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-Two), I was to meet the group at Moët et Chandon in Epernay for a tour (that was to take “exactly” an hour) and a single flute of rather mediocre champagne. The entire group was a no-show. Except Ohmygod. Surprisingly, the tour was not all that eventful until the end, when Ohmygod, who had not caused an international incident for days, decided to shake things up a bit.
I beat the tour guide to Ohmygod, and much like an embarrassed parent, I was both mortified to be associated with him and furious at him for causing the spectacle. I was able to extract the bottle from his grubby mitts after a brief struggle—I am pretty sure that he initially did not realize that it was me trying to pry his new found toy from his grasp. But once he looked up and saw my incensed gaze, he capitulated immediately, as if he had been caught trying to grab an extra chocolate chip cookie from the jar.
I handed the bottle back to the tour guide, who tried to simultaneously show her appreciation, astonishment, and sympathy with a wry smile and a nod of the head. As she replaced the now quite cloudy bottle on its back-lit display, she was visibly shaking her head and I do believe I heard her mutter: “Mon Dieu” repeatedly.
I glanced down at my watch and saw that it was already 10:40—the tour, which the cashier told me would last exactly one hour, had now rolled comfortably past the limit and we had yet to get to the end: the flute of champagne. I motioned to the guide that I needed to leave (using the universally accepted signal of pointing at my watch) to which she nodded and indicated the way out of the cave. I hustled through the well marked path, then bolted through the tasting room where they were filling the flutes for our soon-to-be approaching group, and into the gift shop. As I paused for some reason at the door, one of the gift shop sales people asked (in English): “Did you enjoy the champagne?”
I told her that, in fact, I did not have my allotted flute, and as I was about to add that I was running short on time, she interjected: “Well, you must go back! Moët et Chandon is the best champagne in the world.”
I stood there for what seemed like a minute, but was likely only a couple seconds, contemplating my response. For a moment I thought I would challenge her assertion with a snarky retort in English (since that was the language in which she chose to address me), but snark is often lost on non-native speakers. I then considered replying with an appropriately snarky comment in French, but then I realized it was almost 11:00, which is pretty close to noon.
And I was thirsty.
And I was in Champagne.
What was I thinking?
I rushed back into the tasting room, hoping to get there before the group, and I did. I thrust my hand into my pocket, grabbing the silly ticket that I received upon entering Moët that I needed to give to the tasting room attendant for my flute. I considered trying to convince him to provide me a nice little upgrade, perhaps a little of the 2006 millésimé? (While the standard, non-vintage Brut Moët is, at best, pedestrian, their vintage wines certainly show more character and intrigue.) But I was pressed for time and more to the point, he was no doubt trained in the fine French art of following the rules.
I handed him my ticket (as if I were at some county fair) and he handed me a flute of Moët et Chandon Impérial. I sniffed, sipped, swirled, and then sucked it down. It was not bad, but I realized I had time to still make my 11:00 appointment at Gosset, so no need to perseverate.
I carefully placed the flute on the bar, and not bothering to record the reaction of the attendant to my chugging of the wine (I am sure he at least rolled his eyes mentally if not outwardly), I spun on my heels, charged through the gift shop, hopped on my bike, and was about to speed over to Gosset when I saw Ohmygod’s bike.
I had forgotten that he had completely destroyed his front wheel when he crashed into the statue of Dom Pérignon.
There was no possible way that he would be able to ride on that wheel, so I did what any good cycling tour guide would do:
I took out a pen and a piece of paper from my notepad (both of which I keep neatly stored in my fanny pack—don’t judge), and left him a quickly drawn map as to where he needed to go to get a new wheel–he was, after all, responsible for the accident and so the burden of replacement fell firmly on him.
As I added a note describing where I would be and that I would come back by in an hour or two to check on him, I did start to feel a bit guilty—here I was, leaving perhaps the most helpless 49 year-old on the planet in the Moët et Chandon parking lot.
But not that guilty.
I decided not to think about him anymore until after the Gosset visit. I know it was rather callous of me, but, well, he was going to probably find another way to ruin my day sooner than I thought possible, so I was taking out a little payback in advance.
With Ohmygod being suppressed to the back of my mind, I glanced at my watch: It was now just before 11:00 and I was worried that I was going to be late, and since I know how the French are keen on punctuality, I saddled up and rode up the Avenue de Champagne.
Gosset is only about a kilometer (about 6/10 of a mile) from Moët, but it took me the better part of five minutes since most of the distance is a healthy climb. In the middle of the ride, I discovered that it is not the best idea to slam down a flute of champagne (no matter how mediocre) before embarking on a fairly steep incline.
I pulled into the Gosset parking lot right about 10:55 and after locking up my bike, I ventured inside. There, I discovered that I was not five minutes early, but rather, I was twenty minutes late–my appointment was for 10:30, not 11:00.
