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 Thirty-One), after a rather tumultuous couple of hours before dinner, the meal itself was rather anti-climactic. After dinner, when the rest of the group seemed poised to go out for yet another bottle of champagne, I elected to return to the hotel since the following day would be a full one: visiting two Champagne houses in Epernay, another producer in Châtillon-sur-Marne, and then riding into Reims, our destination. Just as I arrived back at the hotel, the clerk handed me a note from Maggie, which stated that she needed to talk to me up in her room.
I stood there for at least five minutes wondering what I should do next. As a guide, I had certainly been in this position before—at least the predicament that I imagined I faced—single female, traveling on her own, meets guide, and, well…. From an objective stance, it seemed logical—the guide speaks the local language, he knows the local customs, he is in charge of the trip’s finances, and he is a strong cyclist (or at least he should be…). That is what I used to call a “lay-up” in college—almost a “sure thing.”
Well, I had been down that road before and it was not one that I wanted to travel again for a few reasons: First, I was “technically” dating someone–I say “technically” since we had only recently started dating and it was not quite clear where the relationship was going. Second, I had a big day ahead of me in the morning and the last thing I needed was several hours of “talking.” Last, even if I were not dating someone, Maggie was a bit of a hot mess—her engagement to her high school sweetheart was likely over since he had found out about her affair with one of her professors and she just found out that her trip confidant was not gay, but rather potentially interested in some sort of romantic dalliance. In other words, she was one bad move from spiraling out of control. She was also on my trip for another whole week.
I already had one full-time headache. I had no desire to increase that number.
Therefore, I figured I had three options: I could ignore the note altogether, I could go up to her room to let her know that I could not “talk,” or I could light my hair on fire and run out of the hotel screaming, never to be seen again.
Since I had already eliminated option #2, I looked around for a lighter.
I ended up going over to the desk clerk and pleaded with him to take back the note and aver that he had not seen me, thus rendering the note “undelivered.”
Yes, a bit of a coward way out, but, well, I never claimed to be the bravest guy in the world….
The following day, I got up early–which seems as though I wanted to avoid Maggie at breakfast, but in reality, I just got a lot of sleep. I ordered my customary hot chocolate (typically at a French breakfast, you get the choice of coffee, hot chocolate, or tea) and tore into my croissant (usually the beverage is accompanied by a croissant and bread, but increasingly hotels are adding more options, including cold cuts, fruit, and even eggs).
After finishing, I got up and left right away as it was fast approaching 8:30 and I still needed to pack up my room and make my way across town to get to Moët by 9:00.
At about 8:45 or so, I rushed out of the room and hopped on my bike without seeing a single client.
And I was relieved.
Yes, I would probably not win the much coveted “European Bike Tour Leader of the Year” at the annual “Jobs That People Think Are Cool, But Really Suck Rotten Eggs” Banquet, but I really did not feel all that bad–while I consider myself a “people person” I had certainly reached a saturation point with this band of miscreants.
Is that horrible?
But nothing that a kitschy tour designed for redneck vacationers followed by a single mediocre flute of champagne couldn’t cure.
Yeah. I was looking forward to Moët.
I arrived at the House about 10 minutes early (yes, Moët was “across town” from our hotel, but I never said Epernay was a particularly “big” town) and locked up my bike. I sauntered into the tasting room to get a bit of intel, just in case anyone showed up for the tour.
First, I inquired about the duration of the tour. The very attractive, but snooty (ergo French) woman behind the counter replied “One hour.”
And then added: “Exactly.”
I paused for a bit and contemplated if I would address that added bit of precision. I truly love the French, but at times they have an artificially elevated sense of their collective persona.
“Exactly??” I thought.
It’s not like you’re Swiiss, or even German for Chrissakes. Let’s all just calm down and remember that you are a Latin country and move on. No one is going to judge, but you French are not known for punctuality (OK, the Swiss and the Germans will judge you, but who cares? When it comes to punctuality, you, miss overly-attractive French woman, are only slightly better than the Italians… [yes, that is a low bar, but we digress]).
Next, I inquired about the costs of the Tour:
- Traditional visit (with one flute of champagne) 16€50
- Impériale (two flutes) 24€
- Grand Vintage (two flutes of different vintages) 29€50
The last of those was the only one of real interest to me, but I was not going to pay 30€.
Yeesh. 30 stinking Euros (about $40) for two flutes of champagne? For a while now, I have felt that the tasting room fees in the U.S. were getting a bit out of control, and clearly, the kind folks at Moët had learned quite a bit from their brethren in Napa.
30€? $40? Puh-lease.
Based on my salary (which was close to nothing) and my desire to pay an exorbitant amount of money to drink at best average champagne (and that desire was even closer to nothing), I considered bailing on the tasting all together. Instead, I returned outside to wait for the others (should anyone show up).
I waited just beside the statue of Dom Pérignon who is generally credited for “inventing” champagne, but in fact he spent most of his life trying to get the bubbles out of the wine since it was seen largely as a fault.
