Wednesday, June 18, 2008

from somewhere in Champagne, not far from the River Marne

I tell Aurore and Olivier that I’m thinking of heading out to the Champagne region.

We have a friend who is a grower and producer! She has a very small champagne house but she makes excellent champagne!

Is it that my own friendship pool is unusually limited, or is that the French, by continuously (and with great care!) developing and expanding their social networks, all end up with a rich and varied pool of friends? I think about the academics and lawyers who have populated my social circles back home. Ed (et al.) blissfully expanded my range. Still, it seems that in the States, professional people mix along professional lines (or spouse’s professional lines). Here, it’s wonderfully more complicated.

Olivier finds a cheap rental car for me and I am set to go. I love the little red mini. And the fact that I am a speeding commercial for the sweetest rental agency in town. Monsieur Jean Christophe really tries hard. Avis should take lessons.

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You’ve read, maybe, that the Champagne region could be slightly "adjusted" in the years ahead. That is, more growers may be included in the terroir. A godsend to some, I’m sure. Overnight, your land value rises ten fold or more. The world craves champagne. I understand. These fields of grain, bordering on the vineyards, may tomorrow yield your best bottle of champagne.

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For now – there are almost 15,000 growers, serving slightly more than 100 champagne houses. Some sell to a cooperative, some affiliate with the large priducers. Madame Baillette, of the Jean Baillette-Prudhomme champagne house, does it all herself. For this, her bottles are adorned with the special symbol (vigneron independant), which is both to the point and heartbreaking: because doing it yourself is so hard!

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A handful of years ago, the champagne house was run by her husband. But, quite suddenly he became ill and in three months she was alone. With her two daughters. And thankfully, with a hard earned degree and certification in champagne production.

I drive to Reims first. I’ve been to Reims before. A week after September 11th 2001. It boggles the mind how much has transpired since then. But let me concentrate here on the stable, the enduring.

Reims. Is it the champagne capital of the world, or is it the place with magnificent cathedral? Assume both for now (though I think champagne has somewhat taken over this place, turning into a rather upscale town. It’s only fitting). Let me post at least one or two views of the cathedral. And do apprciate how perfectly the tree covers the immense scaffolding that you would otherwise see.

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But my pause in Reims is brief. I want to spend time in the vineyard and if I want to stay with the super low rental price, I need to return the car by 6:30.

I know, I have been away for over a month, moving around France, and it has taken me this long to get close to vines and cellars! But I am here now, and it feels magnificent to be lost in rows of... grapes. I didn’t have much time and so photos are limited, but do put yourself there, in the gentle hills of Champagne for a moment…

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It's quiet here. Workers move stealthily between vines. Occasionally a piece of equipment will roll by. Most often I haven't a clue what its purpose may be.

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At 2:30, I come to the little village of Trois-Puits. Madame Baillette is in a small turmoil. Tomorrow she is starting the removal of yeast sediment in her bottles of champagne and in two weeks she is leaving for New York to visit her daughter (who is doing an internship there, having to do with wine export). For how long? I ask. Forever! I am not coming back! And then she laughs. I love my work with a passion. But there is a lot to do just now.

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We go on a hike through her network of caves. Fourteen meters underground, she tells, me. Always 10 degrees C. Humid.

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Madame picks up a bottle and eyes the sediment. Perfect, she says. It looks sort of the same as all others to me, but when faced with the damp smell of fermenting champagne, with cases and cases of turned bottles waiting, for three years waiting, my senses get a little woozy at the enormity of it all.

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I taste the brut and the brut rose and of course, I am going to purchase these gems and not worry about carrying them back. I’ll figure that part out later. For now, as I munch on an exquisite Reims chocolate that she offers me, I am on a sensory overload and reason has left me, somewhere in the humid cool 100plus year old caves.

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There is a photo in Madame’s office where her husband is laughing next to her, with his arm loosely draped around her shoulders. She mentions him now and I haven’t the French words to express my sadness for her loss. She gives a slight shake of her shoulder. That’s life, isn’t it? The champagne house has been in the family for six generations. She is continuing, now alone, a beautiful tradition.

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I have spent the better part of the afternoon with her and now I have to hurry to return the car. Tell Olivier and Aurore that I haven’t seen them for a long time! I pick up four boxes of champagne for the two of them and one for myself and head home.

But not for long. I realize that I left my notebook at the champagne house. I am forced to turn around. And now I have only 90 minutes before Monsieur Jean Christophe is closing his Rent-a-Car shop. 130 speed limit serves me well. I am on the outskirts of Paris in... no time.

It is natural that I should then get lost. Of course. I weave around these neighborhoods that are in and around the River Marne and I cannot find my way back.

And then, really, as if on cue, magically I pull up to the Boulevard Strasbourg and he is there, just leaving and I pound on the horn and wave my hand and he smiles. Monsieur Jean Christophe shouts back -- Don’t worry, I’ll wait. Just going to watch the soccer game, that’s all.

Madame Baillette told me how much her daughter liked Americans. So friendly! Madame says. In Paris, we were asking about parking and we nearly had our heads chewed off.

I’m waiting for my bad encounter here still. I’m waiting to get my head chewed off. As I stand at the corner of Boulevard Strasbourg in Nogent sur Marne, waiting for Olivier to pick me up in his car, I’m thinking how many people went way out of their way just today today to be helpful and kind to me. And with a great big smile. I’ll drink my first sip of champagne back home to all of them.

I pick up a quiche at the local bakery for supper. It’s the end of the day. Madame, the baker throws in an extra baguette for me to take home.

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