I knew I was about to get a lecture, or certainly a series of disgusted looks and eye-rolls, if not a “typical American” under-the-breath comment.
I braced myself.
I was shocked–the French rarely waste the opportunity to let you know that you are in gross violation of a rule. They rarely do anything about it, but they want to let you know beyond any shred of doubt that you were in the wrong. This time? Nada.
In fact, the women at reception could not have been nicer. She provided me with a flute of Gosset Brut Excellence (their entry level wine) as I waited for my guide.
I was rather excited about visiting Gosset since even though it is the oldest winery in Champagne (established in 1584!) and I had been to Champagne countless times, I had never actually been to the house that makes my favorite non-vintage Brut (the Grande Réserve). Up until 2009, the whole Gosset operation was about 6km outside of Epernay in Aÿ (pronounced ah-Yee) and they did not seem to take kindly to visitors.
Several summers ago, I decided to stop by the house in Aÿ unannounced. With the temperature in the mid-30’s Celsius (well into the 90’s Fahrenheit), I rolled up to the house and knocked on the door. Despite the short ride to get there from Epernay, I was a sweaty mess, decked out in lycra, with helmet head in full effect. I parked my bike and walked up to the front door in my cycling shoes.
Trying to keep it classy.
I rang the bell and waited.
I waited a good long while and just as I decided to climb back down the stairs and hit the road, the door creaked open. I turned and explained, in my best French (I have to say it was pretty good), that I was perhaps their biggest fan and I rode all the way from the U.S. (hence my regrettable appearance) to come visit Gosset (the silly, self-effacing humor always gets them).
The man who had answered the door looked me over, smiled, and said:
“We do not normally accept visitors, do you have an appointment?”
I sheepishly said “Non.”
He then closed the door.
I stood there for a while, a bit stunned, thinking he might open the door again and say “Except for you! Get in here you knucklehead!”
That did not happen.
Disappointed, I eventually climbed back on my bike and made my way up to Reims.
Thus, I was particularly excited to be visiting Gosset, albeit in Epernay instead of Aÿ.
A few minutes after I arrived, my guide came out to greet me and I instantly recognized him. It was Jean-Paul Grignoli, whom I had met a couple of years prior at a tasting back in the U.S. He had been over, promoting Gosset and we had spoken for close to an hour at the time. When I made the reservation for the tasting in Epernay, I did not think about mentioning him, but I was certainly glad to see him.
Just as I was about to shake his hand and reference our prior meeting, the front door opened and in strolled, not Ohmygod fortunately, but the next “best” thing: Anne and Ellen. Before I had time to ponder how the remainder of my morning just took a turn for the worse, Maggie followed the two in the door.
I actually hoped that Paul and CC would then stroll through as it would certainly lessen the blow: if it were not for Ohmygod, I think Anne and Ellen on a trip would be enough to classify it as a nightmare. And then there was Maggie—I had not spoken to her since I ignored the note she had left me imploring me to visit her room late at night.
This was lining up to be a swell couple of hours.
I went over to the three of them and tried to put on my best face (although I was already going to tour guide hell for leaving Ohmygod stranded—I probably could have simply ignored them and suffered no worse fate). Anne indicated that they had heard me talk about the appointment the night before (I need to keep my enormous bouche shut) and since they missed the Moët visit, they thought they would glom on to this one instead.
I then turned to Maggie to see if she had a different story, but before even my eyes met hers, she quickly glanced away as if she were a wounded puppy. I knew I was going to have to confront that later, but I really had no desire. There were just two more nights left on her portion of the trip, so I was debating just riding it out and ignoring her altogether.
Jean-Paul was slightly taken aback by the new additions to the tour, but he took it in stride and we were soon on our way on a tour of the facility.
A few years after my rather ignominious “visit,” the company, which had been in Aÿ for 425 years(!), purchased the property in Epernay in 2009. This “new” property had most recently housed Champagne Jeanmaire and previously Champagne Trouillard, but the house was originally built by mass-retailer Félix Potin to supply his stores with its own champagne. The new property gives Gosset much larger production facilities and storage capabilities (the caves on the property can hold up to 2.5 million bottles, as compared to less than a million previously).
The company will maintain the Aÿ property, but most of the production and day-to-day operations are now in Epernay. While the house is still not technically “open” to the public, the larger facility enables them to welcome visitors by appointment in the former Château Malakoff on the grounds.
After a brief introduction to Gosset, we delved down into the caves, which were relatively “new”–they were built in the 19th Century.
As we emerged from the caves, Jean-Paul led us through several of the Gosset wines, explaining that most of the fruit that goes into the champagnes comes almost exclusively from Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards (the two highest designations of quality in Champagne). He also pointed out that none of the wines that goes into Gosset champagnes goes through a malolactic fermentation (the transformation of malic acid into lactic acid), so that the champagnes retain their vibrant acidity (malic acid [think apples] is much more acidic than the result of a malolactic fermentation, lactic acid [think milk]).
