It is the beginning of another month (more or less) 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-Eight), I met the group out at Veuve Clicquot for a tour of the famed Champagne House. Our tour guide (with whom I was already in love) had just handed us all a Veuve Clicquot yellow cape for warmth as we headed down into the chilly cellars. I knew that I should probably keep an eye on Ohmygod, but instead I decided to stand watch over our stunningly beautiful hostess, Sylvie.
As we descended the relentless limestone stairs, I was losing my no doubt firm grip on the “Cycling Tour Guide of the Year Award.” Instead of keeping a short leash on Ohmygod lest he wield his super-human destructive forces, or even walking astride one or two of the other clients on the trip to answer even the most mundane of questions with aplomb and glee, I was up at the front with Sylvie.
I would laugh at all of her jokes, even when I could not understand what she was saying (her accent was rather pronounced, rendering her even sexier), I would respond in French, thinking that was clearly the way to her heart, confident that both my accent and grammar were impeccable while also fearing that they weren’t. All the while oblivious to the probability that Paul was likely making advances on CC, Anne and Ellen were no doubt complaining about how dark it was in the cave or how steep the stairs were, Ohmygod was just about to light something on fire, and Maggie was undoubtedly right behind me looking at my butt.
But I did not care about any of it.
My Sylvie (or was it Sophie?) was the center of my universe.
We started off on the tour, and there were a few other people with us, they were either from Australia or New Zealand, which in my book are essentially the same thing (I know that they aren’t, but saying so tends to get a rise out of both of them and frankly I am feeling a bit saucy).
Most of the tours in Champagne are essentially the same as the guide will describe the Champagne method as they lead you through the caves. There is the first fermentation, then bottling, and the adding of yeast and sugar (liqueur de tirage) to cause the second fermentation in the bottle, which results in bubbles in the wine. This is followed by riddling (remuage) which moves the dead yeast cells into the neck of the bottle so that they can be more easily removed through disgorgement (dégorgement). A little more liquid is added (liqueur d’expédition) that usually includes a little more sugar (dosage) that determines the style of champagne.
All the tours cover these basic steps to one degree or another, often focusing on one or more of the elements where their particular house had considerable influence in the development of the technique or perhaps one at which they feel they excel. At Veuve Clicquot, they emphasize that the house has had their hand in many innovations, perhaps none more significant than riddiling. As the story goes, Madame Clicquot was sitting at her dining room table one day with her cellar master, Antoine Müller, and they collectively came up with a way to rid the wine of the lees that form in the bottom of the bottle when the yeast die, causing the wine to be cloudy and unappealing.
At one point during their discussion, they decided to drill holes in Madame Clicquot’s table, and then stood it on end. They then inserted the neck of the bottle of champagne into the holes and determined that if they gradually turned the bottles as they inserted it further into the hole (eventually becoming essentially vertical and upside down), the lees would end up in the neck of the bottle where they could be more easily removed (a disgorger would simultaneously turn the bottle upright while removing the capsule on top and the lees that had gathered in the neck would be expelled from the bottle due to the built up pressure).
This technique was a revelation in Champagne and allowed the Veuve Clicquot house to dominate the international market (particularly Imperial Russia) for the next couple of decades.
I had heard the story dozens of times before and I usually only half-heartedly listened, roaming about in the back, taking pictures. Not this time. No, this time I was playing the dutiful fiancé, standing directly to the right of my soon to be betrothed, hanging on her every word.
As with each prior stop, before we left the riddling racks, Sophie (or was it Sylvie?) made a quick count of her little troupe. She made a quizzical look and then counted again. She paused for a moment and then turned to me. In the millisecond before she spoke, our whole married life flashed before me: 2 or 3 kids, a life together in Reims, with as much Veuve Clicquot that we could fit in the back of our Deux Cheveaux, and….
“We have one person missing, the one that is a little bizarre. He is your friend, non?”
And with that my world came crashing down. Not only was Ohmygod missing, but my former future wife had clearly associated me with him, thus extinguishing any tiny flame that had unwittingly been kindling in her heart. (I guess it was somewhat similar to how I was no longer attracted to Julia Roberts once I found out she married Lyle Lovett, but that is a whole other story.)
With my love life in a shambles, I had no choice but to search for my own little anti-Christ. The last time I had a conscious memory of seeing him was right before I first laid eyes on my Sophie (or was it Sylvie?), at which point time essentially stopped.
Even though my “happily ever after” had just turned into a “never in your wildest dreams,” I had to make it look as though I were frantically searching for Ohmygod, but in all honesty, I really could not have cared any less if he were ever found. I tried to remember the stories from the World Wars when many Frenchmen (and a few Germans, if I recall correctly) were down in these same caves after the end of hostilities, thinking that the war was still waging overhead, only to be found years later, still alive. Sure, they were likely blind and crazy as a soup sandwich, but they survived for years in the caves.
I figured that Ohmygod could at least make it a week or two down there, which would help assuage my guilt for allowing him to wander off.
In fact, as the moments passed, I was pretty confident that it was not my fault at all: Sylvie should have been paying attention! After all, it is her job, is it not? Now that we were no longer planning our engagement, she might as well become the enemy, right?
I vote “yes.”
As long as she didn’t say anything in either French or English (and thus exhibit her incredibly sexy accent), I would be fine.
