fact, the guide, and I needed to head out to tend to my “flock”.
She shook her head, as if to say no.
Confused, I offered to pay for the tasting, since (as I mentioned to her), we were on bikes and could not really take the wine with us.
Again, she shook her head (even a bit more vehemently, perhaps).
“Well, is there some sort of problem?” I inquired.
Again, a head shake, but this time it was accompanied with a wry smile.
“Um…” I stammered.
“You can’t leave.” She said.
I filtered through several possible scenarios why I might not be able to leave, but I kept coming back to a French version of Mrs. Robinson.
“Um, er, um…” I was trying to express grace under pressure, and it was not working.
“You can’t leave—we just opened a bottle of our best wine and it won’t last until tomorrow. We have to finish it!”
Despite my inter-generational angst, I am never one to turn down incredible champagne. So I sat right back down. Giddy-up.
We proceeded to finish of the bottle over the next thirty minutes or so, talking about relationships (her husband died several years ago), the future (she let her son take over the business shortly after her husband died so that she could “live her life” more), and the present (she liked conducting tastings since she got to meet people and felt less lonely).
At that precise moment, her son walked in, not appearing even a bit confused at what he was seeing (has this same situation played itself out before? Did she just see me as another notch in her champagne cork, so to speak?).
I took the opportunity to get up and head toward the door. Mme. Roger called after me to wait as her son hurried off out of the room. She extended her hand and I reflexively extended mine as if to shake. She grabbed a hold and pulled me closer to her. She then stood up on her tip-toes and gave me a kiss on the right cheek.
She then turned her head to the front of my face and proceeded to…
…kiss my left cheek.
Because that is what the French do.
As I left the house, perplexed as to what just happened, I glanced to my right hand. There I found a business card for Champagne Roger.