[Dom Pérignon (1638-1715) was a Benedictine monk who was the cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvilliers, a town just a few kilometers outside of Epernay. He is generally credited for being a master blender of wines (a trait that is still highly valued in Champagne), but he spent most of his life trying to rid the wine of its bubbles. During Dom Pérignon’s life, the fermentation process was not completely understood. As in most regions, once the wine had seemingly completed fermenting, the wine was bottled and stored. The problem was that since Champagne is one of the northern most wine growing regions, cooler temperatures would come before the wine was completely fermented, the yeast would go dormant in the cooler temps, thus stopping fermentation. Thinking the process was over, the wine was then bottled and stored. Once the warmer temperatures would return in the Spring, however, the yeast would “awaken” and recommence the process, only this time in the bottle, causing the bubbles to be trapped inside. At the time, the glass used to bottle the wine was not nearly strong enough to hold the sparkling wine (which can reach 5-6 atmospheres or 90 pounds of pressure–think a skinny bicycle tire) and they would often burst–which is why Dom Pérignon was looking to avoid bubbles at all costs. It was not until the English started making stronger glass (by using coal-fired kilns instead of the wood-fired kilns of the Dom’s time) that bottles could be made strong enough to make the production of bubbly champagne feasible.]
Moët (you pronounce the “t” by the way–mow-ETT) now owns the Abbey at Hautvilliers as well as the vineyards that were once managed by Dom Pérignon, but even though Dom Pérignon champagne is owned and produced by Moët, they claim to keep the two operations separate. As I was taking a few photos of the statue of the venerable Dom, I heard a familiar, yet frightening sound:
I turned just in time to see Ohmygod feet away, barreling toward me on his bike, with no apparent intention of stopping. I leapt out of the way just as he tried to perform a skidding stop by sliding the back-end of the bike perpendicularly, thus halting forward momentum.
That did not go well.
He tried to throw the back-end of the bike to the right, but only got it to about 45 degrees at which point it violently over-corrected back to the left and then he was out of time. He crashed.
Into the statue.
Of Dom Pérignon.
Luckily, I guess, since it was the 9:00 visit, there were only a couple of dozen people around to witness the spectacle–had it been even an hour later, there may have been two or three times as many people.
Ohmygod simply hopped up, as if he had planned it that way, dragged his bike over to the fence, and locked it up. I was not entirely sure if he had even seen me yet, as he then proceeded straight to the front door.
I thought about stopping him, but instead turned my attention to the bike, which seemed virtually undamaged, with one exception. The front wheel was badly “tacoed” (for some reason, when a wheel gets badly bent out of shape, cyclists call it “tacoed” where in reality it much more closely resembles a potato chip).
My first thought? “There goes my visit to Gosset” as instead of visiting the second Champagne house on my agenda that morning, I would be going to a bike shop to get another wheel.
But that would have to wait. Ohmygod had somehow mingled in among the other tourists and was already inside, waiting for the tour to begin. I glanced around and as there were no other people from my group, I seriously contemplated leaving, allowing Ohmygod to fend for himself, but I knew that eventually, after some inevitable debacle, the name of the bike tour company would come up. I figured that I needed to get in there to possibly avoid raising the ire of the largest producer of champagne on the planet.
There are times I really hate my job.
I weaseled my way in for free (I was a “guide” after all) but they would only comp me the “Traditional” visit, and would not allow me to pay the difference to upgrade to the more interesting “Grand Vintage” tasting. Ah the French.
I decided I would try to stay moderately close to Ohmygod, but I was not quite sure if he even knew I was there–a situation that I was more than happy to perpetuate (although it is hard to remain incognito when you are 6’4″).
The tour was certainly a bit on the cheesy side. Our tour guide had a well rehearsed script, from which she rarely deviated (despite my repeated efforts). She also spoke English with a decided Cockney accent that did not fit all that well with the “history of luxury” that she was spewing.
We did go down into the caves, though, and I took a few photos.
All-in-all the Moët tour was not all that bad. A visit to Champagne should include a stop at one of the big champagne houses–for no other reason than to see the caves which were made largely by the Romans (they mined the stone to build their monuments). Still, I think I would put the tours at Pommery and Veuve Clicquot ahead of Moêt.
As for Ohmygod, he was actually rather well-behaved. He followed along with the tour and the tour guide was actually fairly adept at keeping him in-check. There is no doubt that she realized that he was a bit odd (there were many reasons that one would draw this conclusion, not the least of which was that he wore his thick protective sunglasses the entire time–even when in the caves).
There was one incident, however, where I almost had to step in. In just about every Champagne tour, they explain the process of making champagne. There is the first fermentation, which creates a dry wine. This wine is then bottled at which point a little more sugar and yeast is added. This causes a second fermentation to occur in the bottle causing the desired bubbles (what Dom Pérignon had hoped to prevent). This second fermentation also results in a bunch of dead yeast cells, which need to be removed else the wine would be unappealingly cloudy. The process is called remuage or riddiling, and was invented by Veuve Clicqout in the 19th Century.
During the tour, we stopped at a bottle that was resting peacefully on its side and the tour leader held it up to a nearby light to show how the collection of dead yeast cells (called “lees”) had all gathered on the side of the horizontally stored bottle. She gently placed it back in its place and we moved on to the riddling rack, where she was to explain the process of riddling.
Just before she was to start, she let out a little shriek, and quickly parted through the crowd to return to the rack where she had just shown us the bottle. There, I saw Ohmygod holding the same bottle against the same light.
But he was shaking the bottle violently.
As if it were some sort of snow globe.