At this point, both Anne and Ellen, who had been very attentive and, honestly, model visitors, completely checked out. Since we were tasting the wines adjacent to the modest gift shop, they were wandering over there quite a bit with their flutes. I attempted to keep an eye on them, but I had my hands full with Maggie, who with each successive pour (which were quite generous, by the way), was inching closer and closer to me.
I was trying my best to ignore all three of them by chatting up Jean-Paul and focusing on the wines.
Good luck with that.
At one point, I could have sworn that I saw Ellen slyly grab a champagne stopper and slip it in to her jersey pocket (without paying), but at that precise moment Maggie pinched my butt. Now the first incident I could not confirm, but the second? There was no doubt–sure, this was my favorite champagne, but I was spitting and not drinking the wine. I know a butt pinch when I get one. I debated whether I should even acknowledge the indiscretion, but fearing that she would not relent, I shot her a glance.
I will give Maggie this much–she is likely a heck of a poker player.
We still had a couple of wines to go, so I needed to act quickly: I called Ellen over, saying that she really needed to taste the next wine in the line-up, as it was one of my favorites.
Ellen looked at me with a puzzled look on her face, as if to say “Who, me?”
She was right to be confused–I had not been able to even so much as stand next to her since I witnessed her climb up to Jouarre and her adaptation of the Oscar Meyer Weiner song. Once she realized I was serious (I was not, in fact, serious–I just needed her as a buffer between the butt-pincher and me), she shouted out: “No thanks! I find champagne rather boring!”
Luckily, either since she had a desire to taste the next wine or was a bit embarrassed by her partner, Anne sauntered over to try the next wine. I positioned her between Maggie and me and the rest of the tasting went off without a hitch (or a pinch).
All in all, it was one of the more memorable visits I had ever had in Champagne. We were there for close to two hours by the end, Jean-Paul had poured close to a dozen wines, most of them older vintages.
I came outside to see one of the more frightening sites I had witnessed in a while—Ohmygod’s bike was attached to mine (with a brand new wheel, surprisingly), but, as I scanned the property, he was no where to be found.
I started to panic a bit—I wanted to get on the road and out to Villers for my next tasting, but there was no way I could leave with Ohmygod on the loose. I decided to hop on my bike and take a quick ride around to see if I could spot him. I could not help thinking that I was looking for Bigfoot—you would kind of like to find him, but then what? You would likely be in a much more difficult situation.
Besides, given the length and matted appearance of his hair, his appearance closely matched how I imagined Sasquatch.
After a few minutes, I found him spread eagled on the lawn, much like Da Vinci’s famous sketch (although Ohmygod was not nude, thank goodness). I paused for a bit to ascertain if he was indeed breathing (he was), and I decided to once again to leave rather quietly (always let a sleeping Ohmygod lay). As I was leaving, he came to, spotted me trying to escape and called out for me to stop. I long ago gave up trying to partake in traditional discourse with Ohmygod—I did not hide the fact that I was trying to get away from him as quickly as I could—as if it were a schoolyard game of tag—but sheer curiosity led me to ask:
“Are you OK?”
I realized that I already knew the answer to that question. In fact, I knew from the first day that I met him that he was far from “OK” and that no matter what he said next, the best I could hope for was to extract myself from the conversation as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Good luck with that.
He then recounted what happened after I left him at Moët. Briefly, it seems that he had quite a bit to drink, but not in the tasting room–there were a few other Canadians (also touring by bike) in the group and once they realized he was of the same nationality, they insisted on taking him to a bar down the street (yes, it was only 11:00 in the morning, but this was France, after all). There, according to Ohmygod, he had several more flutes of champagne.
They helped him back to his bike, and once they saw the condition of his wheel, they insisted that they take one of theirs as a replacement (it seemed that their group, unlike ours, had van support and replacing the wheel would be no big ordeal).
He then somehow managed to follow my map, which was shocking since Ohmygod might be the only person I have ever met with a worse sense of direction than mine (yes, it is a bit odd that I was serving as a tour guide with that glaring insufficiency, but that is another story).
Regardless, there he was. And then he said this:
“I think I have had enough champagne–I am over the whole bubble thing.”
I stood there for a moment, contemplating my response. Eventually, I simply said:
“Um, you know there are bubbles in beer?”
Instantly, he turned rather pale and I recoiled a few steps for it looked as though he might get sick. Instead, he staggered to his feet and took off running toward his bike. Halfway across the lawn, he suddenly stopped and bent over with his hands on his knees. After a brief pause, he stood upright, and then arched his back so that his face was toward the sky.
Just as Jean-Paul emerged from the building.