After what seemed like at least ten minutes of the whole group searching for Ohmygod (all except the Kiwis [or were they Aussies?] who kept asking Sophie if there was still going to be a free tasting at the end of the tour), Sylvie grabbed her walkie-talkie (which the French call a “talkie-walkie” of course), and radioed in some help.
Within less than a minute, a couple of electric golf carts showed up, both with rather frantic looking drivers. Sophie motioned that I should get into the first cart with a far less-attractive diminutive 60-something man, whom she introduced as “Louis.” Despite my aforementioned ambivalence, I thought my former future lover deserved my respect and thus I did as I was told (I figured at this point, our future family was already destroyed—but if I ever hoped to reignite our torrid future romance, how would it look if I had ditched my “friend”?).
I hopped in the cart and both drivers did a quick three-point turn and as we sped off, I heard a roar of laughter from the group.
We circled the caves for what must have been 15 minutes or so, which was actually pretty interesting. Even though my driver seemed frantic at first, he was clearly even less worried than I about finding Ohmygod. Once he found out I spoke French, he started conducting his own little tour, pointing out little tidbits as we zoomed by. He had worked in the caves since he was a boy as did his father, who was an actual riddler. He would riddle as many as 50 thousand bottles a day, turning two at a time, each precisely a quarter turn.
His father also had hidden out in the cellars during the war, where he was part of the Resistance. There were several dozen people living underground during the war and they spent most of their time shuttling food to those above ground, avoiding German patrols, and hiding the best bottles of champagne.
Then, mid-sentence. Louis slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the cart. He went over to the gallery of bottles, resting on their side and picked up a bottle that was curiously upright, on the ground, in front of the rest.
The lot of bottles were resting on the lees (the dead yeast cells were still inside). By law, non-vintage Brut must age for a minimum of 15 months (three years for vintage), but most houses (including Clicquot) usually at least double that requirement. Before they are disgorged, all the bottles are topped with a crown cap, the type of closure that you find on a glass bottle of soda…
Like a bloodhound who had finally picked up a scent, Louis hopped back in the cart and accelerated quickly. The time for chit-chat was clearly over, and after a few abrupt turns, passing a few more galleries, each with an open bottle on the ground in front, he stopped again. This time the gallery and open bottle in question were bottles of La Grande Dame, Veuve Clicquot’s prestige cuvée (the Dom Pérignon of Veuve Clicquot) that retail at $150 a bottle.
Clearly a bit enraged, Louis was quickly back behind the wheel and within seconds he found his fugitive in front of another similar gallery, with yet another bottle in hand.
Once again my chauffeur slammed on the brakes, hopped out, and snatched the bottle out of Ohmygod’s hands before the Canadian even noticed us. In his other hand was a set of keys, that included a bottle opener as a key chain.
Louis unleashed a slew of expletives (only some of which I knew) at a clearly stunned and somewhat inebriated Ohmygod. I felt the need to interject and stop the tirade, but instead I did nothing: Ohmygod clearly needed a good tongue-lashing (and I could learn a few new choice words).
After a minute or so of a berating that seemed to make Louis feel better (but had no apparent effect on the ever-oblivious Ohmygod), the other cart showed up. I got back in Louis’ cart while Ohmygod paired up with his much less agitated co-worker.
The ride back up was far less interesting as we took the much more industrial “roads” and Louis was far less loquacious. No doubt he had transposed Ohmygod’s actions on to me and I was now just as guilty, but without having the bonus of sampling a half-dozen or so bottles of one of my favorite champagnes in various stages of development.
Louis drove us up a ramp and to a rather large, imposing door where he once again slammed on the brakes. He hopped out, motioned for us to follow, and walked over to a smaller door. As one hand reached for the door knob, the other placed a pair of sunglasses over his eyes, and he swung the door open.
After spending about an hour underground, being thrust into bright sunshine is as close to medieval torture that I ever want to experience.
After several moments of adjusting to the light, I contemplated asking Ohmygod what the hell he was thinking. I imagined that in some twisted way that he thought that, given the cap, the bottles were actually beer, and he thought that Veuve Clicquot would not miss a bottle (or seven). As I mentally continued down that wormhole, I realized that I was trying to apply logic to a person that for as long as I had known him had not acted logically in any situation.
As we made our way back to the entrance to the tasting room to meet the others, I vacillated between several possible tacts, feeling that I had to acknowledge what had just happened verbally in some way. I dismissed yet another reprimand since they had clearly not worked up until this point. I equally passed on trying to ascertain what he was thinking since, frankly, I really did not want to know—my version of Ohmygod mistaking the bottles for beer was much more palatable than an admission that he just felt like opening some $400 (retail) worth of Veuve Clicquot’s product.
Eventually, I settled on the element that I really wanted to know: how did it taste? I have had countless bottles of the finished product, but I have never tried any champagne that still had the lees in the bottle.
We were walking toward the entrance, about 20 meters away at that point, and the group was starting to funnel out. Knowing that there would be a bit of commotion once they reached us, I posed a question to the clearly intoxicated Ohmygod:
“Well, was the champagne at least good?”
He held up a finger as if to say “wait” and he seemed to be formulating a response as we reached the group, still being led by Sophie.
Just as Sylvie saw me, she smiled, seemingly relieved that I had found my “friend.” She then turned to him, still smiling, as Ohmygod first belched…
…and then threw up…
…on her shoes.